'A big blow to the sport:' Chuckwagon racers surprised, confused after Calgary Stampede cut event

Albert chuckwagon drivers say the Calgary Stampede's reasons for cutting the event don't make sense, adding they are fit to compete.

They plan on racing in smaller rodeo events across the province

Four-time Rangeland Derby champion driver Kurt Bensmiller says he is confused and "disappointed" by the Stampede's decision. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

This year's Calgary Stampede is happening, just without some of its usual staple of events like the Rangeland Derby — meaning no chuckwagon races, to the surprise and bewilderment of those counting on competing this year.

But weeks later the Strathmore Stampede will go ahead, chucks and all.

On Thursday, in what Calgary Stampede officials said was a "difficult decision," they announced the cancellation of the Stampede's biggest rodeo event.

""The pandemic has had a very serious impact on the sport, they haven't been able to race … like any other professional sport, it wouldn't be appropriate to go from spring training to a high-stakes championship," Stampede spokesperson Kristina Barnes told CBC News on Thursday.

Chuckwagon events in Grande Prairie, Saskatoon, Medicine Hat and Bonnyville have been cancelled already this year due to pandemic health restrictions.

This is our livelihood, says chuckwagon driver

That news has would-be competitors like four-time Rangeland Derby champion Kurt Bensmiller confused and "disappointed."

"They're really crippling a lot of drivers. I mean, this is our livelihood," he said Friday on The Homestretch.

He says the Calgary Stampede's reasons for cancelling the event in the name of horse and driver safety don't make sense to him.

"I'm trained the exact same that I do every year ... we take our safety very serious," said Bensmiller.

"My horses are fit and I would challenge anyone there at the Calgary Stampede or whoever they're getting their information from to come check my horses out."

Bensmiller says the races at the Calgary Stampede are a key event in the season, both for potential income and in terms of competition.

Chuckwagon driver Mark Sutherland says the Calgary Stampede is biggest financial event of the year for drivers. (Mark Sutherland/Facebook)

Fellow chuckwagon racer Mark Sutherland is surprised by the Stampede's reasoning, saying he and his peers know how to keep their horses properly trained, despite what was implied.

"I think there's probably more reasons at work that Stampede either isn't willing to share or just isn't what they thought was relevant," Sutherland told CBC News on Friday.

He says the chuckwagon outfits are like any other small business in the province that have been "hurt drastically by the pandemic," especially given this is the second year the event hasn't happened.

"The Calgary Stampede is financially the biggest event that that we have, and that's why it's such a big blow to the sport."

The World Professional Chuckwagon Association called the news devastating for many families in the wagon racing community," in a statement Thursday.

Strathmore Stampede keeping chucks

Both Bensmiller and Sutherland are planning on taking part in other rodeo events in the province, including the Ponoka Stampede, which could take place in late June.

The Strathmore Stampede, taking place weeks after the Calgary Stampede, is going "full-steam ahead with all our events," said Ryan Schmidt, CEO of the Strathmore & District Agricultural Society.

Schmidt says it's the society's priority to keep attendees safe but that it is moving ahead "confidently." He says the Strathmore Stampede typically attracts about 40,000 attendees annually.

"We will have the World Professional Chuckwagon Association, we will have the Canadian Professional Rodeo, and we'll have our … world famous running with the bulls," said Schmidt.

"We want to give [chuckwagon drivers] a place to race."

The Calgary Stampede is scheduled for July 9-18, and the Strathmore Stampede runs July 30 to Aug. 2.

Barnes said the Calgary Stampede is "looking forward to having the chuckwagons back on our track here next year."

With files from Lucie Edwardson and The Homestretch.