Neff forced out of Quest in Dawson

DAWSON CITY This time out, Hugh Neff promised patience. He said this from day one. But in Dawson, the vets and race officials pushed him too far.

DAWSON CITY

This time out, Hugh Neff promised patience.

He said this from day one.

But in Dawson, the vets and race officials pushed him too far.

Just hours before he was scheduled to leave, race vets told him he would have to wait an additional 18 hours because of the condition of his dogs.

Neff lost patience.

Neff scratched.

“The team was not responding to treatment,” said head vet Kathleen McGill.

“We wanted the team to stay in the checkpoint for continued treatment and, at that point, Hugh made the decision to scratch.”

“They gave us this ludicrous option of waiting . . . that was thrown at us at the worst moment,” said Neff.

“These people had been discussing this for awhile and waited until a couple hours before we left to throw this at us. We could see waiting six hours, but 18 was too excessive.

“And after all we went through to get back in the hunt.”

Neff lost some time when race marshal Mike McCowan asked to see his dogs eat and drink some more before leaving the Eagle checkpoint.

He waited an additional six hours at the checkpoint and ended up dropping three of his dogs, bringing him down to eight.

“I made up three or four hours on our head pack after they made me wait at Eagle,” he said.

“We had some tired out dogs, that’s why we have a 36 hour layover and they’d been eating well.

“I was very confident and excited about next part of race.”

In 2001, Neff faced a similar problem. His dogs were in bad shape, and the vets and officials forced him to scratch/withdraw.

But that year he continued along the Quest trail anyway, against all official recommendation.

“I know I’ve been a screw up, and I know there’s stuff I need to improve upon,” said Neff.

“But if I’d been given a chance . . . they never gave us a chance.”

“I look at the vets for information and ways to take better care of the dogs, which we have been working on.”

Buy the vets were biased, said Neff.

“I was warned before I even started this race that some of the head vets had problems with me personally since my first year,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate that the head vet has yet to even communicate with me.”

McGill said she purposefully removed herself from the evaluation process to avoid any bias, because she had seen Neff’s teams over the last five years.

“And before any decision was made, we had five different vets’ opinions, if not more,” she added.

“I was prepared to give Hugh Neff four options,” said McCowan.

“The first was scratch, the second was wait 18 hours, so he scratched. And it was probably the best decision he could have made.”

If he had not chosen one of these first two options, McCowan said he “would have had to do his job.

“And sometimes when I have to do this, the penalty is pretty harsh,” he said.

“There’s a difference between scratching and being forced to withdraw — we can’t force anyone to withdraw,” he added.

But Neff feels he was forced to withdraw.

There are reasons why a lot of mushers don’t race in the Quest, said Neff.

“It’s known as an anti-dog-mushers’ race and I don’t think the Quest has a very bright future.

“More than global warming, it’s the lack of organization that’s been going on for years — it’s not the Quest I knew my first years, it’s just gone downhill.”

Neff, who has run in six Quests, said he will never run it again.

“They have a lack of respect for the code of the North, and don’t treat mushers of the North with decency,” he said.

“It’s more than just the competition, I feel like I’m being totally disrespected.

“People don’t realize, as mushers, how much effort we put into this on a daily basis.

“And it’s not about money, it’s about me being the best that I can be, obviously I am not being given that chance.”

When Neff arrived in Eagle on Wednesday, he was joyous.

“It was so beautiful out there, running into the sunset all pink and purple everywhere,” he said.

“I love this race and if I had the money I would do it every year — it’s what I live for, it’s all about the freedom for me.”

Now, forced out of the race, he is hurt.

“I feel sorry for the Quest,” he said.

“Mr. Shank and Mr. Williams had a dream that has been lost through lack of organization among officials and vets.

“It’s just a sad moment for me.”

The vets should spend more time with the mushers and their dogs during the race, said Neff.

“I say every year before race even starts, we should have every vet go on a dog ride,” he said.

“I wonder how much these vets actually know about dog mushing. They know dogs, but it takes a special person to know what a dog is actually capable of.”

Neff plans to go home, give his dogs a much-needed break and then start training for this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

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