The great race

A screengrab of Iditarod director Rob Urbach as he appeared at a Zoom meeting. The photo was part of a meme questioning where Iditarod is headed. The meme’s creator asked that the meme not be shared with the general public.


As the leaders in Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday pushed their teams hard along the Bering Sea Coast toward the Nome finish line for the self-proclaimed ”Last Great Race,” there was a lot of chatter back in Idit-a-world about whether musher Hugh Neff – nickname Huge Mess – had been profiled before being booted from the competition and a few questions asked about a bizarre meme featuring the race’s executive director that popped up in social media.

Officially, Iditarod wasn’t talking about either.

Privately, sources within the organization said the meme could be explained by executive director Rob Urbach’s needing to change clothes and forgetting to turn off the camera on his computer during a Zoom meeting.

Or at least that is the story Urbach was reported to be telling.

Where exactly the meme originated is unclear, but the rumblings of Alaska Bush telegraph hinted that it tracked back to Iditarod Trail Committee members – the ITC being a membership organization anyone can join for as little as $50 per year  – unhappy with Urbach’s hopes of funding the race in the future with cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

“Iditarod CEO is…intrigued by the latest cryptocurrency and non-fungible token trends sweeping the nation and says he has plans on creating an Iditarod crypto coin that will, in addition to other recent advancements and investments, help set the Iditarod up for another fifty years of success,” Alaska Business magazine reported at the start of the month.

Bitcoin is the largest and best known of the current cryptocurrencies, and a variety of major businesses now accept Bitcoin as a form of payment, according to Investopedia.

‘The easiest way to buy anything with bitcoin is to use a crypto debit card,” according to the website. “Such cards are preloaded with the cryptocurrency of your choice. While you spend crypto, the retailer receives fiat money as payment. Crypto debit cards partner with payment-processing giants like Mastercard and Visa to ensure that these transactions occur seamlessly.”

Urbach apparently envisions Idit-a-fans buying Iditacoin debit cards and Iditarod turning a profit on running that crypto business. Getting fans to buy a service to help support the race is not a new idea.

Iditarod first tried this sort of thing with its Iditarod Insider website, which was envisioned as the of Iditarod. The hope was the site would bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, for the race. But given the high costs of production involved in covering the Iditarod as it proceeds across 1,000 miles of Alaska wilderness, the Insider has struggled to turn a profit, according to former Iditarod board members.

Old financial problems

The organization does not report Insider profits or losses, but its last complete 501(c) report to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) shows Iditarod Insider revenues of only $201,400.

That 2019 report covers the year 2018 in which Iditarod Insider revenues failed to even cover the costs of paying the nearly $350,000 in combined, annual compensation that year paid to the organization’s CEO, chief operating officer (COO), and finance director. 

The revenue from entry fees was more than double that from Iditarod Insider and the race was, overall, heavily dependent on contributions and grants to cover its $4.4 million operating budget.

Urbach was hired by Iditarod in 2019 to replace longtime former director Stan Hooley in the belief the former director of USA Triathlon could fix the race’s long-troubled finances. Since its 1973 beginning with a race staged on a promise the winner would be paid in Nome, Iditarod has regularly struggled to raise the money needed to stage the event, which to this day is largely staffed by volunteers to keep costs as low as possible, and pay prize money to the race winner.

Urbach boasted a promising resume as a fundraiser.

“Rob Urbach began his career working for legendary sports agent David Falk, who represented Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and numerous other National Basketball Association (NBA) stars,” according to “During this period he negotiated more than 300 athlete endorsement, event sponsorship, licensing and media deals with companies such as Electronic Arts, Nike, Coca-Cola, Sony, IBM, General Motors, AT&T, Nabisco, Microsoft, and Pfizer. Urbach also structured partnerships for elite clientele including Jordan, Agassi and Mike Krzyzewski.”

So far, as Iditarod director, he has signed Hilcorp and Harvest Midstream for Iditarod. Hilcorp is the largest privately owned oil and gas company in the U.S., but still a relatively small player in the oil business. Its nearly 3,000 employees are but 4 percent of the 72,000 employed by ExxonMobil, which ended its association with Iditarod last year. 

