Inaugural chuckwagon finals to be 'safest possible' at Century Downs, says general manager

A southern Alberta racetrack says it's confident it will host the "safest possible" chuckwagon racing finals next month, amid calls for a ban on the sport after the deadliest Calgary Stampede in nearly a decade. 

For the first time in its history, Balzac's Century Downs Racetrack and Casino will host the championship finals of the World Professional Chuckwagon Association from Aug. 21 to 25.

General manager Paul Ryneveld says he'll be paying close attention to any recommendations that come out of the Calgary Stampede's review of safety procedures, which was launched after six horses died racing at this year's GMC Rangeland Derby.

"Information is always valuable when you're looking to do any event for the first time," he told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday.

Ryneveld assured he's been engaged in monthly meetings with the chuckwagon association since signing a multi-year partnership in October, and he said safety is always a major part of those conversations. 

"We're pretty confident that the event that we hold will be the safest possible for both horse and human," he said.

When asked whether Century Downs is considering changing the format of its heats by running fewer wagons, Ryneveld said that would be up to the WPCA to decide. 

"We would obviously be up for anything to make the sport safer."

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Negative press 

Ryneveld said that, across all of Century Downs' five racing seasons, he can recall only one horse that was injured and that was "because of a chain reaction accident, and maybe one other during that period of time."

He said it's difficult to speculate what effect the negative press will have on this inaugural event but said he'll be watching ticket sales closely.

The five-day championship will see the world's best chuckwagon drivers compete for a $100,000 championship prize.

PETA protest

A the legislature on Tuesday, a group of about 20 PETA activists, some wearing cardboard horseface masks, called for the government to ban chuckwagon races.

Premier Jason Kenney's office declined comment, but Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen issued a statement.

He said the UCP government remains committed to the protection of animals and will continue to work with organizations to improve practices and procedures. 

Kate Adach/CBC

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener and the Canadian Press.