Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Melodrama on the Quest Trail

The race for the win has become a shootout between Sebastian Schnuelle and confessed cheater Hugh Neff. Sebastian left the Two Rivers checkpoint at 5:02 this morning and Mr. Neff left having served his mandatory layover plus two hour penalty for cheating at 5:37. If only 47 miles of trail to go a winner is expected to cross the finish line sometime around 9:00 this morning.

This strikes me as the classic "good-guy versus bad-guy" melodrama, sort of like those old early 20th century movies where Snidely Whiplash ties poor Nellie to the railroad tracks and the hero rides to the rescue.

Sebastian is one of those guys I wrote about yesterday, who has earned the respect and a degree of fame among his peers by consistently providing the highest level of care and training that he can for his dogs. Don't be lulled by Mr. Schnuelle's "frizzy" hair and unkempt appearance. When it comes to his dogs, Sebastian knows what he's about and more importantly, knows what the DOGS are about.

In yesterday's post, I noted that Neff is likely to snivel that the time penalty assessed against him "stole" the race from him. That easy prediction has already come true. Here is an excerpt from an article in today's Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Neff finally had a chance Monday night to tell his side of the story regarding the penalty he was assessed Sunday night in Central for mushing on the road for more than five miles instead of on the adjacent trail.

“I saw (dog) poo on the road, and I was figuring (Kleedehn) was going down the road,” Neff said, adding that the assumption turned out to be false. “ ... When I saw William off on the side trail, I grabbed my team and pulled them over into the side trail.”

Neff said he “messed up” but deserved to be fined instead of given a severe time penalty by race marshal Doug Grilliot.

“Basically they found what was going to hurt me the worst and they basically took the race from me,” Neff said. “I have no issue with a penalty. I have an issue with what the penalty was. ... For five minutes, two hours seems a little out there.”

Neff said penalties should be specified in the race rules and not determined arbitrarily by race officials.

The whole thing has left a sour taste in Neff’s mouth.

“I love the Quest. I love the Quest trail. I just have issues with a lot of the way the Quest is run,” Neff said, adding that he doesn’t see himself returning without better race organization.

In almost every sled dog race, if one gets off the proper trail it is expected and accepted the musher can return to the point where s/he left the trail, finish the course and not be penalized any further for the deviation. Had Neff been willing to play by the rules and returned to the point where he chose the road over the trail, this would never have been an issue. If anything, he'd have been lauded for doing the right thing.

I've modified my opinion of the penalty just a little. I now believe that Mr. Neff should have been given the option to either return to the point where he left the trail and run the proper course or disqualified. As it stands, all it's accomplished has been to give Huge Mess something to complain about.

There is good news in the article, though. Neff said he doesn't see himself returning without a better race organization. I think the race and Mr. Neff's dogs would be much better off if he sticks by his words and abandons the Yukon Quest. Unfortunately, cheaters are not particularly known for standing by their words.

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