This story was updated on April 27, 2018
FAIRBANKS – Banned Yukon Quest musher Hugh Neff – seeming to channel the spirit of self-exiled Iditarod musher Dallas Seavey – says he is the victim of a “personal vendetta” spawned by powerful, unnamed conspirators.
The accusation was leveled by the two-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, in a nearly seven minute video posted to YouTube on Thursday.
As with Seavey, Neff accused race officials of conducting a shoddy investigation. He said that led to veterinarians who’ve never visited his kennel deciding to banish him from the race he loves.
“They never even interviewed the people at Fortymile where this incident happened,” Neff said.
What exactly happened at or near the confluence of the Yukon and Fortymile rivers is not known. What Quest records show is that Neff left the Eagle checkpoint on the 150-mile run along the trail to Dawson City, Yukon, with 11 dogs in his team, and that he showed up in Dawson more than two days later with only eight dogs.
During that time period, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported Neff made at least two satellite phone calls from near Clinton Creek, an abandoned mining town, to race officials 40 to 50 miles away in Dawson.
“Early this morning, he called me and advised me one of his veteran dogs, Boppy, had a medical issue and expired,” race marshal Doug Harris told reporter Brad Joyal on Feb. 9. “Rangers arranged for the dog to be brought into the vet team here and (Neff) was going to continue on with his team as he originally planned.”
“Hugh called me yesterday on his satellite phone,” Harris added. “He was at the hospitality cabin at Clinton Creek, and he advised he was going to take a long break there and drive into Dawson City. He said when he got here, he was going to scratch because he has a young team of dogs and it’s extremely cold. He just thought it was best for everyone.”
Harris did not return phone calls on Thursday. One of the people involved in helping to recover the body of Neff’s dead dog, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said two live dogs were also hauled from Clinton Creek to Dawson by snowmachine along with the dead dog. Neff did not respond to a request for comment.
Quest chief veterinarian Nina Hansen Friday confirmed that report and said the two dogs were alive. She said patient-client privilege prevented her from saying anything more about the condition of the dogs. Quest mushers sign a waiver allowing the disclosure of information about dead dogs, but not other dog information, she said.
Clinton Creek is not a Quest dog drop. It is what is called a “hospitality stop.”
Any musher who dropped dogs there would be disqualified upon reaching Dawson. Disqualification is considered something of a black eye in mushing circles.
The Quest on its website reported Boppy died early on Feb. 9. It reported that Neff arrived in Dawson at 10:05 p.m. that day and scratched from the race. There was no official mention of Neff’s Feb. 8 call to Harris or of any dogs dropped at Clinton Creek.
A Quest necropsy later found five-year-old Boppy died of aspiration pneumonia. The team was then resting at Clinton Creek and Boppy was reported to be in a cabin being cared for.
Healthy dogs at rest do not usually inhale their vomit, the cause of aspiration pneumonia. But the ailment can be slow to develop if the dog inhales only a small amount of fluid or other contaminant while running.
Cat in the Hat
A former Chicagoan who likes to entertain children and sometimes sports a Cat in the Hat headpiece as worn by the Dr. Seuss character, the 50-year-old Neff regularly goes on the road across the country to promote sled dog sports and himself as an all-around good guy.
He alluded to his promotional efforts in the video.
“I travel more than any other musher,” he said. His talks to school children have built him a solid fan base. His fans, as were the case with Seavey, were rallying to his support on Facebook.
A post from David James was representative: “You love your dogs bro. This I know. Standing with you in MN!!”
None of Neff’s critics wanted to speak on the record for fear of becoming the targets of fan attacks. Privately four of them questioned whether Neff’s team should even have been allowed to start the 1,000-mile race.
Knowledgeable sled dog hands all, they said Neff’s dogs appeared underweight at the start, though they also freely admitted that assessing when a sled dog is underweight is not easy and added that Neff is a two-time Quest champ whose personal opinion as to weight warrants considerable consideration.
