Foothills area chuckwagon drivers will try to weather the storm of losing their biggest payday of the year when the Calgary Stampede Rangeland Derby was cancelled.
“It didn’t come as a surprise,” said Okotoks Mark Sutherland on April 24. “It’s the right decision. But as business owners we (chuckwagon drivers) can’t open our businesses for another 365 days. And we have great expense that is going to carry forward.”
The Stampede announced on April 23 it is cancelling the 10-day Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth (July 3 - 12) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The announcement comes on the heels of the World Professional Chuckwagon Association cancelling its first four events – including the Guy Weadick races in High River in June.
However, the expenses for drivers continue.
“I’m not going to let my horses suffer,” Sutherland said, who was in the midst of deworming his horses and trimming their feet during the interview. “This is going to have great effect on the landscapes of chuckwagon racing – because quite simply there will be chuckwagon drivers who financially won’t be able to weather this storm.”
He will be taking a look at his future to see if he can keep going financially while maintaining quality care for his horses.
“I’m worried this might be the end of the road for my career,” Sutherland said. “How do you continue moving forward when there are more expenses than revenue?... Business owners have to make those decisions all over Alberta in the fall of 2020 and 2021.
“We (chuckwagon drivers) will be making the same decision… but I am not putting the ‘For Sale’ sign up, I am going day-by-day, month-by-month.
“Even successful wagon drivers – running successful businesses at it -- there is a real possibility that they will be forced to leave the sport.”
He’s concerned, but the last thing he wants is a pity party.
“There are huge costs in the sport that I have chosen to make my career in,” Sutherland said. “But this (the cancellation) was necessary. I can’t imagine the situation that so many families in High River and across Alberta and Canada are in.
“It’s terrifying. I have young grandchildren and The King (Mark’s father 12-time Calgary Stampede champion Kelly Sutherland), I hate to say it, is over 65… The fact that the sport is going to change pales in comparison to the people who have lost their lives.
“It’s a terrifying virus.”
High River area driver Jason Glass, the 2013 Rangeland Derby champion, also wasn’t surprised about the Stampede’s announcement.
“Everything was kind of leaning towards that,” Glass said. “But obviously, it is a huge shock that all of this is happening. It’s hard for me to get my head wrapped around that we aren’t going to be racing wagons this summer.”
Like Sutherland, he’s still got bills coming in to care for his world-class teams of horses.
“There is a lot of money to be spent on these horses,” Glass said. “We will see what happens next year.”
He is optimistic racing will continue in 2021. However, the economy is a factor, which impacts sponsorship money.
“It’s all pretty scary right now,” Glass said.
Meanwhile, he’s been training his horses since March in the hope the Greatest Show on Earth would go on.
“I didn’t know whether we were going to race or not,” Glass said. “Now, I don’t know. My new horses I might as well keep training them. The old boys, leave them out in the field, feed them and get ready for next year.”
Blackie’s Jordie Fike was coming off his best season, he made his first final in the WPCA Winners' Zone championship in August.
He was gearing up for a strong 2020, but that has been put on hold.
“It is disappointing,” Fike said. “We (the Fike racing team) put our neck out there a little further to get ready for this year, I guess next year now… I have added some new horses and now I have to wait until next year.
“That’s okay, we will get through this… The biggest thing is to find the money now for feed in the winter.”
Fike works off the farm during the winter and this year he’s found work to help him as his summer suddenly has more open dates on the calendar.
“That is something new for me, but that’s a challenge I am willing to accept and just try and get stronger for 2021,” said Fike, who is working for Country Co-op.
He is presently feeding 38 horses -- as well as his family.
Fike wouldn’t speculate as to what 2021 will bring.
“Right now, we’ll just take things as it comes and keep weathering the storm,” Fike said.
The WPCA has not cancelled its back end of the summer season as of yet. But more important than racing, is getting people healthy, Fike said.
“There is an outside chance the later shows might go,” Fike said. “But that all depends on the health of fans, family and friends – without fans we don’t have chuckwagon racing.
“We have to take care of everyone’s health, first and foremost.”
The Calgary Stampede has run annually since 1923.
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