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Sass bemoans his 'stupid' mistake, prepares to mush his dog team home

TANANA -- As disqualified musher Brent Sass stood in the dog lot here Wednesday morning, preparing food for his resting team hours after top competitors had left the Yukon River checkpoint, all he could focus on was his mistake.

"I'm an idiot, basically, is what it boils down to," he said in a tearful interview with Alaska Dispatch News.

Sass, who won the Yukon Quest last month, was disqualified after race marshal Mark Nordman confirmed the Eureka musher was carrying an iPod Touch in Tanana. Mushers are prohibited from carrying devices capable of two-way communications and the iPod Touch, with its Wi-Fi capability that allows users to connect to the Internet, is considered such a device.

Sass had been spotted using the device in Manley, the previous checkpoint 90 miles up the trail. He said he used it to listen to music and movies and as an alarm clock. Sass said he never used it for its wireless capabilities.

Nordman said when he arrived in Tanana he approached Sass and asked if he had anything that looked like a cellphone. Nordman said Sass willingly told him about the iPod Touch.

"(Sass said) 'Yeah, I have this, it looks like a cellphone,'" Nordman said in an interview Tuesday night. "And then he realized his mistake, and it was end of story."

Sass confirmed the events, saying he didn't realize he had broken the rule until being approached by Nordman.

"It was devastating," Sass said. "But I can't do anything about it. I definitely broke the rule, so I suffer the consequences."

Nordman said he had no indication Sass had used the device to communicate.

"I don't believe he had any intent of gaining a competitive advantage by having that communication device," Nordman said. "It was just a mistake he feels terribly about."

An Iditarod race judge, who declined to be identified, said a three-judge panel was convened, as Iditarod rules call for, to determine Sass's fate.

After hearing the news, Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle rifled through her sled bag with the Iditarod Insider crew, making sure she didn't accidentally have a two-way device. Volunteers in the checkpoint joked that lots of return drop bags might be filled with iPods.

Nordman said the decision to pull Sass from the race was a "tough one," but added that having two-way communication devices was clearly explained in the mandatory musher meeting before the race start.

Sass said he understood the rule, but that the emphasis on not having cellphones was what stuck with him. He clearly remembers giving his phone to his father, Mark, before heading down the trail. He noted that during the Yukon Quest, the iPod Touch was allowed.

Sass planned to leave Tanana Wednesday afternoon to drive his dog team about 70 miles back down the trail to his home in Eureka, just outside of Manley Hot Springs to "hibernate." He apologized to fans who supported him along the way, calling his move "stupid."

He admitted that the last few years, which included an accident during the 2014 Yukon Quest that forced him to sit out last year's Iditarod, have been challenging, but ultimately a learning experience.

"Life throws lots of curve balls at you and these are the years I'm getting nailed with it," he said.

Sass still has the iPod Touch on him. Though for how much longer was still a question mark.

"I'm legal now," Sass joked. "I might crush it in to a million pieces when I get home."

Here are the two Iditarod Trail Committee rules that apply to Sass:

Rule 35 -- Electronic Devices: No two-way communication device, including cell phones, shall be carried or used unless provided by ITC. Use of any electronic communication or tracking device shall not be permitted unless provided by the ITC. While a musher may carry a one-way emergency device such as an emergency locator transmitter (ELT), a Spot™, or other similar satellite tracking device, activation of any help or emergency signal, including accidental activation, will make a musher ineligible to continue and will result in an automatic withdrawal from the race. Night vision goggles are not allowed. Use of GPS is permitted.

Rule 51 -- Penalties: Policy and rule infractions may result in issuance of warnings, monetary penalties, time penalties, censure, withdrawals or disqualification.

  • Warnings may be issued by any official for first time or minor violations
  • Monetary penalties may be imposed up to $1,000 per violation. Such penalties may be deducted from prize money. A musher with unpaid fines may not enter future Iditarod races until such fines are paid.
  • Time penalties require a majority decision of a three-member panel of race officials appointed by the Race Marshal. Time penalties may be imposed up to a maximum of two (2) hours per infraction and will be added to the twenty-four (24) hour layover, the eight-hour layover on the Yukon River or the eight (8) hour layover at White Mountain. Time penalties will not be levied past White Mountain.
  • Withdrawal is a process that must be imposed by a three-judge panel, either by a majority or unanimous vote, and which has the effect of involuntarily eliminating the musher and team from the race but which does not imply any deliberate misconduct or violation. The team and musher must leave the trail and will be assisted by the ITC.
  • Disqualifications require a unanimous decision of a three-member panel of race judges appointed by the Race Marshal. The Chief Veterinarian will be consulted in all cases involving cruel or inhumane treatment. Mushers shall be disqualified for rule infractions involving physical abuse of a dog, or for cheating or deliberate rule infractions that give a musher an unfair advantage over another musher. Mushers may also be disqualified for other acts involving cruel and inhumane treatment. It is intended that the nearest involved officials be included on the panel. The musher will be given the opportunity to present his case to each member of the panel prior to the decision. Disqualified and withdrawn teams must leave the trail or forfeit the right to enter future Iditarods.