EAGLE — Rookie Olivia Webster scratched from the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race on Thursday night in Dawson City, Yukon, the Quest announced in a news release early Friday morning.
Although she was listed as Webster by the race because that’s what her passport says, the rookie uses Shank-Neff as her last name. Shank-Neff is the granddaughter of LeRoy Shank, a former News-Miner pressman and one of the original founders of the 1,000-mile race. She’s also married to Hugh Neff, a two-time Quest champion.
On Friday, Shank-Neff told the News-Miner she didn’t scratch from the race. She said the Quest forced her hand to stop competing.
“When I saw the paper that said ‘scratch,’ they said ‘dogs in heat’ was the reason,” she said over the phone. “But I did not make that decision, I just want to clarify that. I did not say, ‘I want to scratch.’ They said, ‘You’ve received too much outside assistance, we’re forcing you to scratch.’”
Shank-Neff was scheduled to leave Dawson City, the final checkpoint on the Canada side of the trail, at 6:30 p.m. Alaska time Thursday. Before her team started its 150-mile run to Eagle, the first stop across the border, she dropped one of her lead dogs, Mojito, who had been a staple for Neff’s teams in multiple past 1,000-mile races.
Mojito had been suffering from a flank injury, which is frostbite in the dog’s armpit area. The issue often starts as a rash from a harness, and it can persist when temperatures plummet, which was the case for much of the first half of the race when temperatures hung around 30 below as teams made their way to Dawson from the start line in Whitehorse.
Shank-Neff said race officials told her she needed to drop Mojito from her team before leaving for Eagle.
“They took my leader away from me,” she said. “They knew he was my only leader. Every year he has the same flank issue. Every year, the Quest sees Mojito and they see the flank problem and they let it slide. They’re like, ‘OK, we’ll let it slide.’”
Dr. Nina Hansen, the Quest’s head veterinarian, said Friday in Eagle that although she wasn’t sure of the exact circumstances regarding Mojito’s flank issue. Neither she nor her veterinary team would typically recommend pulling a dog from the race for that issue unless the frostbite was becoming severe.
Quest race marshal Doug Harris said Friday in Eagle that the dog wasn’t forced to be dropped.
“That decision was made by the musher, in my understanding, and it was made for the best interest of the dog,” he said.
A veterinarian can’t force a musher to pull a dog from the race. The veterinary team makes suggestions to the mushers, but the mushers ultimately decide whether they want to keep a dog in their lineup or remove it. In the event the musher disagrees with the veterinary team’s recommendation, race judges and Harris can intervene and overrule them.
Harris said he wasn’t contacted about Mojito.
Shank-Neff decided to head for Eagle without the dog. Soon after she left Dawson, though, two of her female dogs that were in heat started becoming too big of a distraction to the rest of the team, so she decided to return to Dawson to drop those dogs.
She said that as she arrived in Dawson, the male dogs started fighting over the two females in heat. That led to a frenzy — one that triggered a passerby to stop on a snowmachine and offer help.
“There kept being a dog fight,” she said. “This guy comes up on a snowmachine and he’s like, ‘Are you OK? Do you need help?’ And I was like, ‘No. Don’t touch my dog team. Can you just lead us to the dog yard, so I can drop my girls in heat?’”
Shank-Neff said that as she worked to break up the fights among her dogs, Quest officials and veterinarians stood by and did nothing.
“There’s like race officials around and vets, and they’re just standing there watching me struggle,” she said.
Once the dust settled, Shank-Neff said the Quest forced her hand.
“When I get there to drop off the girls in heat, (race judge) Amy Wright and two vets run up to me and say, ‘Hey, Olivia, you’ve had too much outside help. We’re forcing you to withdraw.’ They had the paper there and everything, and I was just like, ‘What?’”
It’s unclear whether the outside assistance Shank-Neff alluded to when she said Wright told her she received too much help was in fact the passerby who stopped to guide her back to the dog yard.
Harris said the protocol for dog fights at checkpoints is race officials normally jump in to help break up the scuffle. He said people helping a musher get through that sort of situation wouldn’t be grounds for a disqualification from the race.
“If somebody needs assistance and it’s in the best interest of the dogs to receive that assistance, nobody is going to be penalized for that,” he said.
When Harris was asked if he was aware of any race judges who were still in Dawson and had conversations about Shank-Neff receiving outside assistance, the race marshal said additional comments should be answered by the musher.
“Olivia went out, she came back and signed the scratch form,” he said. “If you want any other comments, they should come from Olivia. Speak to her about what took place, but that’s basically what happened.”
On Friday, Shank-Neff said she was rattled by the situation, particularly because she had hoped her grandfather would get to see her run a team across the finish line in Fairbanks.
“I was just in shock. I’m just in shock,” she said. “Hugh came up and started yelling at everybody, and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ We just came back to the hotel, and I think at 2 a.m. it finally hit me and I was so upset.
“I thought I was doing really good. I just don’t know why they couldn’t let me drop the girls and come back and try again.”
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.