The Western Chuckwagon Association (WCA) annual tarp auction—set for Thursday night at Maddhatters—was shelved due to a pair of major factors.
Technically, the tarp auction wasn’t cancelled, it just faded away into nothingness.
“Nobody has come out and said it (but) I can guarantee there is no tarp sale this Thursday night,” WCA President Derek Aebly said, “The (auction) is assumed to be cancelled as (the host committees) can’t hold an event due to covoid protocols and companies are struggling to make ends meet, let alone sponsor a wagon.”
Due to the novel coronavirus, the season has been shortened and, chances are strong, there will be zero dollars in term of corporate sponsorship.
Even a partial racing season is a big “if” right now.
“We have an eight (event) season in our schedule and three have been cancelled and one has said they are going to run a show where there will be no prize money and they aren’t reaching out to sponsors,” Aebly said. “So, basically, four shows are off the table and there are four shows up in the air. I mean, this is a situation that’s unprecedented, never happened before and nobody really knows whether the season is going to happen or in what capacity it’s going to happen.”
The Grande Prairie Stompede, Race the 8 in Rycroft and the Woodlands Rodeo in Whitecourt have cancelled their respective events. Rio Grande plan to proceed but they’re not exactly sure of all the details at this point. The Rio Grande event starts in the Canada Day time slot.
The tarp sale is a huge day on the WCA calendar—as every business who wants to sponsor a tarp —shows up for the auction in Grande Prairie.
Last season, in terms of sponsorship money only, the top driver pulled in $70,000 at the auction in April.
While dollar figures vary among drivers, Aebly figures it costs him between $70,000 to $80,000 to run his outfit for a season. That sum includes all services related to horses like feed, vet bills and a farrier.
“It’s one of those things where, ‘Yeah, it’s going to hurt some guys.’” Aebly said. “You feed (the horses the hay and oats) you bought last fall. If you’re fortunate enough to have a pasture to turn these horses out all summer, that will alleviate some of the cost. But, if you have to feed hay all summer and winter, I mean, it’s definitely going to be expensive because a lot of the money goes into buying oats and hay for the next winter.”
Last fall, Aebly bought around 150-200 bales of hay and about 3,000 bushels of oats. A round bale of hay weighs about 1,500 pounds and a bushel of oats is equivalent to a pair of five-gallon pails. In a good year, a bale of quality hay costs between $50-$60 while a bushel of oats is about $3.
“I’m still going to need 150 round bales of hay and I will still need 2,500 bushes of oats,” Aebly said. “Those bills will be there this fall, whether we race or not. I have 27 horses in the field, I feel, are some of the best we’ve ever owned. If we have to stand pat for a year, I’ll pick bottles out of the ditch, if I have to, to feed them. But we’ll make sure we find away to make sure they’re looked after and ready for 2021.”
With only four races left for the drivers to, maybe, pick up some form of sponsorship, the WCA playbook has been thrown out the window. Aebly was asked about the possibility of picking up sponsorship if—and that’s a big if—the season picks up.
“We haven’t even gotten that far, yet,” Aebly said. “As it stands right now, the first races we could possibly be attending is the first of July (in Rio Grande) and we have to see where this virus plateaus and where people can get back to living their normal lives. This isn’t a good situation (for) a wagon driver but there’s people in worse situations. The biggest focus is (for everyone to) stay healthy and take care of (their) families. I don’t want to squeal and whine our season didn’t happen when there’s so many other big issues in the world.”
An honest declaration
Derek Aebly is an up-front man, an honest man, who wants to set the record straight.
The Western Chuckwagon Association President wanted to make it clear that nobody should feel overly empathetic for the drivers on the WCA tour as they are the one’s who chose to participate in this expensive sport.
Racing four horses around an oval track is a side pursuit, in the truest sense of the meaning.
“I don’t want us to come across as, ‘Poor me, I have to feed my horses on a hobby I’ve chosen to do,’” Aebly said.
“We’re the same as everybody where we want businesses to get back to normal, for life to get back to normal as we knew it before (the novel coronavirus) came through.”
Along with the annual tarp auction, the first three races of the upcoming season—the Stompede, the Rycroft and Whitecourt events—have also been thrown to the wind. If the WCA races at all this season,it appears the drivers will have to dip into their own pockets for expenses.
Aebly doubled down on his previous point, knowing every driver in the circuit entered this summer pursuit by their own choosing.
So far, every driver is committed to whatever happens next, despite the current standstill. They’re ready to bite the bullet and fork over the necessary cash.
Again, racing is a hobby, in the truest sense of the word.
“I don’t want to come across that we’re whining guys and we’re going to have to feed our horses for an extra year,” Aebly said. “Our sincere and heartfelt wishes and support is with the community. We’d like this to go away and life return to normal.”