A chuckwagon driver has been thrown out of the Calgary Stampede and handed an indefinite ban for the first time in the event’s history after a mid-race collision led to the death of a competitor’s horse.
The death was the third so far this year, the most since 2015 at the week-long western rodeo and fair that styles itself “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.”
Two deaths earlier in the week had already re-ignited the perennial debate about the welfare of horses and rodeo animals at an event that carries inherent risks to animals and human participants.
The Stampede has attributed Thursday night’s incident to “driver error” and has fined Chad Harden $10,000, along with a ban from future competition. The ban is permanent, but could be lifted in the coming years if the Stampede decides to let the championship-winning Albertan back into the event.
Mr. Harden was leading his wagon and four horses around the dirt track on Thursday night when he squeezed another driver to his left toward the inside of the track. That driver, Danny Ringuette, collided with Evan Salmond and his horses, who was trying to pass him beside the rail that marks the edge of the track.
One of Mr. Salmond’s horses was killed in the tangle and the other three were injured.
A horse died earlier in the Stampede from a heart attack and another broke its leg during a race. Unlike those deaths, the incident started by Mr. Harden was ruled to have been avoidable by the Stampede.
“It’s not easy to see what you saw,” Stampede chief executive Warren Connell told fans the next day during a press conference. All deaths are difficult, he said, the avoidable ones far more so.
“Unfortunately we’re talking about an incident that happened that we hoped would have never happen. This is new ground for us … the Stampede takes this very seriously, this is about our brand, this is about the safety of our performers, both animal and people,” Mr. Connell said.
Mr. Harden declined to comment.
The incident comes as there has been more attention paid to the deaths of horses, especially in thoroughbred racing. More than 30 horses died this season at the Santa Anita race track in Southern California, owned by Toronto’s Stronach family.
The Calgary Stampede has been conscious of horse deaths for years and has increased rules to make it less likely, event officials said on Friday. Protests by animal-rights groups against the Stampede are a near-annual event. However, deaths have been on the decline in recent years, with none in 2016, and only a single death recorded in both 2017 and 2018.
Stampede spokeswoman Kristina Barnes said the event now looks at the safety records of drivers, as well as their standings, before inviting them to compete. “There’s a lot of money at stake here at the Stampede and we want them to be focused on safety over winnings,” she said. "It’s very important to note that they are good drivers and that’s why they’re here.”
The possible lifetime ban for Mr. Harden, of Mulhurst Bay, south of Edmonton, comes after riders have been reminded on an annual basis to place the safety of their animals above possibly risky manoeuvres on the track, said the head of the chuckwagon safety commission.
“We don’t think that Chad deliberately meant to do this,” Mike Whittle of the commission said. “We have determined that there was driver error involved in his decision-making. I guess I’d leave it at that.”
Jim Nevada, a former chuckwagon driver who raced for more than a decade at the Stampede, said he had reviewed some of the footage of the incident, adding that he and many other drivers have been in similar situations.
“It’s like a perfect storm and things didn’t go right. When wagons stack like that and the guys are going three wide, Chad doesn’t know there’s a guy in the hole behind Ringuette. He should have turned his head and checked,” Mr. Nevada said.
“Did Chad deserve it? I think he did. But I’ve had more experienced drivers than him put me in the same predicament. But 99 per cent of time, guys catch what’s going on and they pull out of it,” he said, adding that Mr. Harden’s punishment will serve as a reminder to drivers in future races to shoulder-check more often.
He said he’s been at odds with the Stampede in the past but has been impressed by what the event has done in recent years to increase safety, including tougher rules for drivers.
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