North

Yukon Quest bars past champ Hugh Neff, cites 'lack of dog care'

Neff's dog Boppy died on the trail this year, and race officials have learned it had a number of health issues. 'We needed to take action,' says the chair of the rules committee.

Neff's dog Boppy had worm infestation, stomach ulcers and muscle wasting when it died on the trail

Hugh Neff hugs his lead dog, George, after winning the Yukon Quest sled dog race in 2016. Quest officials have ruled that Neff can't compete next year. The decision is related to the death of his dog Boppy, during this year's race. (Erin Corneliussen/Fairbanks Daily News/The Associated Press)

Longtime Yukon Quest musher Hugh Neff won't be allowed to run in next year's race — after it was discovered that his dead dog was infested with parasitic worms and its muscles were wasting away, among other health conditions.

Yukon Quest officials say the decision to bar Neff, who has competed in the sled dog race 17 times and won it twice, is related to the death of one of his dogs during the 2018 race in February.

"When the necropsy report came back, we felt that there were enough issues in there that we needed to take action," said Kathleen McGill, chair of the race's rules committee.

The Quest is one of North America's most well-known sled dog races. The annual 1,600-kilometre race has taken place every year since 1984 over rough, gruelling terrain in often bitterly cold temperatures.

Neff's dead dog, named Boppy, died of aspiration pneumonia, before reaching the halfway point at Dawson City. A final necropsy report by the race's head veterinarian says the dog had inhaled vomited stomach contents.

A news release from the race on Tuesday listed a number of other health issues Boppy had that were discovered during the necropsy. They included stomach ulcers, intestinal inflammation, whipworm infestation, skeletal muscle necrosis, severe weight loss and muscle wasting.

Neff has 30 days to request a hearing before Yukon Quest officials, but the race committee says it's not an appeal process. (Julien Schroder/Yukon Quest)

McGill said some of those problems point to a "lack of dog care" on Neff's part.

She said Boppy's whipworms suggested Neff had not controlled for an infestation at his kennel. McGill also said Boppy's wasted condition was a serious concern.

"These were things that were on the interior of the dog, if you will, and pointed to what we feel was lack of dog care, both in the kennel and along the trail," she said.

"This dog had no body fat left on the inside, and that just didn't happen overnight. It just didn't happen at the race. And that was when we felt we needed to take strong action." 

'We need to speak for the dogs'

Neff, who is based in Tok, Alaska, won't be allowed to run the race until 2021 at the earliest, since race officials have ruled that he must run the qualifying YQ300 (482-kilometre) race before again entering the longer race.

Neff approaching the Yukon Quest finish line in Whitehorse in 2016. The earliest he'll be able to run the 1,600-kilometre race again is in 2021. (Cory Correia/CBC)

The earliest he could enter the YQ300 is 2020.

McGill said the decision to censure a musher in this way is a first for the Quest. She said the race has strengthened some of its rules in recent years, and will "probably make them even stronger, this year."

"We feel in this day and age of social media, we owe it to our fans, our sponsors, our volunteers, the other mushers, the mushing community, that if we feel there's something that needs attention, we need to respond to it — we need to speak for the dogs," she said.

"We want to be more proactive, if you will, than reactive."

Neff now has 30 days to request a hearing with race officials, but McGill says it is not an appeal process.

"It's more to go through what our thinking is. So I doubt that we'll change our decision," McGill said.

One of Neff's dogs also died in the 2011 race. In 2001, he was disqualified due to the condition of his team at the checkpoint in Eagle, Alaska.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.