A margin as thin as an ax blade separates frontrunners Allen Moore and Hugh Neff as they play leapfrog in the too-close-to-call Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race -- the outcome of which could, in fact, be decided by an ax blade.
Hugh Neff of Tok was given a 30-minute penalty this morning when he reached the checkpoint at Pelly Crossing, Yukon, without an ax, one of the pieces of mandatory gear mushers are required to carry in the 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.
The penalty will be assessed at Braeburn, where mushers must take an eight-hour layover before making the push to the finish line.
The 30 minutes loom large in a race that has been close almost the entire way.
Just four minutes separated Moore and Neff when they left Pelly Crossing early this morning.
Moore drove a team of 12 dogs out of the checkpoint at 5:05 a.m. AST and Neff followed at 5:09 with a team of 11.
Lance Mackey, who was the second musher to reach the halfway point in Dawson, just minutes behind Moore, now lags by about two hours. He was third out of Pelly Crossing at 7:11 a.m. and is down to nine dogs.
Quest officials said on Facebook that Neff used his ax in Dawson but the tool never got put back into his sled bag.
When Neff arrived at Pelly Crossing, some 200 miles later, his official check-in time was delayed by six minutes so a handler could run to his truck and grab a replacement, the Quest said. Mushers are not allowed to check in without all of their mandatory gear.
Moore, the Two Rivers musher who was sixth last year as rookie, was the first to reach Pelly Crossing, arriving this morning at 2:09 a.m. AST. Neff arrived at 2:27 a.m. -- that time reflects the extra six minutes spent finding another ax -- and Mackey got there at 3:32 a.m.
The race started a week ago Saturday in Fairbanks. It will end sometime early this week.