Cliff Cunningham knows he’s done. He knows that this is his last show.
He knows that he’ll never race again.
But the emotion of Sunday night’s farewell, well, he’s trying not to dwell on it. He hasn’t even tried to take a stab at what the range of feelings might be.
Mixed, to be sure.
The development itself, however, is cut and dried. Cunningham is 65 years old – the maximum age for drivers in the GMC Rangeland Derby at the Calgary Stampede. And he doesn’t intend to follow the World Professional Chuckwagon Association circuit for the rest of the summer.
So Sunday, that’s it. He’s done.
“When that comes, I imagine it’ll be a little different,” Cunningham says during a quiet moment one morning in his barn. “But we’ll get through these first nine days first. For me, that’s how I look at it – I mean, you’ve got to kind of manage and figure out where you’re running your horses, what barrel you get and stuff.
“I just take it day by day.”
An understandable approach, given Cunningham’s recent challenges.
In 2016, cancer was discovered. So surgeons removed a chunk of his tongue, which was rebuilt with a piece of his left forearm, which then had a slice of his left leg grafted onto it. The scalpel didn’t stop there, taking out one of his saliva glands and hundreds of lymph nodes.
Cunningham emerged from the procedure humbled. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re tough. You’ll make it through,'” he said last year. “Believe me, I didn’t think I was tough – and I knew I wasn’t tough after going through that.”
But in 2017, given a clean bill of health and feeling better, the Devon, Alta., driver returned to the wagon seat, racing in the WPCA again. He also served as a demonstration driver at the Stampede.
Boosting Cunningham’s turnaround, according to his wife Wendy, had been the sport itself. “Everything we love is this,” she said a year ago. “This is what we do. This is what made him stronger.”
He’s due for another check-up this month. But his health, he says, is remarkably good.
“Every six months, you’re supposed to go back,” says Cunningham. “The longer you go being clean – free of cancer – the better your chances are, they tell me.”
What does linger is dramatic weight loss. He used to be 215 pounds, a stocky man, but he’s now settled in at 170.
“I feel it sometimes on that wagon … sometimes you need that weight to hang on to those horses,” he says. “I’ve been OK hanging on to the horses and stuff, but it’s probably just time to do something else.”
Nevertheless, Cunningham is looking powerful enough on the track this year, slotting 14th in the WPCA standings. And here he is, back at the Stampede – participating in the nightly heats, which he loves.
“It was good to do the demo last year, but you’re by yourself,” he says. “I mean, we’re all competitive guys. We want to race and race against somebody. So I’m just happy to be here.”
This marks his third appearance at the GMC Rangeland Derby. His best aggregate finish was 21st in 2012.
“It’s a big show,” says Cunningham. “You’re just pumped to be here. Hopefully, you compete and everything goes good for you. It’s like any sport. They have the Stanley Cup, the Grey Cup – it’s the big show and that’s what the Calgary Stampede is to us wagon drivers.
“I’d run ponies for a lot of years. But when I got into the big wagons, my goal was to make Calgary.”
And, fittingly, this is where his career ends.
He’s selling out this weekend. Everything. Horses. Wagon. Liner. “Pretty much getting out of it.”
But that isn’t the same as walking away from the sport. Next year, Cunningham figures that he and Wendy will attend a few shows. Heck, he might even get into judging.
“I could do that,” he says, “but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Because, right now, he’s focused on running against the best outfits in the land. Even if it does happen to be his swan song.
“It’ll be good,” says Cunningham, whose son Austin outrides for him. “All my kids are coming down. But it’ll definitely be different than any other one because it is my last race. But we’re going to try to hook to win – just do the same as we’ve always done. Run hard and clean, hopefully. You never know where the 10 days will get us.”
Even with his blinkers on, he acknowledges that Sunday’s final lap is going to pack a punch. He doesn’t deny that.
“It’s a little bit sad – there’s going to be a great big void in our lives that we’re going to have to fill with something else,” says Cunningham. “This takes your whole life up, so you haven’t got a chance to do much else. We’ve got a lot of grandkids and stuff like that, so there’s other things to do and we’ll find them.”