FAIRBANKS — The Yukon Quest finalized its decision Tuesday to censure former race champion Hugh Neff for his dog care in the 2018 race.
Neff’s case is the first that race officials are familiar with in which a musher was suspended from future races for violating dog care rules. Neff’s dog, Boppy, died near the halfway point of the 2018 Quest. A necropsy report concluded the dog had conditions that a musher should have been able to handle.
Neff appealed the censure to a third-party review board consisting of a musher, a veterinarian and a community board member in confidential hearings held June 14 and June 18 in Fairbanks. The censure bans Neff from running the 2019 Yukon Quest and requires him to run the shorter 300-mile YQ 300 before he’s allowed to return to the 1,000-mile sled dog race.
“After two days of confidential testimony, the review board concluded that Hugh Neff did not provide clear and convincing evidence to overturn the censure. The review board voted unanimously to uphold the Yukon Quest censure,” Tuesday’s announcement from the race states.
In an interview with the Daily News-Miner last month, Neff called the censure a “vendetta” against him by people in the race organization who object to his “brashness” and “unique persona.”
On Tuesday, he told the News-Miner the Quest changed the format of the review board moments before the hearing was set to begin.
“We protested it before it even started because they told us there would be five people on the review board,” Neff said during a phone interview. “We showed up and there was only three. They told us if we didn’t stay, they were going to go ahead and proceed without us.”
Neff said he and race officials agreed on who would be a part of a five-person review board that was set to comprise two mushers, two veterinarians and one outside community member.
However, the review board ended up being smaller.
“They told us one of the mushers couldn’t come and they couldn’t contact one of the veterinarians, so it went from five to three,” Neff said.
Among the group was a past Quest musher who Neff admitted he hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with.
“He actually wanted to submit a testimonial that he wrote at the end of it,” Neff said of the musher.
The review board wasn’t Neff’s only issue with the hearings, which took place in 4-hour increments.
“The Quest spoke for 6 hours,” Neff said. “We were barely allowed to speak for a few hours.”
Neff provided race officials with documents at the hearing. One of them was a letter from Sandy and Earl, the couple from the Clinton Creek hospitality stop where Boppy expired after choking on straw.
“Boppy had simply expired in spite of a lot of care, due to aspiration/inhalation of straw,” the letter read. “Having pulled some out myself from his throat when he first was brought into the house, and having heard the preliminary necropsy/cause of death.”
The letter also talks about how Neff took care of Boppy after realizing he was ill.
“Once Boppy was discovered to be having trouble, he was immediately brought into our house, warmed, straw pulled out, attended to and even given mouth to by Mr. Neff! (I have to say, that is a dedicated dog musher!)” the letter states. “All in all, it seems rumors and innuendos seem to have overtaken facts, at least from my limited perspective.”
Sandy and Earl signed the letter by writing “hospitality stop 2018 Quest” below their names. Underneath that, it reads, “(if politics and witch hunts are the norm, we will cease to be thus, but truly hoping to see the Quest live up to its former name, as the ‘toughest race in the world,’ and taking care of its athletes).”
Neff provided the News-Miner with a screenshot of his text messages from Feb. 8, when he reached out to Dr. Nina Hansen, the race’s head veterinarian, after Boppy became ill.
The musher sent a series of seven messages which read, “1 of my dogs ate something in another teams straw, having seizues [sic], any advice? still out at 40 mile, labored breathing, never had this before, he just puked up some food/straw.”
At 12:27 a.m. Feb. 9, Hansen responded, “Just got this. My phone only works on WiFi at the checkpoint. Can you get a temperature?”
Neff explained other facets of the hearing that he didn’t agree with. He said his witness wasn’t given the same treatment the Quest’s witnesses were.
“They made our witness leave the room, while all of their witnesses got to stay,” he said. “They didn’t allow my witness to be on the teleconference the second day — he was my veterinarian that was backing us up.”
What made the two-time champion most upset, though, was the chair of the rules committee, Dr. Kathleen McGill, mistook Boppy’s name multiple times.
“The rules committee chair called him ‘Bobby’ twice,” Neff said. “Then the next day, they showed some slides and underneath the slide it said ‘Bobby’ again. They’re all about being the voice of dogs, and they don’t even know our dog’s name. We were insulted by the whole proceeding.”
When asked what his next move will be, Neff said he still would like to participate in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, though he isn’t sure if the race will follow the Quest’s censure. Even if he isn’t able to take part in the Iditarod, Neff said he’ll continue to guide sled dog teams.
“I’d like to, if allowed,” he said about the Iditarod. “If they hold up what the Quest is doing, I wouldn’t be allowed to do that one either. I’m in Alaska to be a dog musher, not a dog racer. I’m not all about just running dogs to train for these races, I just love running dogs.”
Neff said he can’t imagine a scenario in which he would run the YQ 300 to return to the Quest’s 1,000-mile race.
“I’m obviously not going to re-qualify by doing a 300-mile race considering I’ve already done 32 1,000-mile races, as well as dozens of other races,” he said.
He also wonders who is in charge of the Quest, adding that he had received multiple letters signed by different people leading up to the hearings.
“We’ve received three different documents in the past three months signed by three different Alaska Yukon Quest presidents,” Neff said.
The two-time champion from Tok — Neff won the Quest in 2012 and ’16 — said he has been trying to contact Quest race officials in hopes of continuing his appeal.
“They called that an informal hearing, so now we’re wondering if there’s going to be a formal hearing or what the process is,” he said. “We’ve been trying to contact the Quest for several days. They haven’t been answering the phone.
“They’re more worried about protecting their image and their practices than they are getting to the truth of the matter.”
Neff has run the Quest 17 times. He was previously disqualified from his second Yukon Quest, in 2010, after veterinarians at the Eagle checkpoint determined his dogs’ feet were in bad shape. Although he was out of the race that year, Neff and his team continued mushing down the trail to Circle.
Neff closed the interview by saying he won’t take part in the Quest until the race makes changes.
“There are a few veterinarians that have created this and have controlled the show,” he said. “Until they’re not a part of the Quest, I’m not going to have any affiliation with the Quest.”
Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman contributed to this report. Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMSportsGuy.