WHITEHORSE, Yukon — The Gypsy Musher has done it again.
Tok's Hugh Neff and his veteran Laughing Eyes Kennel dogs won the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, with nine dogs loping to the finish line before a cheering crowd of hundreds on a warm, sunny Monday afternoon. Chilled steak awaited in a cooler, and the dogs eagerly devoured it, piece by piece.
The team started the 1,000-mile race in Fairbanks on Feb. 6 in second-to-last place and finished with a comfortable lead at 2:31 p.m. Monday, Yukon time after 9 days, 1 hour, 25 minutes on the trail, the fourth fastest in race history.
Neff's 8-year-old, salt-and-pepper sled dog George Costanza led the team into the finish chute after a brief diversion to check out a local dog. It was the second Quest championship for both Neff and George, who won in 2012 by beating Two Rivers musher Allen Moore by 26 seconds, the closest finish in Quest history.
"I wanted to prove to people that it wasn't just luck," said Neff, known as the Gypsy Musher after his autobiography, "Tails of the Gypsy Musher" chronicled his journey from Chicago to Alaska. "I think I put that baby to bed."
Neff said he felt more at home on the Yukon Quest trail than anywhere else.
"It's the journey," he said. "It's not about some trophy, it's about being a Quest musher." And Neff has been a good one. Only once since 2008 has he finished out of the top three, a fifth place showing last year.
Eureka's Brent Sass, the 2015 champion, trailed by about 10 miles down the home stretch and took second place at 3:52 p.m. Moore, the 2013 and '14 champ was less than 10 miles behind Sass and finished in third at 5:05 p.m.
Neff said he made a move prior to Scroggie Creek, about 590 miles into the race, that put his team in a position to win. He and the dogs made a 90-mile run from there before their next break.
Moore had been first into Pelly, 750 miles into the race, but he stopped there for about four hours. Neff rested his dogs and himself for only a little more than an hour. Sass, sickened at that point by a stomach bug, blew through the checkpoint on Neff's heels.
"I was going to force Allen's hand," Neff had said in Braeburn, 100 miles from the finish, with the win all but locked up. "He'd either have to come after me with hardly any rest at all or do what he did."
Sass's decision to go through Pelly and rest along the way, then blow though Carmacks 177 miles from the finish did not end up helping him, said Neff, who had followed Sass out of Carmacks after another short rest.
"It benefited me greatly, because leaving Carmacks, it's all uphill portages that are a workout, and I had a team to chase," Neff said.
Neff said he had been thinking about his narrow victory over Moore in 2012.
"I tell Allen I've been dreaming about him on the trail behind me, and he said he's been dreaming about 26 seconds for the last four years, so I was a little bit worried about Mr. Moore being on my butt."
But down the final 100-mile stretch from Braeburn to Whitehorse, it was Sass on Neff's tail.
"I know these dogs. It's one thing to have good dogs, but to have them come together as a team, that's what I didn't know," Neff said. "Obviously Brent's been the talk of the town, or the world, for the last couple months, so I didn't really think I'd be able to hang with him and Allen."