FAIRBANKS - Hugh Neff said he’s receiving help from a New York lawyer and Oklahoma-based veterinarians as he prepares to file a protest against the Yukon Quest’s censure after one of his dogs died during this year’s 1,000-mile race.
The news comes exactly one week after the Yukon Quest announced Neff, a two-time Quest champion from Tok, could be inelligible to compete in the 2019 race. As a part of his punishment, he’ll also have to run the YQ300 — a Quest-organized 300-mile race — before he can return to the 1,000-mile race, which runs between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon.
Neff disputed the ban in a YouTube video released April 26 after race officials said his actions contributed to the death of Boppy, a 4-year-old leader.
“We are obviously filing a protest. I have Veterinary Vision services, which is out of Oklahoma, as the lab that will be looking at the slides from Boppy,” Neff said in a Tuesday morning interview with the News-Miner. “They’ve already seen the necropsy report and they’re already finding major issues with it. They seem to think it was a witch hunt and the (Quest) was looking for stuff instead of trying to be objective about it.”
In it’s news release announcing Neff’s censure, the Quest stated “Boppy died of aspiration pneumonia caused by inhaling vomited stomach contents. Other findings include mild stomach ulcers, moderate intestinal inflammation, mild whipworm infestation, skeletal muscle necrosis, and severe weight loss and muscle wasting.”
The Quest’s news release announcing the censure referenced Rule No. 15 and stated, “Hugh Neff will have 30 days from the date of censure to request in writing an informal hearing with the Yukon Quest.”
Neff announced in his video he won’t meet before a board, and he reiterated that notion Tuesday morning.
“We’re going to file, but I’m not going to go in front of the board and grovel to people I have respect for and I know don’t respect my word,” said Neff, who won the 1,000-mile race in 2012 and 2016.
The 50-year-old musher’s emotions ranged from sadness to anger to disbelief as he occasionally sipped a coffee during the interview, which took place at the top of the driveway of the home of LeRoy Shank, one of the Quest’s founders, as snow trickled from the morning sky. Neff’s wife, Olivia Shank Neff, is the granddaughter of Shank, who was also a longtime News-Miner employee.
Neff views the severity of the conditions as an indication some race officials are out to get him.
“People might think they are harsh, but I actually find them quite comical,” he said. “It shows, deep down, there’s a personal vendetta against me.”
Dr. Kathleen McGill, a former head veterinarian for the race who chairs the Yukon Quest Rules Committee, said the censure would have included even harsher stipulations if the committee had a vendetta against Neff.
“We would have given him a lifetime ban if that was the case. And we didn’t,” McGill said Tuesday during a phone interview. “This gives him a chance to improve the care in his kennel, and prove to us that care has improved. Then he can race.”
Neff voiced his many grievances with the Rules Committee on Tuesday.
“I have major issues with the people on the Rules Committee because most of them aren’t even from Alaska, and most of them are tied in with other races,” he said. “I haven’t seen a lot of people on the Rules Committee at a Quest banquet in two decades. I have major issues with that. Who are these people and how are they getting voted in? And how are they in charge of our lives?”
McGill splits her time in Ohio and Oregon, though she is currently in the process of moving to Oregon full-time. She said other members of the committee reside in Canada, and one is set to move to Indiana. McGill doesn’t believe the location of the committee members impacts their ability to work for the Quest.
“I think the depth of experience and practical knowledge outweighs where they live if they come to the races, the Iditarod and the Quest,” she said. “These people on the Rules Committee, including myself, have a lot of experience. There’s a depth of experience with dogs and, in my case, with medicine.”
Neff also cited his issues with the team of veterinarians. Although he was able to communicate with race marshall Doug Harris from the Clinton Creek cabin where Boppy died — roughly 50 miles outside of Dawson City, Yukon, the first checkpoint on the Canada side — he had trouble getting in contact with a veterinarian.
“It took me a long time to get a hold of a vet,” he said. “They’re busy, but there are so many vets involved with the Quest, I couldn’t believe I couldn’t get a hold of anybody for awhile.”
Dr. Nina Hansen, the race’s head veterinarian, said she was at the vet shack. The shack was the vet team’s hospital set-up, and it was located in the dog yard 2 miles past the checkpoint.
“He did get a hold of me via the internet from the Clinton Creek cabin, however, I was in the vet shack at the time he tried to get a hold of me,” Hansen said. “So I didn’t get his message via the internet until I got back to the checkpoint. I did have a cell phone on me. Had he contacted the checkpoint and asked them to call that cell number, they would have done that.”
Neff’s displeasure with the veterinarians is deeper than having trouble reaching them, however.
“I do have issues with the vets,” Neff said. “I respect them, but I also think this race is more than just a party. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, let’s do the Quest, we’ll get to Dawson and have some drinks.’”
Hansen said the veterinarians rotated 12-hour shifts while in Dawson. She said her members were free to eat or drink at their leisure when they weren’t responsible to work a shift.
“If a veterinarian is on their 12 hours off, they’re definitely allowed to go have dinner, have a drink and go to a bar,” she said. “As long as they’re on time for their shift, they’re not impaired and they do a good job, they’re definitely allowed time off in Dawson.”
Neff has finished the Quest 14 times since he first took part in the race in 2000. During that time, the self-proclaimed “gypsy musher” said his personality has likely rubbed some race officials the wrong way. Even if that is the case, the 50-year-old doesn’t plan on changing who he is.
“There are folks associated with the Quest throughout the years who may not have cared for me, my brashness or my unique persona,” Neff said. “But I am who I am. I’m Hugh Neff and I love my dogs. I love the Quest and I’m not changing.”
One month after the Quest, Neff and his team of nine dogs finished 21st in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It was the 13th time he finished the race that runs more than 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome.
He said this year’s Iditarod went off without a hitch.
“All my dogs passed with flying colors for the Iditarod,” Neff said.
Although he plans to protest the Yukon Quest’s ban, he isn’t optimistic that the race will change its punishment.
“I’m going to file a protest but nothing’s going to come from it because they’re going to do what they want to do,” he said. “I don’t think I can race until there are people who have retired or moved on from this race. It’s a situation where obviously people don’t believe my word and they don’t want me around. That’s why they went overboard with the sanctioning.”
Regardless of the outcome, Neff’s situation reminded him of a nickname 2001 Quest champion Tim Osmar gave him.
“Many years ago, Timmy called me Huge Mess,” he said. “Whenever people ever talk about me, I always thought of myself as the person who’s a symbol of the Quest in a way. But right now the Quest is a huge mess.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMSportsGuy.