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Stampede Stars: The Cowboy

Meet Kelly Sutherland, the king of chuckwagon racing

By Derek Neumeier

Chuckwagon driver Kelly Sutherland has been racing at the Calgary Stampede since 1969.

It’s hard to imagine an individual with more history at the Calgary Stampede than chuckwagon racer Kelly Sutherland.

A native of Grande Prairie, Alberta, Sutherland raced in his first Stampede over 40 years ago. Since then he’s competed in the Calgary Stampede’s Rangeland Derby 37 times—breaking records ten of those years—and is a ten-time World Professional Chuckwagon Association champion. It’s safe to say Sutherland is one of the sport’s most renowned personalities, and has earned his nickname “King Kelly.”

And now, at 58 years old, Sutherland finished fourth at last year’s Stampede and is considered to be a favourite once again this year.

Sutherland was born and raised on a farm and grew up around horses, racing them competitively by the age of nine. When he turned 16 he upgraded to the chucks, and the rest is history.

Chuckwagon racing involves a team of four horses pulling a driver and his chuckwagon. The race starts with a figure-eight around two barrels, then a wild dash towards the finish line.

Not only has Sutherland watched the sport of chuckwagon racing grow over the years, he’s also watched some of its top competitors grow. One of these racers is his son, Mark, who is now also one of the top drivers in the circuit.

“I’ve watched all of the young people grow up, including my son, and now I’m racing against them,” he says. “I get such a kick out of that. I can remember when they were three or four years old, running around the Stampedes that we were at.”

Kelly also credits his relationship with Mark as one of the main reasons he chooses to remain in the sport, despite his age and the fact that he’s already achieved every possible accolade.

Out of all his achievements, none come close to his first victory at the Calgary Stampede—chuckwagon racing’s biggest stage.

“The one that hits home the hardest is in 1974 when I won the Calgary Stampede,” he reminisces. “I was 22 years old, racing with individuals that were in their 50s, that were what I considered a lot better drivers than I am. I’ll always remember going on stage with my wife and looking up at 20,000 people. I couldn’t believe I’d actually won.”

When the Olympic torch came to Alberta this year, Sutherland carried it through Grande Prairie—on his chuckwagon.

Chuckwagon racing is one of the keystone events at the Stampede, and isn’t without controversy. For years animal rights groups have protested both the chucks and the rodeo, especially when animal deaths that occur. Sutherland insists that the issue is taken very seriously, and that every possible measure is taken to ensure the safety of the horses.

“Our sport is well-policed,” he says. “We have a great working relationship with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and, to me, they’re the only justified group that can make any comments. They’re local and they’re around our sport all the time. If there’s a problem, we’ll address it with them.”

In fact, Sutherland says that a life of chuckwagon racing is often the best possible outcome for a horse.

“I’m racing horses that are between the ages of 10 and 18 years old. Those horses have one other option: the killing plant. We certainly end up extending the lives of most of our horses. I think if you ask the horse, when he’s five or six years old, if he wants another ten years of life competing in my sport, I think the horse will give you a positive answer.”

For someone who’s been around horses his entire life and wagons for nearly as long, Sutherland says that it’s hard for him to predict when he’ll step outside of the sport’s limelight. He admits that he has to watch his physique more carefully than when he was younger, in order to avoid injury. But for now, he’s training himself, and his livestock, in preparation for his 38th Stampede. And before this thoroughbred gets put out to pasture, don’t be surprised if you see at least one more championship.

Where to see him: The chuckwagon races happen every night at 8 pm at the Grandstand, Tickets are $15 – $92.50, go to calgarystampede.com.

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