Chuckwagon racing: mix 4 wagons, 20 cowboys 32 horses-and run

EDDIE OLYNUK July 14 1962


Chuckwagon racing: mix 4 wagons, 20 cowboys 32 horses-and run

EDDIE OLYNUK July 14 1962


Chuckwagon racing: mix 4 wagons, 20 cowboys 32 horses-and run



THIRTY TIMES SINCE AERIL a cowhand has walked out to a dirt track on the Cosgrave ranch near Drumheller, Alberta, and placed two empty gas drums seventy teet apart. Then his boss, Bob Cosgrave, has hitched four thoroughbred ponies to a half-ton wooden box on wheels, and careened around the drums in the tightest, fastest figure eight the horses can manage. Each evening this spring the same clattering ritual has taken place on one or another of most of the great cattle ranches of Alberta. This is the shadow-boxing part of the world's most hazardous team sport; chuckwagon racing. The main event is the Calgary Stampede. July 9-14.

Bob Cosgrave is a member of the smallest —and probably toughest—fraternity in sport; he’s one of only twenty-five or thirty chuckwagon drivers of Stampede calibre. Almost all of them are Alberta cowboys. Alberta's domination of chuckwagon racing is something like Canada's domination of ice hockey; Alberta

men this year will take home almost all the prize money from chuckwagon races at rodeos in Wyoming, Montana and California. But good drivers are getting so scarce that the Calgary Stampede allows each driver to enter two rigs, and some of the men who can remember when chuckwagon racing was even more riotous than it is today are complaining that too few young cowboys are racing seriously. Like most athletes, chuckwagon drivers are usually through by the time they’ve passed forty.

They may not look like businessmen when they’re bouncing and battering their way around a course but the elite corps of chuckwagon drivers are. in fact, hardheaded, moneyminded horse traders. Few of them drink much during the summer. They have too much at stake: their thoroughbred horses, their own limbs, and the $8,000 to $10,000 a good team can pick up on the June-September circuit of thirty-odd rodeos on both sides of the border. At the Calgary CONTINUED OVERLEAF





CONTINUED Stampede alone, a team that finishes in the money every day. and wins the “Grey Cup" of chuckwagon racing on Saturday night, may clear between $3,000 and $4,000.

The prize money shows how highly stampede promoters regard the races. In the four decades since the wagons first appeared at the Calgary Stampede, chuckwagon races have become almost indispensable to most stampedes in the Canadian west and many in the U. S. Twenty-five thousand people pay to watch the races each evening during the Stampede and when the wagons roll out in front of the stands even the other professionals, like the broncobusters. drift out to watch and lay bets. Throughout Alberta fans tunc in radio or television to keep track of hometown teams. If Alberta were a nation, chuckwagon racing would be her national sport.

It grewup accidentally; no single man could deliberately invent a game so frantic or a race that makes disastrous collisions so much a predictable part of the action. Each of the four wagons in a race weighs 1,325 pounds with the driver aboard. Each wagon has four outriders. At a signal they "break camp." The riders load a fifty-pound stove onto the wagon, throw aboard two tent poles, leap for their saddles and follow their wagon in a crazy figure eight around the barrels and out onto the half-mile track. Wagons and riders bowl over barrels and stoves and sometimes one another. Drivers and

horses battle for the rail position and finish the race—if they get that far—in a fury of dust at thirty miles an hour. The rules for chuckwagon racing, approved by the Cowboys’ Protective Association, provide for the orderly replacement of injured men. wrecked wagons and crippled horses. Generally, the horses get the worst of it. Some thoroughbred ponies have to be destroyed every year after chuckwagon races. At Calgary in 1958 three ponies were injured beyond recovery after a three-wagon pile-up. One of the drivers was on crutches for nine months (he's driving again).

Until 1959, drivers and riders always crawled away from the wreckage with nothing worse than broken bones. The whole history of the sport was built on legends about drivers' miraculous escapes from death. In 1959. two men died in chuckwagon accidents, one in Calgary, the other in Cheyenne. Wyoming.

The man w ho remembers more chuckwagon history than anyone else is Bob Cosgrave's burly fifty-seven-year-old father Dick, the Rocket Richard of the sport (although no driver has yet come close to matching Dick Cosgrave's record of ten Calgary Stampede championships). He says chuckwagon racing began at the Stampede in 1919 as a joke on a rancher's birthday. "They brought a couple of wagons off the range and started handing out free buffalo burgers." Cosgrave says. "Then the two cooks wheeled around CONTINUED ON PAGE 41



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“There’s too much money in it now. It can get pretty rough”

and started racing off the field. The crowd liked it—so we're still doing it." In the twenties, the winner of a chuckwagon race was the first team to round the course, haul out its stove, light a fire and show smoke. Some crew's filled their own stoves with kerosenesoaked straw, or their rivals’ with water. Some wagons just bowled over everybody else’s stoves. It wasn't a horse race at all, Cosgrave recalls. It was more like a Mack Sennett movie.

