Cowboys ride 'em daily in Calgary's Stampede Event combines charms of rodeos, state fairs and big theme parks

July 11, 1993|By Joe Scholnick | Joe Scholnick,Contributing Writer

Calgary, Alberta It seems like sheer pandemonium, a scene out of an old silent, slapstick western movie. In the infield in front of the grandstand -- an oval enclosure of black dirt churned up by the hoofs of horses and cattle -- teams of horses hitched to small covered wagons and some 20 cowboys and their mounts are milling around without apparent rhyme or reason.

Suddenly, at the sound of a loud, piercing horn, the horses and riders are galvanized into action. Riders mount their steeds, wagon drivers jump into their seats, and the wagons, four of them drawn by four-horse teams, cautiously maneuver around red-numbered, white-painted oil drums in a figure-eight configuration. As they emerge from the infield tangle of horses and wagons, they -- madly onto the adjacent half-mile circular dirt track, wagons bouncing and ricocheting over the bumps, outriders on horseback flanking the wagons in a wild gallop for the finish line.

In the grandstand, some 30,000 spectators, most clad in Western garb, bright bandannas tied around their necks, are on their feet waving cowboy hats and cheering raucously.

To the neophyte, it's a scene of mass confusion.

This is the famous Chuckwagon Race, an unusual sporting event originated about 70 years ago to become a famous and integral part of the then-fledgling annual Calgary Stampede, the half-million-dollar rodeo termed the greatest outdoor show on earth.

Each evening during the 10-day staging of the Calgary Stampede, 36 teams of chuck wagon drivers and horse-mounted outriders compete in nine races for the part of the then-fledgling annual Calgary Stampede, the half-million-dollar rodeo termed the greatest outdoor show on earth.

Each evening during the 10-day staging of the Calgary Stampede, 36 teams of chuck-wagon drivers and horse-mounted outriders compete in nine races for the honor of winning the championship title -- and the $325,000 prize.

Barbara Rabone, a Calgary official, explains the Chuckwagon Races.

"In each of the nine races each evening," she says, "there are four chuck wagons, each drawn by four horses and a driver. Each wagon also has four outriders on horseback. When the signal sounds, the outriders must load a stove, tent pins and other equipment on the wagon, which is then driven around the barrels, onto and around the track. First across the finish line wins -- unless the wagon is penalized for missing a barrel or other rules infractions."

Traditional rodeo events

In the afternoon, more than 500 cowboys, drawn to the Stampede from throughout the world, compete in traditional rodeo events for the $500,000 prize. Among the events in each afternoon's competition are bareback, bull and saddlebronc riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, women's barrel race, wild-cow milking, wild-horse racing and more.

But the Calgary Stampede is more than just a huge rodeo. It combines the excitement of a rodeo with the spectacular showmanship of a huge state fair and theme park, all staged each July in the expansive permanent exposition grounds called Stampede Park, just a short ride by C Train from the center of town. The C Train is a light-rail system that operates efficiently and inexpensively -- and it's free along the main downtown thoroughfare. It has three legs, covering the northeast, northwest and south part of town, in addition to the central business district. Trains run every seven minutes.

The 94-acre Stampede Park is divided into 15 areas, each with its own appeal. About a third of the park is occupied by a gigantic midway, complete with skyride and a bewildering variety of rides, games and fast-food outlets. The grandstand and half-mile track occupy roughly another third of the park.

On the balance of the property is the Agriculture Showcase, with a vast display of livestock and animal shows; the Indian Village, where Plains Indians set up their tepees and display elements of their culture; a petting zoo; the Olympic Saddledome, home of the Calgary Flames hockey club; various service facilities, and an unusual edifice rarely, if ever, found at a state fair or theme park -- the Frontier Casino.

Games of chance

The casino, occupying the upper level of a spacious permanent structure, may be the largest gambling hall in western Canada. Players are offered their choice of blackjack, roulette and row upon row of slot machines.

Perhaps the most unusual game is craps, played here without the customary dice. While Canada law permits each province to have gambling casinos, the use of dice is outlawed. Craps tables here get around that prohibition in unusual ways. At one table, a wheel, similar to that used on roulette tables, is installed in the center of the craps table. The perimeter of the wheel is marked with the same combination of numbers that a pair of dice would produce if thrown. The croupier spins the wheel, inserts a small ball, and numbers chosen in that way become the point of the craps game.

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