A well-known Alberta name in chuckwagon racing is hanging up the reins after this season.
“I love the horses. I love the competition,” Mark Sutherland said. “It’s time for us to have a bit of a life outside the chuckwagons, if that’s possible.”
This year – the 100th year of chuckwagons at the Calgary Stampede – marks the final time Sutherland will compete in the Rangeland Derby, 27 years after being awarded as top rookie driver there.
Hailing from De Winton, Alta., Sutherland started his career with the chucks as an outrider in 1986 and transitioned to being a driver in 1993. The four-time winner of the World Professional Chuckwagon Association Pro Tour was also recognized as the WPCA person of the year in 2011.
“I really don’t believe in storybook endings or fairy tales. I’ve had a blessed life and I’m not planning on having this one (be) my biggest exit.”
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Unplanned break in gruelling schedule
Sutherland was born into chuckwagon racing, the son of racing legend Kelly (The King) Sutherland.
“He was racing already when I was born, so I’ve been at a lot of Calgary Stampedes and have competed at a lot of Calgary Stampedes,” Mark said. “Made a lot of miles, and I’ve driven a lot of horses.”
The 52-year-old chuckwagon driver calls the sport “consuming,” taking a lot of time, resources and effort for him and his family – a “family sport.”
“And if you’re lucky, your family do it with you,” he said. “I wouldn’t have stayed in as long. I probably wouldn’t have done it if they weren’t travelling with me.”
Sutherland’s wife Dina was originally a barrel racer when they caught each other’s eye.
She said it was on Tuesday after a good run from Mark that she realized how much she’ll miss the horses and the people in the sport.
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“We’re going to miss the horses, of course, the most and the people that we’ve met and the people that help us,” Dina said. “But we’re not going to miss all the work that comes with it.”
They’ll also miss out on fewer celebrations after Mark’s final race.
“As every wagon family will attest to, you miss out on a lot of celebrations. Weddings always happen in the summer. Family reunions always happen in the summer… Lots of times we can’t make them,” Dina said.
“That’s just the way life is when you’re a chuckwagon driver: you plan your weddings and your holidays and your honeymoon is around the chuckwagon schedule,” Mark said.
While at this year’s Stampede, Mark and his family will be celebrating the seventh birthday of one of his three grandchildren while at the stables.
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“I was talking to another guy, a friend of mine, a wagon driver. I was kind of being sarcastic to him and I said, ‘Did you know that people go on holidays in July?’” Mark said.
“It’s something we do not do. I certainly haven’t been able to. I couldn’t imagine, even if I had a week off from racing, I wouldn’t leave my horses for a week so I could go sit on a lake. I mean, that’s just not what you do – let someone else take care of them mid-season. Couldn’t do it.”
It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic halted the annual four-month chuckwagon racing circuit that Mark was able to gain some perspective on his successes in a three-decade racing career.
“The sun still came up July 1st when I wasn’t at the Ponoka Stampede. The second week in July, the sun still came up when I wasn’t competing in the Calgary Stampede. So one of the very few positives of COVID was that I realized I could live without chuckwagon racing.”
Saying goodbye to good horses
Thursday morning, Mark auctioned off 30 chuckwagon and outrider horses outside the Stampede stables.
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“It’s a difficult thing selling these horses,” he said.
“It wouldn’t be fair to the horses not to let them wagon race. That’s what they love to do.
“Winning those races with those horses, that means a lot and that part I’ll miss.”
Mark said he’ll be taking a couple of his horses back to the ranch, to join the handful of retired horses there.
“There are special ones and it’s going to be tough to see them go, but I couldn’t imagine not letting them continue their careers. And we’ll be watching them from afar. That’s for sure. We’ll be watching.”
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Mark said there’s lots to do outside the thundering sport of chuckwagon racing.
“I’m going to focus on work,” he said. “I haven’t been able to work generally six months of the year for the last 30 years because I’m working doing (chuckwagon racing). So it’s tough to build your career.”
Mark became known as the “High Tech Redneck” for his pioneering use of GPS technology during training. He’s also worked behind the scenes as a WPCA director, as well as charitable efforts.
Citing names like his father’s, Tommy Glass and Dallas Dorchester, Mark recognizes value in stepping aside from competition.
“Hopefully, I’m making room for guys like Dayton, my son, and with any luck I might come back here and do a little bit of work.”
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Dina said the Sutherland racing name will live on in their son, who is also a university student.
“(Dayton is) a little bit like his grandpa Kelly,” Dina said. “He’s a bit more high energy, a bit more high-strung. So the horses actually do well and he loves it.”
Mark plans to spend more time with family after the racing career is done.
“Probably do a little bit of fishing with the grandkids,” he said.
With a few days of racing still ahead of him, Mark plans to follow his tried and true pace while racing.
“If people think I’m trying harder this year than I did last year, they’re not correct. I try hard and my horses try hard and we’re just having a Stampede. It just happens to be my last one.”
The Rangeland Derby at the Calgary Stampede runs until July 16.