There are more rules now—thirtyeight of them—and chuckwagon racing. for the men who do it, is no. longer funny. Marvin Flett, who's been around chuckwagons almost as long as his brother-in-law Dick Cosgrave, says: “There’s too much money in it now. It gets pretty damn rough. It useJ to be a kind of friendly thing at these country places. You'd go down to the barn with a case of beer and do more racing down there than you would at the track. Now the guys arc out for the money.” Chuckwagon cash prizes at the Stampede total almost $28,000.

When Cosgrave went down to the bam with his chuckwagon he drew crowds even when he wasn't racing. On Sunday afternoons in the thirties a hundred people would drop hy just to see him loosen up a green team. Cosgrave's outfits were never noted for their speed; he set his records with crafty driving and smart outriders. His stove man, Jimmy Mooney, was with him for nineteen years: “I told my boy Bob,” Cosgrave says, “to drive carefully and watch the penalties. The penalties can kill you.” Cosgrave raced for twenty years and it's a measure of his skill that his only scar—an inchlong line on the bridge of his tanned nose—is the result of an auto accident. He hasn't raced competitively since the late forties but he's never been far from the wagons. Cosgrave is now arena director at the Calgary Stampede and each year he rides into the ring on a golden palomino with a $2,000 mon-

ogrammed, silver-decoraied saddle. He owns a 3,400-acre ranch, with its own grain elevator and railway siding, at Rosebud, seventy-five miles northeast of Calgary. He rolls his own cigarettes, as thick as cigars.

Bob Cosgrave, twenty-six. runs a 13,000-acre ranch in the Hand Hills east of Drumheller. He's one of the few chuckwagon drivers who wear glasses. Young Cosgrave has never won the big prize at Calgary but his record on the chuckwagon circuit is

impressive, and this year he'll be driving two rigs at the Stampede. If he reaches the finals with both rigs, his fifty-year-old uncle, Marvin Flett, will come out of retirement to drive one of them in another try for the championship that evaded him during eighteen years of racing. (“1 had some of the fastest wagons at the Stampede." Flett says. "Trouble was, the riders couldn't keep up with me.” Teams are penalized if the outriders fail to finish within 125 feet of the lead wagon.)

Flett and Bob Cosgrave are counting heavily this year on a pretty fiveyear-old gelding called Mighty Destrer, whose brothers and sisters are race horses. Mighty Destrer has known only a chuckwagon harness since he was tw'o and now performs well, both as a lead horse and at the wheel. “We had him on the lead at Stettler last week,” Flett said early in the summer, "and we heat both Bawden and Burkinshaw by a full two seconds.” This was something like striking out

Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris with six pitches. Calgary oil men Peter Bawden and Orville Burkinshaw sponsored the cowinners of last year's chuckwagon championship. Their wagons are hot favorites again this year.

Dick Cosgrave was among the first to hitch thoroughbred ponies to chuckwagons. The cooks' race that started chuckwagon racing forty-three years ago ended abruptly when one team of big Clydesdales became ensnarled in their own harness. But for years after that draft horses were still being used in the races. Now, they're all thoroughbred racing ponies and wagon men consider a thousand dollars a fair price for a good lead horse. A Man O' War mare. Roll Along, and a Seabiscuit colt named Sea Ace were chuckwagon horses.

The big wagons went out with the big horses. Early wagons weighed more than a ton; now, with the driver up, they're 700 pounds lighter. Other improvements crept into chuckwagon racing as the sport became bigger business. The dangerous old metal barrels and real stoves were replaced by sandfilled cardboard and wooden ones. This July at Calgary, for the first time, a mobile camera unit will cover every foot of the race to record fouls. Wagon men didn't object to these innovations but some of them drew the line last year when the Stampede offered them jockey-style hard hats to protect their skulls. "Eve worn my hat all my life," said one veteran of Calgary's wagon wars. “Ed sooner be seen without my pants." A-few compromised; they wore the hard hats under their Stetsons.

Since the prize money began to climb, not all the modernization has been so inoffensive as crash helmets and cardboard barrels. Some outfits have been guilty of what wagon men call “bronzing"—hollowing out their wheel hubs and pouring them with bronze. It works almost as well as roller bearings, also illegal in chuckwagon races. A couple of the drivers who have been tuning up at the nine or ten preliminary rodeos before the Calgary Stampede say they know of at least one bronzed wagon competing this year.

But if chuckwagon drivers are occasionally too eager to win, they also want to make sure the race is a good one. Dick Cosgrave says the Stampede he remembers above all the others took place in 1942 — three weeks after all but one of his fourhorse team died in a stable fire. Three rival drivers each offered him the pick of their horses. Cosgrave beat them with their own ponies, winning his ninth chuckwagon championship.

Some of the men of Cosgrave’s generation can't understand why the fat cash prizes aren’t luring more good young drivers to the chuckwagon tracks. Maybe there are easier ways to make a few thousand dollars in the summer. At any rate, the thirty or more rigs entered in the Stampede these days generally outnumber the drivers, particularly if a couple of drivers break a few bones.

The men driving next week in Calgary may be the last masters of a sport that started as a birthday joke, grew up behind the barns of Alberta and now sustains stampedes throughout the Canadian west. ★