WARNING!! This Old School Alaskan is fixin' to share an old-school opinion, and it's a harsh one. An opinion is sort of like an anus - we all have one and most of them stink at least once in a while. Mine is no more important than anyone else's, but neither is it any less.
According to an article in today's issue of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, confirmed by a press release on the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race website, musher Hugh Neff was assessed a two hour time penalty for running his team down a road rather than the properly marked trail. Mr. Neff admitted that he did so, and that he did so on purpose.
Here are some excerpts from the article.
“Mr. Neff chose to stay on the road for approximately 5.7 miles, at which point he was seen by numerous people and pulled his sled over to the actual trail,” race marshal Doug Grilliot said. “Mr. Neff admitted that to me.”
Neff followed the road purposely and told Grilliot that, the marshal said.
“This is very different from accidentally getting off the trail for a certain amount of time, dragging your dogs back onto the trail that is very well marked, and continuing. That happens to everybody at some point in the race,” Grilliot said. “A willful act like this to enhance your own position is not acceptable.”
Frankly, I'm astounded that the race judges did not choose to disqualify Mr. Neff. His admitted behavior was a clear violation of the race rules, which specify the mushers must follow the race trail as marked. Running on the hard-packed road gave him a clear advantage over the race leader, William Kleedehn, who followed the marked trail without difficulty. It also makes it more difficult for following teams to stay on the trail, as dogs naturally want to follow the scent of teams running ahead of them.
During his earliest years as a long distance racing musher, Mr. Neff earned the nickname "Huge Mess" due to his lack of planning, poorly maintained equipment and most especially his attitude toward the sport and his dogs. Long distance mushers are notorious for biting their tongues when it comes to their opinions of their fellow competitors, but in private conversations I've heard and seen enough body-language to know that Mr. Neff is not held in particularly high regard among many of his peers. More than one has said "I wouldn't want to be a dog on his team.", and coming from tough people who breed and train their dogs to be just as tough, that is fairly damning.
In recent years it appeared that Mr. Neff was making an effort to get his act together. Opinions were softening toward him and he, his dogs and his gear were performing much better than before. I even heard folks say "well, maybe we've misjudged him a bit." In my opinion, yesterday's stunt proves that he wasn't misjudged one whit.
As far as I'm concerned, Mr. Neff is getting off easy with only a two hour time penalty. "Punishment" is defined as consequences of a behavior that makes the behavior less likely to occur in the future". I believe this two hour penalty will do nothing more than give Neff a reason to stroke his own ego, perhaps even reinforcing the behavior and making it MORE likely to occur in the future.
Given that William Kleedehn's and Jon Little's teams are performing so well, the penalty pretty much assures that Neff won't win the race, but if he can keep his team together over the grueling Eagle and Rosebud summit's, he'll nonetheless place very high in the race, probably a career best. Mr. Neff will have been given reason to boast of how he might have won the thing had those big, bad race officials not robbed him of his victory by assessing the penalty.
Mr. Neff strikes me as one of those people who needs to be noticed. There are other mushers with a similar need, and they become noticed due to excellence in dog care and training resulting in astonishingly high levels of performance. They justly earn their fame because they first earn the respect of the peers as well as their fans. Unfortunately, some people find it difficult to recognize the difference between respect, fame and notoriety. I believe that Mr. Hugh Neff, a.k.a. Huge Mess, is one of those people, and he will be quite delighted to bask in the dull gray glow of notoriety.
I feel that Mr. Neff should have been disqualified and sent home with his tail between his legs. The only thing he'll learn from a two hour time penalty is to be more careful to not get caught the next time he chooses to cheat.