Harvest Midstream is a division of /Texas-based Hart Industries that operates crude oil and natural gas gathering, storage, transportation, treatment and terminal facilities in Alaska and the Lower 48 states. 

While those two businesses were joining Iditarod, others were leaving.

Along with losing ExxonMobil as a sponsor last year, the Iditarod this year lost Millenium Hotels and Resorts which had for nearly 30 years served as the Anchorage headquarters of the Iditarod while the race was in progress.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal rights group which has protested the Iditarod as “inhumane,” has claimed credit for the loss of these and other Iditarod sponsors even though most of the businesses involved have denied PETA pressure forced their departures. 

A rather esoteric event, a dog race across the Alaska wilderness is not exactly the best advertising vehicle for most businesses outside of Alaska, and PETA’s visible and vocal anti-Iditarod protests staged outside the home offices of national business once associated with Iditarod certainly do not help the race attract Outside sponsors.

Huge Mess

Enter Neff, who some believe was profiled and then booted from the race because he had made too competitive a team of dogs owned by former Iditarod racers Jim Lanier and his wife, Anna Bondarenko, from the Anchorage suburb of Chugiak.

A 16-time Iditarod finisher, Lanier was best known for a unique team of nearly all-white huskies. Now 80 and well past his racing prime, Lanier this year turned the training and racing of the couple’s “Northern Whites” over to the 54-year-old Neff, the 2004 Iditarod rookie of the year; a two-time. top-“10 finisher in that race; a two-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada; and a man with a very checkered history.

In 2014, a tired Iditarod team quit on Neff in blowing snow on the ice of Golovin Bay about 100 miles short of the Nome finish line. The team and Neff ended up stranded there for more than 10 hours before being rescued.

Everyone survived, but Neff made a stink about how he nearly died of hypothermia while awaiting rescue. Little was said about the dogs left exposed on the ice in the cold and wind while he huddled in his sled bag to find what protection he could from the weather. His seeming lack of gratitude for rescue did not sit well with Iditarod officialdom.

Four years later, Neff had a dog die in a makeshift checkpoint along the Quest trail. Neff blamed Quest officials for failing to dispatch a veterinarian to Clinton Creek, the site of an old mining camp, to help him save the animals. 

Quest veterinarians accused him of leaving the Eagle Creek checkpoint on the way to Clinton Creek with a dog unfit for the trail and suspended him from the race for two years. The Iditarod quickly jumped on board to say it would do likewise in the name of dog care.

Neff protested that if Quest veterinarians had thought his dog in such poor shape at Eagle Creek, they should have told him so. He then appealed the suspension and hired an independent veterinarian to investigate the death of the dog,  Boppy.

Veterinarian Eric Jayne,  who once ran sled dog operations in Denali National Park and Preserve and worked for an animal rights group in Hawaii, concluded Neff was being used as a scapegoat for a messed-up race organization.

“Boppy could have been treated and probably would be alive now,” Jayne said. “It’s a veterinary screw-up. “

Jayne’s defense did nothing to get Neff off the hook.  Neff, whose self-written autobiography is titled “Tales of the Gypsy Musher,” was left to wander in the mushing wilderness for a couple of years. He ran some small races in rural areas. got divorced, and this year reappeared on the back of the runners at the Iditarod start with Lanier’s Whites in front of him.

Some were surprised to see him there. Some were even more surprised to see how fast he was traveling with those Northern Whites as he took off down the trail like the rabbit he has historically been.

Neff and team quickly dashed to the front of the Iditarod field and stayed there through halfway where they stopped to do the race’s one, required, 24-hour mandatory rest in fifth place behind racer leaders Dallas Seavey, the only Iditarod musher ever publicly linked to doped dogs, and Brent Sass, who famously ran a team out of gas at White Mountain, the penultimate Iditarod checkpoint in 2016, and had previously been on the runners behind two Quest teams in which dogs died.

