For the first time in over 100 years the Calgary Stampede was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its cancellation follows announcements of other major stampedes including the Ponoka Stampede.
While many mourn the loss of Stampede events and the economic hit that Alberta feels with their cancellation, the competitors are feeling the loss of their season acutely.
Troy Dorchester 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 says.
“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 regular stampede 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—a $1000 fee each time. Dorchester is already bracing for fall feed bill that comes in October. He says that his horses feed has been double what they used to pay for the last few years, and 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,” Dorchester says.
Dorchester worries about the future of stampedes, including the 2021 season.
“It’s still scary. I think about it just about everyday,” he says.
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 says. He predicts that the financial burden of the pandemic will also cause competitors to retire early from the stampede circuit, regardless of their event. “I think that you’ll see it’ll effect 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 knows that it’s not just him missing the thrill of the race. His horses are anxious to run and compete.
“Everyday, at night when its dark, you can hear them, they come rumbling,” Dorchester says, “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 says his horses’ frustration about not training like normal matches his own.
Dorchester says he has a truck with a water tank on it that he uses for training some of his chuckwagon racing horses. He says that 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?”
Dorchester says that 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, foot, 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 4, 5, 6 years old, and I retire them at 16,” Dorchester says. “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.”
Dorchester says that if the chuckwagon circuit was to be shut down there would be up to 1000 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. I think I’ve got too much gypsy in me or something,” he joked. 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 says.
Dorchester says he 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 is brighter days in 2021. I can’t wait to see 2020 in my rearview mirror.”