Changes to the track and placement of the barrels are making this year's Stampede safer for chuckwagon horses, says one driver still in the hunt for the event's $1.15-million purse.

"Stampede has always been the leader when it comes to our sport of chuckwagon racing, it's the biggest show for us," Mark Sutherland told The Homestretch Tuesday.

"They recognize they have a responsibility to take the lead in changes, so they've made some changes to the barrel pattern."

The change to the barrel pattern — the third Sutherland has seen in his career as a chuckwagon driver — gives the horses and drivers more room to maneuver.

"They gave us a little bit of space between the top barrels that we didn't have last year," said Sutherland.

"On one side it's about a foot and a half, on the other side it's a foot. To me, the best way to explain it is, you're probably not going to use that space but it's like the side lane on Deerfoot — it's there if you need it."

Solid footing

Wet weather is nothing new during the 10 days of Stampede, but it actually doesn't affect the track as much as people might think.

"The nice thing about the Stampede track is the base is solid," said Sutherland.

"So although it turns a little bit sloppy on top, the base is there. That gives you footing. It gives the horses footing."

Sunday night's heats saw a spectacular crash when Rick Fraser's wagon caught a rut and flipped, sending the driver crashing to the mud and his team running loose.

Outriders were able to get the horses under control quickly.

"I watched it on the CBC broadcast because I was getting ready for my race," said Sutherland.

"I knew Rick was okay because we get that message right away. I knew his horses were okay because they were talking about it on the radio programs broadcasting it. Those things are a relief to us. I haven't seen something like that happen for over 20 years."

Mark Sutherland

Chuckwagon driver Mark Sutherland, right, chats with Homestretch host Doug Dirks at the Calgary Stampede. (Kristen Rehn Adema)

The crash was the result of an odd confluence of events, said Sutherland.

"To me it was a bit of a perfect storm for Rick's wagon to go up," he said.

"The barrel caught. Had the barrel gone to the left a foot or to the right a foot, it wouldn't have caught that way.

"It's one of the unfortunate parts about our sport, when there are incidents, they do look spectacular like that. The wagon goes in the air, and a guy falls on the ground, and the horses look like they're running out of control … but there's a bunch of outriders that are hazing them and controlling them. That's why there were no injuries," Sutherland explained.

"It sounds silly but it wasn't nearly as catastrophic as it looked."

Family affair

Racing is a family affair for the Sutherland clan. Mark's dad, Kelly Sutherland, is a 12-time champion of the Stampede, while Mark's cousin Mitch Sutherland also races along with uncle Kirk.

Mark's son, Dayton, is also joining the ranks, serving as one of his outriders.

Chuckwagon heats happen daily at 7:45 p.m. at the Grandstand, with the finals set for Sunday.


With files from The Homestretch