And if those two deaths weren’t enough, Sass completely made up a story about how the second dog might have died due to genetic deficiencies handed down from its father.  Its father died in a dog fight that erupted among Sass’s untended dogs when he was on a training run. There are no known genetic deficiencies that make an otherwise fit and healthy sled dog prone to being attacked and killed by the rest of the team.

Still, a musher-friendly Alaska media made much of how Sass was grieving over the death of the dog, Basin, without bothering to ask Sass how exactly the dog died. Sass projects an aw-shucks friendliness the mainstream media seems to adore.

As this was written, Sass’s 2022 Iditarod team was leading Seavey’s up the coast, and Skip Nelson of Anchorage, who has helped manage Ness’s race this year, reported Neff had flown to Nome to watch the finish of the race. Neff could not be reached for comment.

Nelson said Neff left the halfway stop in Cripple on Saturday fully expecting to continue on to the Iditarod finish line. Veterinarians in Cripple had gone over Neff’s team and told him the dogs all looked good, but that one had a low body condition score, basically a measure of how well the dog was maintaining weight during the race.

The vets in Cripple told Neff to be sure to have vets in Ruby look at that dog, Nelson said, but when Neff arrived in Ruby in third place in the race behind Seavey and Sass, a vet instead told Neff that his Iditarod was over.

A discussion followed between Neff and Race Marshal Mark Nordman, Nelson said, during which Neff was told he could withdraw from the race or be disqualified with possible implications for his being allowed to run the Iditarod next year if he chose the latter.

Neff subsequently withdrew and the Iditarod put out a vaguely worded, three-sentence media release the crux of which was that “in conjunction with…Nordman, Neff made the decision to scratch due to their concern for his race team.”

Nelson questioned where the pronoun “their” came from, noting that Neff wasn’t at all concerned about the team but instead excited about how well it was performing right up to the minute he was tossed out of the race.

“Why did they have to kill the underdog?” Nelson asked.

That question, like others, remains unanswered although some longtime Iditarod observers suggested race officials might have decided it best to get Neff out of the competition before the race neared the coast where many teams have quit over the years.

Media attention amps up there, and given Neff’s history with the Quest, there are reasons to believe Alaska reporters covering the race might not be as sympathetic to Neff blowing up a team as they were to Sass doing so in 2016.

And for an event that now bills itself as being “all about the dogs” – even if it remains mainly all about the winning for the top competitors – it doesn’t look good to have dog teams quitting on the coast, especially if they are in front of someone with Neff’s baggage.










Categories: Commentary, News, Outdoors

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5 replies »

  1. Pretty sure rob urbach next job will be cnn . What a creepy looser . Iditarod has such foolish leadership to put him in a position. How embarrassing for the mushers who invest their lives into a grand race adventure to have the ceo parading around unprofessionally in an important meeting with out his shirt. Sooner they fire the looser the better.

  2. Thanks for a fuller picture based on your own experiences, historical knowledge, and some actual research and reporting. Though speaking of fuller picture, I probably would have done without that Zoom
    Picture. 🙂

  3. You said it well Craig…
    “Little was said about the dogs left exposed on the ice in the cold and wind while he huddled in his sled bag to find what protection he could from the weather.”

  4. I have seen Hugh perform in a way few if any of his detractors would match. A couple of winters ago, knowing my old friend, Yukon Quest Father Leroy Shank, had not much time left, I drove to Fairbanks and spent an overnight in his home. I found Leroy in such a stage of near babe-like helplessness at performing the most basic functions, he took a great amount of hand-on care. I dare guess almost every individual now piling on Hugh Neff, would have long before given over care for their own beloved parents to a nursing facility. As I write, recalling Hugh’s regard for Leroy and his manifested tenderness puts a lump in my throat.
    I choose to believe such TLC for someone not even his flesh and blood must with Hugh translate to quite an extent to his dogs on the trail. There are no doubt details I am missing, but his team’s performance in turning in Iditarod 22’s fastest time between Cripple and Ruby does not speak to me as a whole team that needs to be disqualified, but one bursting with attitude, only having maybe one individual needing to be dropped.

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