Chuckwagon champ blamed in crash

Officials suspend famed racer after accident kills three horses, sends one driver to hospital

By CAROLINE ALPHONSO | July 17, 2007
www.theglobeandmail.com

In the insular world of chuckwagon racing, the name Kelly Sutherland is iconic.

So when Mr. Sutherland, a 10-time Calgary Stampede chuckwagon champion, was suspended from the final race after a horrific crash this weekend that killed three horses and sent another driver to hospital with career-threatening injuries, the reaction was almost as chaotic as the race itself.

Stampede officials blamed him for the accident and are considering further disciplinary action, including whether to invite him back next year. Two other reinsmen, including the one whose horses were killed, have also pointed the finger at Mr. Sutherland.

But the wife of Tyler Helmig, the driver who lies in a hospital bed awaiting hip and elbow surgery, described Mr. Sutherland yesterday as an “innocent participant of the race.” And, in an interview, Mr. Sutherland of Grande Prairie, Alta., proclaimed his innocence.

“I was not at fault,” he said. “I accepted the suspension because really I had no choice … But I did not agree with the suspension.”

The incident took place Saturday night at one of the many races chuckwagon drivers compete in during the 10-day annual Stampede to land a spot in the top four and have a shot at the $100,000 prize.

Stampede officials say that Mr. Sutherland and two drivers were alongside each other coming out of the first turn. Mr. Sutherland drove his team too aggressively toward the rail, resulting in Ray Mitsuing’s wagon moving into the path of Gary Gorst’s team and leading to the death of three of his horses. Judges gave Mr. Mitsuing a 25-second interference penalty.

Mr. Helmig, who was the fourth driver, couldn’t avoid the collision and was thrown off his wagon.

“We felt after review and understanding what transpired there, that Kelly Sutherland’s unsafe driving contributed to the tragedy,” Stampede spokesman Lindsey Galloway said yesterday.

“We are firm in our position that we will not tolerate actions by competitors that compromise the safety of animals and participants, and we will hold all participants accountable for their actions on the track.”

Animal deaths are not unheard of at the Stampede, a lucrative event that draws more than a million people to the city and has corporations clamouring to sponsor participants. The Stampede also attracts animal-rights activists, who have called for an end to the event.

The city’s humane society said that between 1990 and 2002, there have been about 18 animals killed in chuckwagon races and eight in rodeo events.

Cheryl Wallach, spokeswoman for the society, said the organization’s hands are tied because, although they don’t condone the event, Stampede officials are meeting the requirements of the animal protection act.

“It’s up to the public whether or not these events continue to happen. If people still buy tickets and the perception of society is that it is okay, then they will continue to happen,” Ms. Wallach said.

For his part, Mr. Sutherland is perplexed as to why the Stampede suspended him when a penalty was clearly handed to Mr. Mitsuing. In a press release issued late yesterday, he talked about the rules and punishments and made no reference to the death of three horses or the injured driver.

His driving style has been described as old-time racing, where competitors don’t give each other much space and use forceful tactics on the track.

“You don’t win as much as I do by not being aggressive in any sport,” Mr. Sutherland, who has been wagon racing for 40 years, responded in the interview.

But Mr. Gorst, who lost three of his four prized horses, believes Mr. Sutherland needs to pay a higher price for the incident. The suspension “is not nearly enough for me,” he said yesterday, as he drove back home to Meadow Lake, Sask.

End.