Time to change, not scrap, the chuckwagon races

There’s a part of me that cringes each year when it comes time for the Calgary Stampede.

I’m not a big rodeo guy, but I love watching the daily Stampede broadcast on television, because they cut the time between events and the time between entries.

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I’ve been to the Stampede. It’s a fun week in one of the most exciting cities in the country.

Then you have the Rangeland Derby chuckwagon races, which are exciting but becoming increasingly dangerous for the horses.

This year six horses died during the races. Each of those deaths were unfortunate. In the case of one accident, it was due to a mistake by the driver of another chuckwagon.

With each one of these fatalities, the calls were renewed for the rangeland derby to be scrapped. The criticism of the event reached its peak after three horses died the final day.

But do you know who isn’t calling for the derby to be scrapped? Horse people.

Go to any track in North America. Talk to the owners or the trainers, or even the astute handicappers. They’ll explain to you the value of the chuckwagon races. It gives these horses a new lease on life. In some cases, it extends their lives.

The best thoroughbred that my family has boarded or owned is a horse named Toccet’s Charm, or Ricky as we called him. He just retired earlier this year, at the age of 12 (the horse racing equivalent of a senior citizen), after winning 23 races and nearly $300,000. His final win was last year in what was his 100th race. (A rare milestone for thoroughbreds).

He was a boarder, so my parents didn’t get a cut of the winnings, but the wins ensured he’d keep racing, which meant he’d stay at our place, which was great, because he’s a great horse off the track, too.

Anyways, a couple years ago he was claimed by a family that is well known in chuckwagon racing circles. I was concerned because of the risks associated with chuckwagon races, but pleased that if he did shift to the chucks, he’d get to keep racing. Ultimately, Ricky was a distance runner, rather than a sprinter, so chuckwagon racing wasn’t his thing.

In case you’re wondering, Ricky now resides on a farm in California, enjoying the retirement he deserves.

Not every thoroughbred gets a new lease on life outside of racing. There are organizations like New Stride that do a great job of finding a life after racing for thoroughbreds. Other thoroughbreds go into barrel racing or equestrian.

And some of them gallop around a field all day and enjoy a relaxed retirement.

They don’t all get to race until they’re 12, have over 100 starts and win 23 races and nearly $300,000.

That’s why it’s good to have options like chuckwagon racing out there for thoroughbreds who still have something to give. They’re born to race. They love to race. Let them race.

The Stampede is not the only venue in the world that still has chuckwagon races. When I moved here, they happened a couple of times a year at Woodlawn Regional Park, down by Mets Field. There were chuckwagon races earlier this month in Weyburn as part of that town’s fair.

Yet it seems like the Stampede is the only one that draws the ire of critics.

Is it because of the national media spotlight that shines on the Stampede each year? Or is it because the rate of incidents is much higher at the Stampede?

Should the Stampede rethink the way it does chuckwagon races? Maybe it’s time to do a comprehensive breakdown of how all of these incidents have happened, and find out the actual causes.

Human error and over-aggressiveness would no doubt be the cause of a lot of these incidents. But horse fatigue might be a leading problem.

Perhaps it’s time for the Stampede to declare that a horse can only run once or twice for the duration of the Rangeland Derby. And perhaps it’s time to limit the number of times a team or a rider can enter.

Do we really need to have the same 36 riders entering each night?

The riders and the owners in chuckwagon racing take excellent care of their animals. They share the same bond as you find with horses and riders. And so it breaks the heart of the rider when one of their horses has to be put down, just like it’s a horrible feeling for the owner of a horse in other equine sports when their horse dies or is seriously injured.

People in thoroughbred racing realized a long time ago that they don’t need to race their horses constantly. It’s rare to see them run more than once every couple of weeks.

And while there’s a world of difference between the horse racing that occurs in thoroughbred (or even standardbred racing) versus the chucks, fatigue for horses leaves them susceptible to injury, just like with humans.

It’s time for the organizers of the chuckwagon races at the Stampede to take a long, hard look at how they do things.

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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