One added that Neff’s wife, Olivia, had dogs in similar condition at the start of the Yukon Quest 300. Those dogs gained weight while running with her in the companion, middle-distance race run in conjunction with the bigger, international event.
Two expressed the opinion the Neffs shouldn’t have been trying to do the Quest, the YQ300 and the Iditarod all in the same year because they didn’t have enough quality dogs trained to cover so much racing, something Hugh alluded to in a News-Miner interview.
Hugh, the newspaper reported, didn’t expect to be a Quest frontrunner because he and Olivia split up the dogs from their kennel with many of the best going to Olivia.
The Whitehorse Star reported that Hugh’s personal veterinarian – not race vets – performed the pre-race exam on Hugh’s dog. Quest vets told the Star that Boppy appeared to have been in poor condition before the race.
Hansen said that Boppy should have been pulled from Hugh’s team in Eagle. Hansen wasn’t in Eagle when Neff left the checkpoint, but she said she remains ultimate responsible.
She told reporter Dan Bross at KUAC “that (the) dog was looked at in Eagle, and it was recorded to have a poor body condition. And that was not brought to my attention.”
“Everyone has dogs issues in the race,” Hugh said in his video. “Obviously dogs get skinny….”
It took Hugh 60 hours to cover the 150 miles from Eagle to Dawson. He left Eagle in ninth place in his race. He was the last musher to arrive in Dawson. None of the 13-mushers who finished the 2018 Quest spent more than 40 hours on the Eagle-Dawson trail and most spent significantly less.
Hugh suggested he’d been punished enough by the loss of Boppy – “Boppy was a special boy to us” – and that to be suspended from the 1,000-mile race for the next two years is unfair. At one point in the video he broke down in tears.
“This is my life,” he said. “I’ve given my life to the Quest.”
Race veterinarians, he argued, didn’t understand his love of the event or of his dogs.
“They don’t know what we’re all about,” he said. “So they’re just going off the paperwork and, oh, feelings about what they see the numbers as.”
A four-time winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Seavey made similar accusations last fall after he was revealed as the musher who finished the 2017 race with a doped team. Seavey did, however, offer a broader range of possible suspects: jealous fellow mushers, animal-rights saboteurs, members of the Iditarod’s board of directors, and race officials.
Seavey also raised questions about why another musher found with dope in his dogs wasn’t declared to have had a “doping positive.” Hugh Thursday raised questions about why other mushers who’ve had dogs die on the trail weren’t banned.
Looking haggard, Hugh sat in front of the staircase in his log home wearing an “Alaska” sweatshirt with a Yukon Quest poster to his right as the video opened. The video later cut away to his hooking 18 dogs to a four-wheeler, taking them for a run near his Tok residence, and then returning to feed them chunks of fish.
The dogs looked happy and enthusiastic. One jumped into Hugh’s arms and Hugh caught and held it.
In the video, the musher said that he, other mushers, vets, fans and “dogs…love the Quest.”
He promised he’d never abandon the race, but added that “I’m not going to go up in front of a board of people that don’t like me.”
He said he would appeal his two-year suspension from the race, but would do so in writing. He promised to mush on.
“I’m still racing,” he said. “I’m doing Iditarod. My wife is racing.”
Hugh finished 21st in the 2018 Iditarod. Whether he will be allowed to race Iditarod next year is unclear.
Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) spokesman Chas St. George said the race was aware of Hugh’s problems with the Quest and monitoring the situation.
“At this time,” he added, “the ITC is in the fact-gathering stage and cannot comment on whether it will take action of its own.”
The “Musher Qualifications” section of the Iditarod rules says “mushers must exemplify the spirit and principles of the Iditarod Trail Committee as set forth in the rules, policies, bylaws and mission statement.”
The rules also say, “mushers shall be disqualified for rule infractions involving
physical abuse of a dog, or for cheating or deliberate rule infractions that give a musher an unfair advantage over another musher. Mushers may also be disqualified for other acts involving cruel and inhumane treatment.”