For the first time in over 100 years the Calgary Stampede was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its cancellation came with announcements of other major events including the Ponoka Stampede.
While many mourn the loss of those events and the economic hit that Alberta feels with their cancellation, the competitors are feeling the loss of their season acutely.
Troy Dorchester from Westerose, about 45 kilometres west of Wetaskiwin, has been involved in the chuckwagon circuit his whole life.
He has dedicated 34 years to the wagon circuit and has driven thoroughbred wagons for the past 27 years. This would have been his 28th year of competing.
In 2012, Dorchester became the first and only chuckwagon driver to have won chuckwagon racing’s “Triple Crown.” He earned this by winning the Calgary Stampede Rangeland Derby, the Calgary Stampede Aggregate Title and the Ponoka Stampede in a single year.
Dorchester says following the declaration of the pandemic in March, he was anxiously awaiting word on what would happen to the 2020 stampede season.
“You’re sick to your stomach and you’re wondering how the hell are we going to do this,” Dorchester said.
“You’ve worked your whole life and you think well we’re in pretty good shape and even half a season we can make ends meet, but then when that final nail in the coffin is in and goes and there’s nothing; you know, a guy goes in shock for probably a month.”
In a normal season, Dorchester makes an average of $175,000 to $200,000 racing. Dorchester explains that this money doesn’t just go towards providing for his family, but also towards taking care of his 30-head of horses year-round.
Despite not competing this spring and summer, the thoroughbreds still have their hooves trimmed every seven weeks — at $1,000 each time. Dorchester is already bracing for the fall feed bill that comes in October. He says feed has been costing double what they used to pay the last few years. The winter supply of feed costs Dorchester $20,000 to $25,000 annually.
“You know lots of people say, ‘oh yah, you got to get a real job’ and all that. Get a different job. Well that’s great, but I still have 30-head of horses here to make sure I got to feed,” he said.
Dorchester worries about the future, including the 2021 season.
“It’s still scary. I think about it just about every day,” he said.
He worries that the 2021 season may be in danger if the novel coronavirus is still circulating in December and January. Dorchester also believes that the circuit won’t look the same when competition resumes.
“The sponsorship is the scary part. There are so many sponsors that have been affected because of this shutdown of the economy,” he said.
He predicts that the financial burden of the pandemic will also cause competitors to retire early from the chuckwagon circuit, regardless of their event.
“I think that you’ll see it’ll affect a lot of guys bad enough that they might close the door and say enough is enough—I just can’t do it anymore,” Dorchester added.
Dorchester knows that it’s not just him missing the thrill of the race. His horses are anxious to run and compete.
“Every day, at night when it’s dark, you can hear them, they come rumbling,” he said.
“They’ll wake me up; I can hear them going by if the window is open. They’re athletes. That’s what they’ve always done is run.”
He added his horses’ frustration about not training like normal matches his own.
Dorchester stated he has a truck with a water tank on it that he uses for training some of his chuckwagon racing horses.
They get excited when they hear him start it and all run in from the pasture.
“They’re like, ‘Are we going? Are we going?’ It’s funny because they’re all looking at you like ‘Why aren’t you snapping me into a halter and shank and taking us for a run,’ you know?”
In addition to the financial burden of a cancelled season, it is difficult to see people or organizations, such as animal activist organization PETA, celebrating the lack of chuckwagon races this year.
He explains that people don’t realize how much love and dedication is given to the horses, from their feed, teeth, hoof and exercise regimens. Dorchester’s horses are even fed dinner before himself and his family can sit down for their own.
“That’s what frustrates a guy. You work hard, you love your horses, you cry when you do have one that you lose … We all cry, all the kids, the wife, because we spend years — we get them at four, five, six years old, and I retire them at 16,” he said.
“You always try to find them good homes when they are done with us because they are healthy and sound, they’re just starting to slow down.”
If the chuckwagon circuit was to be shut down, he stated there would be up to 1,000 head of horses with no where to go.
The uncertainty that this pandemic brings still makes Dorchester uneasy, but he is trying to make the best of a bad situation.
“It has just been one of those summers that you’ve wondered what it would be like to sit at home all summer and it’s not for me,” he said.
However, his family did get to do more things that they haven’t in summers past, such as getting together with close family and friends to kayak as a group together.
“The one thing is if things come around, it kind of rejuvenated us and realized how lucky we are to be able to do what we have for as long as we have, and hopefully it comes back and we can enjoy another 10 or something like that.”
Dorchester can only hope that by spring his team can hit the chuckwagon track again and put the ghost season of 2020 behind him.
“We’re just going to try to get through, and hopefully there are brighter days in 2021. I can’t wait to see 2020 in my rearview mirror,” he added.