But it was Aliy Zirkle who was the first to leave the checkpoint 188 miles into the 975-mile race.
The winner of the 2000 Yukon Quest, Zirkle arrived at 7:17 p.m., spent nine minutes at the old cabin that serves as checkpoint, and left at 7:26.
Zirkle outpaced Neff on the 35-mile run from Rainy Pass, on the other side of the Alaska Range. She made the trip in 3 hours, 49 minutes; Neff did it in 4 hours, 8 minutes.
The race pace is about two hours slower than last year's, which produced a record run by John Baker. A year ago, Robert Bundtzen led the frontrunners into Rohn at 5:17 p.m. on Monday.
In 2010, the third-fastest race on record, Sebastian Schnuelle was the first to Rohn, arriving at 6:52.
And in 2002, when Martin Buser set the record that Baker broke last year, Buser reached Rohn first, at 7:25 p.m.
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Monday, 5:15 p.m. -- Eleven mushers are out of Rainy Pass and on their way to Rohn, a group that includes four Iditarod champions.
Hugh Neff, the winner of last month's Yukon Quest, was first to leave Puntilla Lake on Monday afternoon. He departed at 2:58 p.m., the first of 11 who left during a span of 2 hours, 7 minutes.
Fourth to leave, at 3:15 p.m., was four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey. Among those following was reigning champion John Baker (6th, 3:34 p.m.), Rick Swenson (8th, 3:51 p.m.) and Jeff King (11th, 4:05 p.m.).
The first to pursue Neff was Ray Redington Jr. (3:09 p.m.). Others to give chase were Aaron Burmeister (3rd, 3:12 p.m.), 2000 Yukon Quest champion Aliy Zirkle (5th, 3:28 p.m.), Kelley Griffin (7th, 3:37 p.m.), Nicolas Petit (9th, 3:53 p.m.) and Paul Gebhardt (10th, 3:57 p.m.)
Monday, 11:15 a.m. -- The Happy River Steps, which almost weren't part of this year's Iditarod, got good reviews from the first mushers to take the roller-coaster ride on Monday morning.
"Probably the best I've seen it," Ray Redington Jr.,, a veteran of 10 races, told Iditarod Insider.
"They were really good," reported 11-time finisher Aliy Zirkle.
"It was great," said four-time winner Lance Mackey.
Redington led the way into the Rainy Pass checkpoint at Puntilla Lake. He arrived at 9:02 Monday morning and was followed by Hugh Neff (9:05 a.m.), Mackey (9:36 a.m.) and Zirkle (9:40 a.m.).
When Neff arrived, a checker showed him where to find water and where to park his dogs. It's pretty much the same setup as in the past, he told Neff.
"The difference is, where's Mackey this year?" Neff said.
Mackey, icicles hanging from his mustache, said he took it a little slower than usual on the run from Finger Lake.
"I was going down the Steps this year at the same time I was pulling in (to Rainy Pass) last year," he told Iditarod Insider. "I had a slow trip coming in, intentionally."
The 30-mile run from Finger Lake includes the notorious Happy River Steps, the steep switchbacks that have done their share of damage to musher and sleds over the years.
Race officials planned to reroute the trail away from the steps, using instead a new winter mining road that parallels the trail, but they scrapped the plan Friday, saying there was too much snow on the road to break trail on it.
Ray Redington Jr.'s team in Rainy Pass this morning. (Video by Sebastian Schnuelle)
Monday, 9:30 a.m. update -- Ray Redington Jr., who was the first musher to leave the start line, was the first musher to reach Rainy Pass on Monday morning.
He arrived at 9:02 a.m., just ahead of defending Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff (9:05 a.m.).
According to Iditarod veteran and former Yukon Quest champion Sebastian Schnuelle, who's following the race on snowmachine, dogs on both teams looked strong.
Lance Mackey is among those who should reach Rainy Pass shortly, but others are spending time in Finger Lake before taking on the roller-coaster ride between the two checkpoints. The 30-mile run from Finger Lake to Rainy Pass includes the Happy River Steps, the steep switchbacks that can dash hopes and damage mushers.
"The people who are stopping (at Finger Lake) probably stopped before Skwentna," 2004 champion Mitch Seavey told Iditarod Insider after he reached Finger Lake just before dawn. "The ones that stopped at Skwentna figure they can go on to Rainy Pass. So it's all about how much you want to take off the dog team the first day."
Aaron Burmeister told Iditarod Insider that he'll rest and feed his team before leaving Finger Lake. That will put his team on the trail during the warmer part of the day, something other mushers avoided by not taking a break at Finger Lake.
"I think some teams made the decision to go to Rainy Pass because they want to get there before the heat of the day," he said. "I like leaving here with a full belly, because it is a windy, roller-coaster ride all the way to Rainy Pass."
Monday, 8 a.m. update -- Lance Mackey was the first to leave Finger Lake on Monday morning, spending 14 minutes at the checkpoint to give his dogs a snack before they began the 30-mile run to Rainy Pass.
Mackey, who was the fifth musher to reach Finger Lake, left first at 6:15 a.m.
Other than Nicolas Petit, who said he might stay awhile at the checkpoint, most of the first wave of mushers to reach the Finger Lake told volunteers they planned to push through or stop only briefly, according to Iditarod Insider videos.
Monday, 7:30 a.m. update -- Traffic is picking up in Finger Lake, which had at least eight mushers check in before dawn Monday.
Almost an hour after leader Nicolas Petit showed up, Ray Redington Jr. arrived. He checked in and checked out at 5:41 a.m.
Redington was the first of five mushers who reached the checkpoint within a 25-minute span.
Hugh Neff, winner of last month's Yukon Quest, got there at 5:44 a.m. and was followed by defending champion John Baker (5:59 a.m.), four-time champion Lance Mackey (6:01) and last month's Paul Johnson 450 winner Pete Kaiser (6:06).
Jim Lanier and Aliy Zirkle had also arrived by 7 a.m., but their arrival times aren't posted yet.
Petit told checkpoint workers that the trail so far is great. "Better than last year," he said in a video posted by Iditarod Insider. A checkpoint worker told Petit the hard-packed conditions are expected to hold up at least through Rohn, two checkpoints and 65 miles away.
Finger Lake is 153 miles from the ceremonial start line in Anchorage. Mushers face another 851 miles before they reach Nome.
Monday, 5:45 a.m. update -- Nicolas Petit, last year's rookie of the year, led the way into Finger Lake early Monday morning.
The Girdwood musher reached the checkpoint at 4:55 a.m.
He passed Brent Sass of Fairbanks on his run from Skwentna. Sass left that checkpoint at 10:55 p.m. Sunday, 35 minutes ahead of Petit, who left at 11:30.
Tom Thurston was third to leave Skwentna (11:56 p.m. Sunday), followed by Ray Redington Jr., (12:53 a.m. Monday) and defending champion John Baker (12:58 a.m.).
More details to come.