UPDATED FEB. 17
Tok, Alaska’s Hugh Neff can pinpoint the moment he knew he was going to win this year’s Yukon Quest.
It wasn’t when he left the final checkpoint or when he entered Whitehorse city limits. Basically, it was when he could see the finish line.
“I’m old school. I knew I had it when I came around that corner,” said Neff at the finish line. “I always have the voices of Brent (Sass) and Allen (Moore) in my head. We three have been seeing a lot of each other in the Quest the last three years.”
Neff, 48, knows a thing or two about counting chickens before they’re hatched. He rallied from behind to win his first Quest title in 2012 by just 26 seconds ahead of Two Rivers, Alaska’s Allen Moore.
“When I won last time it was a come-from-behind and barely won by 26 seconds and I wanted to prove to people it was more than just luck,” said Neff.
Neff won this year’s 1,600-kilometre sled dog race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse Monday afternoon with a time of nine days, one hour and 25 minutes.
This year, too, there was a come-from-behind element to his win. Defending champ Brent Sass of Eureka, Alaska, led for most of the race, was the first to Dawson City – the halfway point – and left with a two-hour lead over Allen in second and Neff in third.
Sass built the sizeable lead in the first half of the race despite an illness making its way through his dogs. In the second half it was his turn.
“After I left Dawson I got real sick and had a bad stomach bug and sore throat,” said Sass. “I basically didn’t eat for the whole time between Dawson and Pelly.
“I was already running a real conservative schedule leaving Dawson because the dogs had been sick and I knew I couldn’t push them as hard as I originally planned. When I got sick it got a little more conservative and maybe I rested a little bit longer. The biggest thing was I had to keep my head in the game to make sure the dogs were taken care of and dealt with.”
Sass managed to cut almost an hour off Neff’s lead following the final checkpoint in Braeburn, but it wasn’t enough. The 36-year-old reached the finish an hour and 24 minutes later for second place.
“Considering everything we went through in the race, all the challenges, the warm weather with my big furry dogs – considering all that, I’m real happy,” said Sass.
“And the fact that Hugh Neff has an amazing dog team. There’s no doubt that dog team is top notch. He ran a really good race … It’s never bad to come second to a phenomenal dog team.”
Even with now 16 Yukon Quests under his belt, Neff wasn’t the most veteran musher on the trail this year. Healy, Alaska’s Dave Dalton raced his 26th Quest this year and placed 11th this morning.
Sass, on the other hand, is now into double digits with 10.
“(Sass) is probably the most dedicated musher in the world right now,” said Neff. “He had over 3,000 more miles training than me. Think about that – 3,000! I’m just a goofball doing 20-mile training runs.”
Moore, who won the Quest in 2013 and 2014 and placed second last year, took third at 5:05 p.m. on Monday. Fellow Two Rivers musher Matt Hall placed fourth an hour and a half later.
10 Mile’s Ed Hopkins was the race’s top Yukoner and Canadian, placing fifth early Tuesday morning with a time of nine days, 14 hours, and one minute.
“I’m feeling pretty good. It’s a pretty good achievement,” said Hopkins, who placed third last year for his best finish to date. “I figured I had a top-five team. I wished I could have done a little better, but the race was good. I’m happy with that.”
Whitehorse’s Yuka Honda reached the finish at 4:49 a.m. this morning to claim ninth, up from 15th in her first Quest in 2012. Mendenhall’s Luc Tweddell left Braeburn this morning at 7:37 a.m. with just six dogs and is en route to a 12th place finish.
Neff, Sass and Moore are all registered for next month’s Iditarod race in Alaska.
“I’ll be bringing most of the same dogs,” said Sass. “I learned a lot about dealing with dogs who are not functioning at 100 per cent and I hope I don’t have to deal with that in the Iditarod … This was the first time in 10 years I had to deal with sick dogs during a race.”
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