Photo: Cole Grey, Compass Studios
By Christoper Walsh, reporter
Mark Sutherland is rounding the third turn in the half mile of hell at the Rangeland Derby at the Calgary Stampede when he realizes tonight is not his night.
The horses aren’t feeling it. They had started out strong but, setting Sutherland in a close second off the horn, but he wasn’t able to ride the rail and take the lead. Now in the stretch, they just don’t have it.
“They felt good. They started hard,” he says. “I thought I had enough horse power to stay there. Turns out I didn’t. I just didn’t have it tonight.”
Or last night either, for that matter. That’s when the man a few insiders had picked as a favourite and outside chance at winning the chuckwagon competition had been essentially eliminated by a penalty caused by one of his outriders. Although he was a friend, Sutherland was forced to fire him and hire a new outrider for tonight’s competition.
“He’s a friend of mine, but he made a mental error that cost me a lot,” Sutherland says at the barns before the race.
The atmosphere back there behind the track is like a carnival lot. Attractive young women with short cut-offs and tight shirts are parading down the fairway, fat men with goatees are trolling around in golf carts acting like they’re in charge of something and there are all these hospitality tents smoking out as corporate executives barbecue burgers and sip on suds while wining and dining friends, family and the occasional well-connected drunkard.
For all of the excitement and distraction, Sutherland has just come back from the women’s shelter where he volunteered for a few hours. The day before, he was signing posters at the children’s hospital. He’s spent the day focused on tonight’s race and dealing with a few necessities. He’s sent horses back to the acreage in Okotoks earlier and brought a few others up to replace them. Then, after a physio session, he went out for a lunch at a local sushi restaurant.
“Well, I’m not your typical [chuck driver], I suppose. I eat steak, too, don’t worry,” he says with a slight laugh. “I can tell you all the best steak places in Calgary and across the world and I can tell you the best sushi joints everywhere I’ve been.”
When not riding, Sutherland shares his cuisine critiques on Yelp. But tonight, the focus is on the race, a career he started 18 years ago, but actually goes back a lot further.
As a kid, Sutherland dreamed of playing in the NHL but by his teens had traded that dream and started to think of getting into the family business. Sutherland’s father is the prolific Kelly Sutherland, winner of the Calgary Stampede 11 times and counting. Although it might be difficult to follow in those footsteps, the younger Sutherland says he never felt any pressure.
“I’ve always felt pressure is typically self-imposed. It’s how you deal with stress, it’s your own making,” he says.
“It would be unrealistic to think anyone was going to be as good as him. So I had no misconceptions that I was. In reality, if I won half as much as him, I’d be the second-winningest wagon driver by a mile.”
Sutherland started as an outrider at the age of 15 and quickly fell in love with the sport he had grown up around.
“Outriding and wagon racing was what I was gonna do,” he says. “It was inevitable that I was going to try it.”
By 22, he was driving his own chuckwagon and has been competing ever since. After winning last year’s WPCA Dodge Pro Tour Championship, the spotlight has been on the younger Sutherland.
“It isn’t quite as easy as it looks,” he says. “Even the guys who aren’t very successful at the sport are still very good, they just aren’t as good as the really good guys.”
It’s a gruelling and dangerous sport, he adds, recalling a time when he was run over and broke four ribs and another where he was tipped out of the wagon and dragged underneath. And wherever a driver is injured is usually the spot he’ll feel the sport in for a while.
Until the start of the race, anyway. That’s when the adrenalin starts pumping.
“When that horn goes, it’s like a rollercoaster. It’s zero to 60 in nothing,” he says. “I love it. I love the horses. I love the idea. I love when I get to cross the finish line first. The sense of pride, it’s almost like watching your kids do something. You’ve taught the horses and you’ve helped them.”
Sutherland spends the fall at the end of the season, building his team which means travelling around looking at horses in places like Seattle, Vancouver California and Arizona. The horses chuckwagon drivers use are all former race horses. Sutherland usually looks at bloodlines and body structure, but sometimes he just a hunch that a horse will be suited to the chucks.
“We can watch ‘em run, but it’s like taking an athlete from one sport and transferring him into another. You don’t know how good he’ll be. It’s really a gamble,” he says.
Then it comes down to training and coaching to make sure the horses are comfortable with the sport. Sutherland says that can pay off and is a huge source of pride.
“When you have those horses that you found and spent a couple years showing them your sport and they decided they loved it and became good at it and you turn the barrels and you run out in front of everybody and you cross the finish line first at the Calgary Stampede with four that you’ve trained,” he says, “the feeling is a mixture of so proud you can barely bare it, so happy that you’ve made the right decisions and just so excited to do it again tomorrow.”
The worst feeling a chuckwagon driver can experience is losing a horse. He has lost a lot over the years and says it’s always hard.
“Those are never, ever happy days,” Sutherland says. “I don’t think people realize … it’s tough.”
The league and the Stampede have made improvements over the years to make the sport safer for horses and humans, Sutherland says, by instituting stiff fines for human errors that cuase accidents.
“Those things we can try to eliminate. And those ones are probably the easiest,” he says. “When injuries happen to horses that are [caused by] decisions by humans, the competitor needs to be strictly dealt with.”
But sometimes, he regrets, horses can make a bad step and go down or suffer heart attacks. That’s the nature of the sport, he adds.
“It’s not that we need to accept those things, we need to do everything we can to ensure that if those things happen, the animal is treated with dignity; his memory is treated with dignity.”
Taking care of horses is important to Sutherland and the other drivers. Sutherland has a horse at home at his ranch in Okotoks that broke his leg in a race back in 2006. After $20,000 worth of surgery and rehab the animal is still limping around.
“He’s a pretty expensive lawnmower but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says.
Another horse that suffered a heart attack was shipped by Sutherland and his father to Grand Prairie to be buried next to his best friend.
“That’s the type of respect these athletes deserve,” he says. “That’s what we need to do when injuries like that happen.”
Back at the race Thursday night, Sutherland is circling the track, realizing he doesn’t have what it takes tonight. As he eases up on the reins with his cut hands, he thinks about the night before and the penalty that has taken him out of contention at this year’s Stampede.
“There’s a lot more bad days than there are good days,” he says. “There’s only ever one winner and 35 losers.”
And he says this year’s Stampede hurts. Getting over it will not be easy.
“I haven’t yet. It’s tough. But ya know what? Spending time at the children’s hospital, spending time at the women’s shelter, ya know, I just had a bad day. Some of those kids have a bad life. It helps put it in perspective,” he says. “It’s still difficult, I won’t lie. I’m not that big of a man that I can just brush it off and say there are people worse than me. I am selfish in that sense. It’s disappointing. You put a lot of time in and your crew, your family, everybody sacrifices. So, sometimes it takes a long time to get over it.”
For now, he’s looking forward to Edmonton next week, getting back on the wagon and winning. It’ll help, but the sting will still be there.
“It’s a long season, but there’s only one Calgary Stampede,” he says.