It's one of those things on this earth that's hard to grasp in its full capacity without seeing it in reality ... and truth be told, the closer someone is to the track, the more frightening the event is. I went around looking for some video; there's plenty of it from nowadays, with high resolution and proper camera work, but the race has been changed quite a bit from what it was when I would see it live. I wanted some video from the past, when there were more outriders, when the barrel that sat in the wagon was loose and could bounce onto the track, when safety regulations amounted to, "Don't be stupid." That was the race I first watched when I was four or five.
Here is a Canadian National Film Board documentary from the year of my birth, 1964. I apologize for the schlocky bad writing ... but if you'll jump forward to 04:30 in the video, it will help give a sense of the mayhem.
Feel free to compare that with races from Friday, July 6th. You can see clearly the riders are sitting on a bench, there's no belt holding them on the wagon, there's no stirrup for their feet and they stand up occasionally while riding. There are a lot of horses out there moving at the same time (there were more when I was a kid) and deaths were common. Horses still die; a horse that suffered an injury Wednesday night was put down. Every year now, the race fights a steady battle not to be put down itself.
There are a lot of stories that make their way around about how the chuck wagon races got started ... but the most consistent is also my favorite. The story goes that in 1919, during the Rodeo and Stampede (which began in Calgary in 1912), there were two cooks who served barbecue in front of their chuck wagons, the early 20th century version of food trucks. At the end of the day, the two cooks would race: first to get their equipment into their wagons, and then to get their wagons across the fairground, where they could stable their horses and store their goods. The loser paid for the drinks that night.
As the two competed over the 10 day course of the Show, bystanders started to take notice and the cooks began to attract a crowd. Eventually they attracted the attention of "Wildhorse" Jack Morton, who brought it up to Guy Weadick, the creator of the Stampede. Chuck wagon racing became an official event of the Stampede in 1923.
As can be seen on the 1964 film, there used to be a big cage that hung out the back of the chuck wagon. At the start of the race, a small barrel was thrown into it; it was called a "stove," and represented the cook's gear that had to be stored in the wagons before the real race began. During a race, the stove was free to jump around ... and would occasionally bounce onto the track, amid the feet of all those horses.
As the race started, the stove had to be loaded before the wagon completed the top barrel turn (talking about the big barrels on the ground); you can see from the video that the wagons all make a proper figure 8 pattern before running onto the track. Not getting the stove loaded was a time penalty. Not having the stove in the wagon was a severe time penalty, not to mention a terrific danger to horses and riders.
That danger was stopped with that big rack was gotten rid of. For a time the stove sat in a cage on the back of the wagon (couldn't find an image), so that if it "feel," it dropped to the bottom of the cage and did not actually fall on the ground. Looking at the newest videos, I can't see a stove at all, though the rules still indicate that there is one. That particular danger, however, has been legislated out of the race.
Chuck wagon racing was once very dangerous. Rod Glass, who was a member of the Glass family of racers, going back generations all the way to the beginning, was killed as an outrider in 1971; I seem to remember being there, but I was seven and maybe I just heard tell of it. George Normand was killed in 1994 while chuck wagon racing at the Ponoka Rodeo (Ponoka is a tiny town in central Alberta). According to Wikipedia, there have been five human deaths related directly to the Calgary Stampede; the link on Wikipedia, from the CBC, July 4, 2005, is broken. The last was 1999.
Has the sport been ruined. Probably, yes. It's not what it was. Still, watching any horseflesh flying at breakneck speed has always been enough to grip my attention. Horses are beautiful animals, particularly when they run.
But as a dark little cloud who wants to ruin things for everyone, this is how it had to be. Like the embedded video says, the horses of 1923 were not the thoroughbreds of 1964. The original concept for the race was already gone after the first forty years; the race was growing more competitive, more expensive and faster ... and the potential for a some truly horrific accident was inevitable. So steps were taken, year by year, to keep adrenaline junkies from offing themselves in large numbers in front of an audience that included children, for everyone's own good.
There's only chuck wagon racing now because the money behind it is in the hands of old ranchers and owners who, like me, remember the glory days of the 1960s and don't want to let go of it, no matter how many horses die. But those voices will be removed from the equation actuarially. And the race will quietly, mercifully, disappear.
This, then, Dear Readers, is how to write a blog post about something that we did not create ourselves. Write what you know. Give enough information to explain it to people who know nothing about it. Show film and then comment on that film. Provide background. Discuss the key issues. At the end, give your own opinion about what you think matters, and back that opinion up with your personal morality. Take your time and write everything you can think to write, that might matter to someone reading this. Get people interested enough that they will go and investigate some things on their own. ADD something to the discussion.
Don't phone it in.