Due to the rule setting 65 years old as the mandatory retirement age for Chuckwagon racers, the first day of the Rangeland Derby marked Ray Mitsuing’s final appearance at the Calgary Stampede. Rules are rules.
Ray drew the number four barrel and had a bit of a dual with fellow native Todd Baptiste on the backstretch. Ray couldn’t get the rail and Baptiste overtook him and the leader on his way to winning the 8th heat of opening day.
Todd Baptiste’s rising up and out from within the shadow of one the game’s best racers is symbolic. Mitsuing has been in the Rangeland Derby for as long as I remember and has always been one of the top racers at the Calgary Stampede. To see him do so well at his final meet was inspiring.
Paired with Baptiste in the 8th heat for the first four days, Ray eventually avenged his loss, but penalties knocked him down to the 6th race and it’s an uphill battle when seconds get added to your overall time.
On the other hand, Todd Baptiste was near the top of the standings throughout the ten days and stood at 2nd place on day nine. I wished him good luck before his first race and then watched him win after overtaking Mitsuing and Logan Gorst on the final stretch. After that race, I mentioned to him that his Uncle Edgar Baptiste won the Rangeland Derby in 1996 by going penalty free. “That’s what we wanna’ do,” said Baptiste, a very-focused man of few words.
Ray Mitsuing was able to win some heats. He put in a good showing for his final Rangeland Derby by managing to stay away from the tragic mishaps marring an otherwise exciting week of racing where four incidents cost the lives of six horses. I witnessed the first accident, which occurred as the horses came around the first turn. One horse fell and was dragged a few yards by the rest of the team only a few feet from where I stood. I knew something was wrong because the horses just came to a complete stop. None of them moved as they waited silently for help to arrive.
The response from animal rights groups with their calls to abolish the sport was immediate and grew louder with each additional equine fatality. The horse-owners and families involved were sad to see the accidents. They say Chuckwagon racing is a sport with horses that are built for speed doing what they’re born to do, just like the horses in the thoroughbred racing world.
Chuckwagon racing has become relatively safer with the changes made to the way the wagons are constructed. Abolishing these events would drive them underground and leave them without any oversight. Safety measures taken by the professional Chuckwagon organizations would most likely be ignored. Either way, this form of racing is a way of life. Horse owners take great care ensuring the safety of their team and they feel the loss personally when tragic accidents happen to one of their animals.
These horse deaths shouldn’t take away from the amazing week Mitsuing and Baptiste had by driving their wagons with precision, speed, and love for their sport. Ray Mitsuing did very well, and Todd Baptiste has a bright future in Chuckwagon racing. He may very well surpass his uncle if he keeps improving, but this year he had to settle for 2nd place overall. Just like his Uncle Edgar, Baptiste drew the third barrel in the final heat but had a late charge. The eventual winner, Logan Gorst, was just a little faster all week.
All in all, the week was good for us natives by our having these two drivers in the thick of things. As Ray Mitsuing bid his final farewell to the crowd, the stampede paid tribute and honored him by playing the “Happy Trails” chorus on the loud speakers. Farewell Brother.