Sit close enough to the front of the stands during the Calgary Stampede Chuckwagon Races (now GMC Rangeland Derby) and you’ll never forget the drumming of the hoof beats in your chest as four wagons pulled by four horses each race past their barrels and launch themselves down the racetrack before flying to the finish. That’s 64 hooves and tons of horseflesh pounding the dirt just yards in front you. Exhilarating! And if the races take place in heavy rain, you’re sure to get splattered by the horse hooves or the spinning wagon wheels.
We saw the Opening Day chuckwagon race, and then the finals on TV. Both were gripping events. Every night, the Rangeland Derby features nine heats, with 36 drivers supported by their 72 outriders, competing for $1.15 million in top prize money. This is serious business, and great fun to watch. Dangerous, too.
On opening day, during the first race, one of the wagons tipped right in front of us. I was certain we were going to see carnage and death, but as fate would have it, the driver and wagon were dumped into an empty lane, its driver and wagon having pulled ahead mere seconds before. The driver was lofted off the wagon, and the horses pulled to a stop once the wagon flipped. The driver hit the dirt, rolled into a ball, and waited for whatever was to come. Then, untouched, he rolled out of his crouch, doffed his hat to the crowd, and ran off to check on his horses. Wow.
“We ride, never worry ’bout the fall. Guess that’s just the cowboy in us all.”
Chuckwagon racing is a team event, led by a driver who commands a team of four horses pulling the chuckwagon, supported by two outriders, each racing individual thoroughbred horses that follow the chuckwagon.
Each race typically involves four teams lined up in Lanes 1-4. Each team must remain in its lane until they are on the racetrack. The heat begins with a bell signaling the outriders to “break camp” by tossing barrels representing a camp stove and vittles into the back of their wagon before mounting their horses and following the wagons as they complete a figure-eight around two barrels before launching onto the racetrack to race to the back side of the fairgrounds, only to be heard again once they approach the final turn and the finish line in front of the stands.
The first wagon to cross the finish line typically wins, although various time penalties are handed out for infractions such as a barrel being knocked over, a camp barrel not loaded, wagon interference, or an outrider crossing the finish line too far behind his wagon driver.
The final event of 2016 was held during the evening of a daylong deluge, so the track was a sea of mud. Rather than the dirt tossed by striving hooves on Opening Day, you had streams of mud and clods being thrown into the faces of the horses and riders at the back of the pack. Wagons skidded around the corners and it took tremendous skill by the drivers to keep their wagons upright and in their own lanes. The drivers were whipping off their glasses and goggles because they were coated with mud and blinding them. I don’t know how the horses saw a thing. But there were no bumps and no accidents, and the races were, to put it simply, thrilling stuff.
Without a doubt, it is a dangerous event. Anytime you get sixteen enormous steeds and four chuckwagons turning figure-eights in a small space and then racing around a track, mixing in eight outriders and their thoroughbreds, you can expect some injuries along the way. There have been deaths in the past, particularly to horses, but the officials at the Stampede Rangeland Derby insist that every precaution is taken to ensure the safety of all contestants.
From a spectator’s point of view, I was simply in awe that anyone would willingly risk life and limb to participate. Will I go again this year? You bet! Courage and horses are two of my favorite things.
“Cowboy is a breed tougher than nails and strong as steel.”