NOW BEFORE WE GET STARTED, I know what you’re thinking: I’m about to piss all over history. I’m going to take a storied pastime from our frontier past and piss all over it. I’m going to ignore the virtues of the sport, its excitement, rich symbolism and cultural relevance and I’m going to gather all the lunchwagons rigged to thoroughbred horses and I’m going to piss all over them.
Well you’re almost right.
I’m going to do all of that.
But I won’t piss on a single horse.
What I will do is piss all over chuckwagons and the races they feature in because chuckwagon racing is the dumbest f*ck!ng sport on all of planet Earth and it all goes down at place called the Calgary Stampede.
The Stampede might better be described as a dark vaudevillian fantasy, a burlesque shit-show where neo-minstrels glorify the pre-suffrage days of Aboriginal subjugation and institutional racism culminating in an orgiastic ritual known as the Chuckwagon Race where a small and gorgeous fleet of thoroughbred horses are rigged to a lanky wagon so spectators can enjoy a re-enacted ritual of hungry cowboys returning home from lunch.[i]
The result, unfortunately, is a trail of dead horses. For Stampede enthusiasts, it’s just called culture. Say what you will about culture or The Stampede, the chuckwagon race is, again, and without doubt, the dumbest f*ck!ng sport on all of planet Earth.
Qualifying as the dumbest f*ck!ng sport on all of planet Earth is not easy. To earn that title you must first beat out other sports deemed to be f*ck!ng dumb and also located on planet Earth. For example, your sport must be f*ck!ng dumber than the great Cooper’s Hill Cheese Roll, where contestants hurl themselves down a steep and misty hillside in a tumble-die face plunder to the finish line chasing after a Double Gloucester cheese-wheel careening down a hill at speeds of up to 70mph.
Your sport must be f*ck!ing dumber than Extreme Ironing, where contestants engage in a gratuitously ironic act of…what else?…ironing…in…what else?…extreme conditions—like on a racing bike, the edge of a cliff, or a surfboard. There’s the self-explanatory and obviously injury-riddling sport of Mountain Unicycling. And then of course there’s Parkour—a race with no finish line which calls on a participant’s instinctual flight reflex and ancestral primate athleticism. It’s an awe-inspiring sight but prone to majestically epic fails or, conversely, god-like achievements in poor decision making.
And then of course there’s Ferret Legging, a fabled British endurance test involving an agitated dimorphic predator being dropped down the sealed pant leg of a contestant who must withstand the gnashing, clawing, and biting longer than their opponent. People get hurt – it’s kind of the point. Occasionally ferrets do as well. It sounds dumb. And it looks f*ck!ng dumb.
But nothing, and I mean nothing in the whole of planet earth, is f*ck!ing dumber than a chuckwagon race.
A chuckwagon is a lunch wagon, a mobile chip-truck or hamburger stand. Chuck is slang for food. A wagon is a wagon, a four-wheeled vehicle pulled by animals, in this case, horses. In its earliest incarnation, chuckwagons were used to feed cowboys, or soldiers, far from a stationary lunch stand, chip-stand, or hamburger stand. That was their function. Nothing more. Then one day the motorized car came along and ruined everything for the chuckwagon. It was relegated to an entertainment vehicle for specialty races where spectators were told to celebrate it as a symbol of a history many were never connected to. The design of the chuckwagon race is such that a driver and four[ii] outriders (single riders on individual horses) must “break camp” by tossing two tent poles and a barrel into the wagon. The outriders then mount their respective horses and follow the wagon as it performs a figure-eight around two barrels before completing a circuit around a dirt track. Why the tossing of the barrel into the wagon? The barrel is meant to represent a camp stove, stupid. The tent poles? They represent tent poles.
Given the lucrative purses, some of today’s more competitive riders stop at no end to increase the speed of their horses. It sounds like cheating, but morality is for suckers. This is, of course, horse racing, a sport where a horse with a solid insurance policy often is more valuable dead than alive with slightly weaker legs than its comrades in the stables. Horses are often fed the infamous “milkshake” before races, a potentially lethal cocktail of baking soda and sugar meant to increase the horse’s heart rate but which also increases the chances of the horse having a heart attack. When Chad Harden’s horses went down at The Stampede this year, the first horse to fall went down as a result of a ruptured aortic aneurysm, the weakening and subsequent bursting of a major blood vessel leading away from the heart which then caused massive internal bleeding and a fatal collapse.[iii]
Ferret legging, to go back to Britain for a moment, is probably no picnic for the ferret. But the chances of a ferret getting killed are slim, if non-existent and it’s this frequent and fatal danger to third parties—mostly horses—which distinguishes chuckwagon races from their less f*ck!ng dumb and unworldly counterparts aforementioned. There’s probably no sport which boasts a greater unintended animal death toll than the chuckwagon race and this includes the Afghan sport of Buzkashi, a hybrid of polo and rugby played with the carcass of a headless goat.
Chad Harden was visibly shaken at the death of his horses. “They’re just like humans, they’re our family,” he said. “It’s just devastating for our whole family. It’s hard to take.” His grief was palpable, and the footage of the fallen horses is indeed hard to take. Who wouldn’t share in his grief for the loss of these beautiful animals? But these are no family members, and no rider should make claims like these. We don’t, after all, strap our family members to wagons and whip them into a frenzy for the amusement of spectators in a week-long political drinking contest and corporate costume party. We don’t feed our family members heart-attack-inducing cocktails. Our last three family reunions didn’t involve the deaths of eleven family members, eight of whom were playing the same game.
Go ahead and say what you will about bullfighting but even with its rich and storied history its popularity is dwindling and its existence and legality frequently threatened. To its credit it’s at least a sport where the beast has a fighting chance against the man who entered him in the competition. As for Buzkashi, whose origins go back to the time of Genghis Khan…well…even the Taliban had the ethical fortitude to ban this sport on the grounds that it was immoral and cruel to animals. But on chug the chuckwagons, a vaudeville feature in the urban sprawl founded by a vaudeville actor and some cattle tycoons. At best this race is the darkest kind of simulacrum, an imitation of the unreal with very real and disastrous consequences. The only historical fact it, and to a certain extent the Stampede itself, can cling to is that it remains one of the last bastions outside of a criminal dogfight where animals are afforded the same respect as those, and other people in this country, were afforded at the time of the Stampede’s founding.
Well, that and the fact that it’s the dumbest f*ck!ng sport on all of planet Earth.
[i] The Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association relies on its own romanticized myth: the sport’s origin is found in a frontier-era race to the nearest bar after a day’s labour in order to avoid paying for the first round. Eat your heart out, History.
[ii] In a move to make the sport safer, the number of outriders at the Calgary Stampede was reduced to two.
[iii] This is not to imply that Harden gave his horse a “milkshake”—but just to illustrate the pressure put on a horse’s internal organs during a race. In Harden’s defense, it was discovered his horse which fell first, causing the accident, had an undetectable pre-existing condition, but other horses in chuckwagon races have indeed suffered heart attacks.