High River will be be hosting two weekends of chuckwagon racing next month.
The event is called the Battle of the Foothills and was created after drivers said they were caught off guard by the Calgary Stampede’s decision to cancel its chuckwagon races this year for safety reasons.
Chuckwagon racing is in Jordie Fike’s blood. The chuckwagon driver from Blackie, Alta., has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather who raced for 35 years.
But COVID-19 put the brakes on all races last year, and in May, the Calgary Stampede announced the Rangeland Derby would not be held again this year.
“That was very hard on us,” Fike said. “You count on it and you spend a lot of money to be ready for it and when it’s cancelled, it definitely hurts.”
After the Calgary Stampede cancelled the Rangeland Derby, drivers with the World Professional Chuckwagon Association (WPCA) reached out to the High River Agricultural Society.
Now, six races will be held over two weekends in July.
The Battle of the Foothills is scheduled for July 16, 17, 18 and July 23, 24, 25.
“It’s huge. It’s a big thing for our economy,” said Tanya Froh, president of the High River Agricultural Society.
“After the Calgary Stampede cancelled the Rangeland Derby, there were a bunch of drivers who spent time and money to get horses ready to run and they had nowhere to go. So that’s a huge investment for them.”
Froh said the idea of hosting the Battle of the Foothills was a huge commitment for a small agricultural society but members are confident they can pull it off.
“An event like this in our town is a huge morale booster to see how quickly people have jumped in to support us,” she said. “They are excited and they want to come. They want to do something fun. They want to support our community.”
The Calgary Stampede said the decision to cancel this year’s Rangeland Derby was made in consultation with drivers and veterinarians.
The organization said given the lack of racing prior to the Stampede, safety requirements under their Fitness to Compete program were not met.
The WPCA said it was blindsided by the announcement.
In a statement to Global News, the WPCA said the feedback given to the Calgary Stampede was that the horses owned and trained by the WPCA drivers would be fit to safely race.
“The Calgary Stampede did not consult the WPCA to provide an opinion on whether or not the drivers’ horses would be fit to race at the Calgary Stampede,” the statement reads.
“A questionnaire was sent out to the WPCA drivers looking for information on how many training days and race days each driver’s horses would have prior to the Calgary Stampede. However, there was no further follow-up on results.”
“If the drivers believe their horses are fit to compete, I think they are fit, because who would know better than the guy who owns them — the guy who loves them day in and day out,” Froh said.
“These guys aren’t going to risk the welfare or well-being of their animals to do something that they’re not ready to do.”
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Froh said they expect to sell out all six shows which will be at full capacity at 3,000 people each night. Tickets are available on the High River Agricultural Society website.
“We are planning to put on a really big party,” she said. “With our standing area in front of the grandstand, you don’t get that close in Calgary. And, I mean you can literally get mud on you when the wagons go by.”
For competitors like Fike, the few events left this summer on the chuckwagon circuit are critical to keep the sport going.
“It’s very important. The survival of our sport depends on it. You go without something for two years in a row and it’s really hard to get it back,” Fike said.
“We have lost some guys. There’s some guys that just can’t go this year and hopefully they’re back for next year. I hope they survive. Without guys to race against, we don’t have a sport.”
In a statement to Global News on Friday, the Calgary Stampede said it is pleased to hear that chuckwagon racing is back on track in Alberta after an extended absence.
“We know how much this means to the drivers and their families to once again be able to do what they love, and wish them the best as they return to racing,” said Kristina Barnes, communications manager with the Calgary Stampede.
“We do not question the effort the drivers have put into preparing their teams to race this season, nor the fitness of their horses. However, just as the drivers know their horses, we know our event and the safety regulations that are in place as part of our stringent, industry-leading Fitness to Compete program.
“It would be irresponsible of us to change our own safety requirements, even in these unique circumstances.”
Chuckwagon races will be held in several other Alberta communities this summer, including in Strathmore.