There will be no chuckwagon racing at the Century Downs Racetrack and Casino in East Balzac this year, after the World Professional Chuckwagon Association (WPCA) announced April 29 its 2020 Pro Tour would be cancelled.
According to a statement on the association's website, “the effects of COVID-19 and health risks associated with this pandemic has caused the province of Alberta to put restrictions on mass gatherings for the foreseeable future. A number of our host committees have already announced the cancellation of their 2020 events. In consultation with our 2020 host committees, we all agree that the health and safety of the general public, fans, sponsors, staff and volunteers is the number one priority.”
The annual Pro Tour includes 10 stops in towns and cities throughout western Canada, before the tour’s championship final at Century Downs in late August.
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Century Downs has a five-year agreement with WPCA to host the association’s championship finals every year from 2019 to 2023. Last year, thousands of chuckwagon racing fans attended the inaugural event.
Karen Franco, Century Downs' marketing manager, said WPCA's decision to cancel the tour this year was disappointing, but understandable. The Balzac racetrack also had to suspend its standardbred horse-racing season.
She added Century Downs staff will continue to collaborate with WPCA to make sure the event can return in 2021.
“From our perspective, there were a lot of learnings last year, which was the first year we hosted it," she said. “We were looking forward to improving on all those learnings.”
According to Franco, anyone who purchased advance tickets for the 2020 Pro Tour finals would be reimbursed.
“That process is already in place," she said.
Given the high cost of participating in chuckwagon racing, WPCA Director of Marketing Bryan Hebson said the cancellation of an entire season could have major repercussions on the sport’s future. Along with the Pro Tour, the GMC Rangeland Derby at the Calgary Stampede – the highest-profile chuckwagon event of the season – is also cancelled this year.
“Who could have forecasted this was going to happen?” Hebson said.
According to Hebson, the drivers are the ones who take on all the financial risk in chuckwagon racing, with each investing tens of thousands of dollars into their operations every year. Along with sponsorships, the winnings they earn from racing helps pay for those expenses. The total payout at the Century Downs event was more than $300,000 last year.
“You’ve already incurred some bills, you’ve got sponsors who have confirmed they will support you, so you build your budget based on that,” he said. “You know you’re going to race in the Calgary Stampede and you’re guaranteed [some income] there, so you build your budget. All of a sudden, that’s all gone in a blink of an eye, but you still have those expenses.”
The financial losses could even result in some drivers ultimately leaving the sport, Hebson said.
“Some guys have 30 horses, and that’s $60,000 [just to feed them],” he said. “Now, you have no revenue coming in, so you might have to sell your horses.
“If all of a sudden, 15 guys couldn’t afford to race next year…that changes the landscape of what [the sport] looks like.”
While Hebson admits chuckwagon driving is considered controversial in some circles, he said the sport generates millions of dollars a year, which is funnelled back into the economy. He said WPCA’s 36 drivers collectively spend about $2 million on fuel in a year, and each driver spends upwards of $2,000 per horse on feed annually.
“People don’t have to like wagon racing, and that’s OK, but the fact is it does contribute money back into the economy,” he said. “When we race in places, it brings in fans who also spend money on fuel or food.”
Hebson said WPCA might explore other avenues to weather the COVID-19 storm, such as fundraisers or asking for bridge loans from the federal government – a step the Canadian Football League, Canadian Premier League and Canadian Elite Basketball League have taken.