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Fans watch bull riding rodeo action at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Wednesday, July 11, 2012.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

A gruesome chuckwagon crash that left three horses dead and a fourth injured at the Calgary Stampede has renewed calls for the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth to do away with its highlight event featured nightly during the 10-day rodeo festival.

But those involved in the so-called "half mile of hell" defended the sport, arguing that the chuckwagon animals are well cared for, safety is constantly improved, and incidents, such as the one on Thursday night that brought down Chad Harden's team, are devastating but "extremely unusual."

According to veterinarians and drivers, most chuckwagon horses are former thoroughbred race horses whose careers on the track were over by age six, if not earlier. They are destined for the slaughterhouse, but instead end up pulling rigs competitively until they are 21.

Championship driver Kelly Sutherland, the biggest name in the sport, said it is a huge loss when animals go down. He said other equine sports, such as thoroughbred racing and show jumping, rarely draw such heated criticism even when horses die in competition. He has little patience for the chuckwagon critics.

"Most of these people have leather shoes on, I'd imagine, and probably have leather belts and leather purses," Sutherland said. "I'm a little bit skeptical. They speak with forked tongues most of them."

Harden, a former champion of the Stampede's GMC Rangeland Derby, was driving his team of four horses harnessed together during the fourth heat of the evening when the animal in the left front position suddenly collapsed along the backstretch. A postmortem showed the horse suffered a ruptured aortic aneurysm, a weak blood vessel in the heart that burst.

That fatal event brought down the rest of the team and the rig to a quick stop. That's when Dustin Gorst, one of Harden's two outriders who gallop behind the wagon during the race, slammed into the back of the chuckwagon. Harden was tossed out of his wagon seat as Gorst, the Stampede's top outrider in 2010, and his horse hit the dirt.

Neither Gorst nor Harden was seriously injured.

However, both the right lead horse and the animal Gorst was riding suffered broken femurs that were so serious, veterinarians immediately humanely euthanized the animals. One of the other horses, known as a wheeler, which was hauled down in the crash, will require surgery but is expected to survive. The other wheeler horse was uninjured.

Each of the other three crews competing in the heat steered clear of the troubled team and finished the race.

The Stampede will invoke improvements to its health screening and safety programs if needed, but officials noted that this horse's collapse could have happened at any time and was undetectable.

Harden sobbed while he spoke to reporters afterward.

"The next thing I knew, my outrider was on the ground beside me and he was apologizing," he said.

He described the animals as part of his family. The outrider's horse was 18 and to be retired after this season, to be enjoyed by his children. And the right leader horse helped him win the Stampede championship in 2009.

"It's just devastating for our whole family," Harden said. "We try our best to make sure they're all healthy."

Stampede, which is in its centennial year, played host to its first chuckwagon race in 1923 and since then, the derby has become a lucrative event, with a total purse reaching $1.15-million.

But the event has long had detractors. Since 1986, more than 50 chuckwagon horses have died during Stampede events. So has an outrider as well as a wagon driver. The Stampede has responded to criticism by reducing the number of outriders per team to two from four, calling for at least one day off in four and ordered mandatory vet checks when the horses arrive as well as before and after competition.

Promptly after the crash, the Vancouver Humane Society demanded a full suspension of the chucks and an independent safety review. Spokesman Peter Fricker said proximity of the wagons combined with speed and tight turns conspire to make the sport too risky to continue.

"There's obviously something fundamentally wrong with the race as its being conducted," he said.

In the past decade, the Calgary Humane Society has worked with the Stampede to implement 36 changes to events, but spokeswoman Christy Thompson said her group still "adamantly opposes the use of animals for entertainment."

"I do believe that there is always more to be done," she said, "And we'll be sitting at the table making sure that those changes are made."

Veteran chuckwagon driver Jerry Bremner, who co-holds the Stampede's track record, invited anyone to check out his barn to see if the animals are cared for. He said that drivers know going into each race that what happened to Harden could happen to them.

"It is just sickening to me," Bremner said, "I feel horrible. I feel horrible for our sport. I feel horrible for the horses. I feel horrible for Chad's family. But in my heart, I know that there's been hundreds of horses that have been saved and given a great quality of life."

A number of veterinarians from the University of Calgary are doing research at the Stampede, including Renaud Léguillette, who is monitoring the heart function of chuckwagon horses in hope of detecting health problems before it's too late. Harden's team was not among those wired as part of the research project, but Léguillette pointed out that accidents happen in all equine disciplines and lauded the Stampede for its efforts to improve safety.

"At least we can say that the Stampede is definitely proactive on it and is not closing their eyes," he said.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said while the deaths are an "awful tragedy," he defended the Stampede.

"There's not much one could ever do to prevent that," he said. "We need to make sure the sport is as safe as possible and I'm confident the Stampede is doing that."