Banned from Yukon Quest over dog care concerns, Hugh Neff says he is being unfairly targeted

Longtime Alaska musher Hugh Neff released a lengthy video Thursday fighting back against the Yukon Quest's decision to ban him from next year's race over dog care concerns.

"This is just, the way I see it, a personal vendetta that a few folks have against me that don't want me to be a part of the Quest," Neff, 50, said in the video.

The video comes two days after Yukon Quest organizers announced that Neff, a two-time Quest champion, could not compete in its 1,000-mile or 300-mile races next year after a necropsy showed just how sick his dog was when it died during this year's event.

The dog, named Boppy, died from aspiration pneumonia caused by inhaling vomit, according to a statement from the Quest on Tuesday. On top of that, the exam on Boppy's body showed that the dog had stomach ulcers, intestinal inflammation, whipworm infestation, skeletal muscle necrosis and severe weight loss. The dog's muscles had started to waste away, it said.

Neff could have prevented some of those health problems, Kathleen McGill, a veterinarian and the chair of the Quest's rules committee, said in an interview earlier this week. She said some of the health issues likely started before the race began. Boppy lacked fat around its internal organs, including its heart, she said.

"It's really hard for an animal to use up all of its body fat around its heart and its kidneys," she said Tuesday. "Maybe the feeding schedule wasn't appropriate, maybe conditioning wasn't as good as it should have been prior to the race."

[Yukon Quest bans 2-time champ from 2019 race after examination of dead dog]

Neff has a sled dog kennel in Tok and regularly runs the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, both 1,000-mile events, among other races.

He emailed his video clip to Alaska news outlets Thursday morning and later posted it on Facebook with the caption, "This is only half of the Interview."

In his video, Neff sat in front of a Yukon Quest banner. He has the race's logo tattooed on his forearm. He referred to Boppy as a "special boy" who meant a lot to him. He said he felt like people were trying to force him out of the Quest.

"I have issue with why they're doing this to me when other mushers have had dog issues in the past," he said.

A Yukon Quest spokeswoman referred questions Thursday to McGill, who could not be reached.

Neff said Yukon Quest officials didn't interview anyone where Boppy died, at Clinton Creek, a cabin about 45 miles away from the race's halfway point in Dawson City. He said veterinarians never visited his kennel. He said they were judging him without really knowing him or his dogs.

"They don't know what we're about," he said.

He said he planned to protest the Quest's penalties.

"I love dogs, I love traveling, I love the freedom of the trail and the love of the dogs. But more than anything, more than anything I love the Quest," he said. "And that's why I just don't understand why they're doing this to me, but, you know, I ain't backing down. No way."

Neff officially dropped out of the Quest in Dawson City after Boppy died.

However, he said in a brief phone interview Thursday evening that he called the race marshal at Clinton Creek, before Boppy died, and said he was scratching from the race. He had a young team. His wife had just finished the 300-mile Quest. Temperatures dropped to negative-50. The conditions were bad, he said. "I had no reason to go any farther," he said.

Boppy later died in that Clinton Creek cabin, he said. He and others spent at least six hours trying to keep the dog alive, Neff said. "This wasn't like this dog just keeled over and died," he said.

Neff said he could not drop out of the race in Clinton Creek because it's not an official checkpoint, which meant there were also not any veterinarians there. So he had to eventually continue to Dawson City, he said.

Neff declined to answer other questions, and said he would address Boppy's death more in another video.

"I'm not angry," he said. "I'm just sad."

Quest head veterinarian Nina Hansen said in an interview Wednesday that in Boppy's vet book, which tracked its condition along the race, a veterinarian had written that the dog looked thin in Eagle, the last official checkpoint before Dawson City. Eagle is about 100 miles before Clinton Creek.

Boppy should have been pulled from the race in Eagle, she said.

"That was not brought to my attention, so that's an issue within the vet team," she said.

Hansen said Neff's dog team had to go through a vet check before the race, which he had his own veterinarian do. The check includes a physical exam, she said. She said no concerns were raised.

On Tuesday, the Yukon Quest organizers said that based on Boppy's necropsy results, Neff could not race in next year's Yukon Quest races. If Neff wants to run the 1,000-mile Quest again, after 2019, he will have to first compete in the 300-mile race.

"We just don't want him running the Quest until things get better," McGill said Tuesday. "He's been racing a long time. It's not like this was a rookie running."

About a month after Neff dropped out of this year's Quest, he competed in the Iditarod and placed 21st.

The Iditarod Trail Committee, the nonprofit that stages the Iditarod, said in a statement Thursday that it was aware the Quest had suspended Neff.

"Hugh Neff does have a 30-day window to appeal this action," the statement said. "The ITC (Board) will wait until the appeal is addressed before making any decision."

The Iditarod disqualified two-time runner-up Ramy Brooks from the 2007 Iditarod for physically punishing his dogs. He was suspended from the Iditarod until 2010 but has yet to return.

Since 2000, Neff has started 18 1,000-mile Yukon Quest races, finishing 14 of them and placing first twice, in 2016 and 2012.

In the 2011 Quest, one of Neff's dogs, Geronimo, died from aspiration. Neff scratched from that race. In the 2001 race, veterinarians in Eagle disqualified him because his dogs' feet were in bad shape, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.