For Kelly Sutherland, nearly all of the benchmarks have fallen to the wayside. Everyone in the chuckwagon community knew this was going to be his last rip at the Calgary Stampede. Then, all of a sudden, the GMC Rangeland Derby was here. Now, having buzzed by, most of the racing is complete. Here already is Sutherland’s final weekend. Sunday is his final day, his final heat. Then? That is it. Forty-five appearances will have come and gone.
“Kelly’s always been a guy I’ve looked up to,” says Roger Moore. “I watched him when I started outriding. I used to watch guys like him and Buddy (Bensmiller) and Herman (Flad) and Dave Lewis, Dallas (Dorchester). All the guys that I respected lots. I basically learned how to drive by watching them.”
Through half a century on the trail, Sutherland collected 12 Stampede titles – the first at age 22, the most recent at 59. Sunday evening, he’ll roll out his wagon and his team of horses, eagle feather tucked snugly into his hat band, and wait for the horn. For his swansong in Calgary.
“I think the sport will turn a page,” Sutherland, 65, was saying in the lead-up to the event, “and there’ll be other guys that take advantage of that situation. It’s going to be a great time for me at the Stampede … a lot of reflection. It’s going to be different this year, but I’m going to try to keep focused enough to win.”
Brave talk – note, this had been days before the racing started. Turns out he placed ninth – the aggregate’s crying hole – meaning no semifinals, no crack at a 13th crown. No matter where he’d placed, though, this is the end. So now, right now, what will The King be feeling?
“It’s hard for me to talk about,” says Jason Glass, his voice cracking. “I get a lump in my throat even thinking about being in Kelly’s shoes. He’s put his whole life into the horses and wagon races.” Moore, asked to describe the possible range of Sutherland’s emotions, is stumped.
“I have no idea, to be honest with you,” says the 51-year-old. “I guess I’ll find out shortly because I’m basically at the end, too, eh?” Because, if nothing else, pending retirements make a man consider his own career arc.
“I think about (my last race) all the time,” says Glass, 46. “I don’t plan on retiring until my mind or my body tells me to. The day that I don’t go to bed and want to get up early and come see the horses, that’s the time to start thinking about walking away.
Stepping away, however, is never an easy call. Asked about life after chuckwagons, Rick Fraser turns philosophical.
“Whenever you start whatever you’re doing in life, you’re one day closer to retirement,” says the 57-year-old, shrugging. “Right now it’s year to year.” Even if no one’s end date is engraved in stone – except for those turning 65 years old – drivers have no trouble pinpointing what they’d miss most.
“Getting up in the morning. Coming to the barn. Looking at the horses. Having a coffee. Thinking about what you’re going to do that day. Getting everything ready. Training properly,” said Glass, minutes after pressure-washing that famous checkerboard wagon of his. “And obviously when you pull into them barrels and you’re waiting for that horn, there’s nothing like it that I’ve ever experienced. I imagine it’s like a hockey player lining up for a faceoff in the Stanley Cup final.”
Moore is already mulling post-chuckwagon alternatives. Training race horses. Maybe getting back into cattle. Understandably, it’s a touchy topic.
“This has been a good life for me,” says Moore, who started outriding nearly 40 years ago. “I’ve raised my family here. I don’t know if you could ask for a better place to raise kids. You can go to bed at night knowing that everyone on the grounds, everyone in the chuckwagon family, is watching out for your kids. It’s always been that way.” What is the best part? Moore smiles.
“Just to get up in the morning and listen to the horses eating,” he replies. “I don’t know if you can beat it. I don’t know if there’s a better sound in the world. Just to know that everything is happy and healthy and taken care of. You’ve done your job.”