The Calgary Stampede’s canvas auction brought in more than $2 million for chuckwagon drivers after a two-year hiatus.
The annual auction, where corporate sponsors bid for the rights to put their names on chuckwagon canvases, was held Tuesday at the Big Four Roadhouse and is considered a barometer of the city’s economic strength. Six drivers eclipsed the $100,000 mark.
Drivers were hoping for a sizable sponsorship as the two years without the Stampede’s Rangeland Derby has taken its toll, as the costs of feed and fuel increased. The last auction in 2019 saw more than $3.2 million raised, the fifth largest total in the event’s history.
Kurt Bensmiller saw the largest bid Tuesday with $185,000 from Versatile Energy Services. The total was $35,000 higher than 2019’s top bid of $150,000.
Bensmiller has gotten some of the highest bids at previous auctions as well. Before the event, he told Postmedia he’d like to see a higher average this year, with something closer to $100,000.
“That’s one of the highest bids that’s been made in a long time. It makes a guy feel real good, and makes me want to be back at home with the horses,” Bensmiller said after the bid was announced.
The Dewberry native is considered by many to be the top contender this year. Bensmiller has won four world and four Calgary Stampede championships over the past seven seasons.
The last two years have been difficult for chuckwagon drivers, and a boost from the canvas auction is welcomed ahead of the derby this summer, he said.
“I really feel that we’re a major part in the Calgary Stampede — it’s not the Stampede without the wagons,” he said. “There’s not a driver in the world that doesn’t want to be here.”
Vern Nolin was in second place with a $180,000 bid from McCaw Drilling and Blasting. Nolin, also from Dewberry, won the Battle of the Rockies and the Ponoka Stampede Wild West Chuckwagon Championship in 2021.
The Village of Dewberry has produced eight Rangeland Derby champions.
Chuckwagon drivers have been shouldering increasing expenses over the last two years, Nolin said, and securing the larger end of the bids offers some relief.
“The price of everything has gone up, feed is super high this year. I was lucky enough to see that bid and we’ll put it to good use,” he said. “It’s been a tough few years. We’re just happy to see this.”
Jason Glass raised the third largest bid at $130,000 from a company under the name Friends of Jason Glass. Glass from High River is considered one of the most accomplished chuckwagon drivers in the sport. He is a four-time world champion driver and won the Rangeland Derby in 2013.
There are 27 drivers participating this year, down from the usual 36. Some changes to the heats were made by the Stampede after six horses died during the 2019 Rangeland Derby — the deadliest year for animals in almost a decade.
Compared to the previous sale in 2019, the overall total was down, large in part to a reduction in the number of participating wagons in this year’s derby. But overall, the average raised per driver came in just under $78,000, the ninth best of the event’s 42-year history.
Steve McDonough, Calgary Stampede president and chair of the board, called the auction an “excellent night” despite slightly lower averages this year.
“We just came through a recession and the pandemic, so we’re extremely pleased with the numbers this year. We didn’t want to compare apples and oranges,” McDonough said. “What we have here is an excellent and successful auction.”
— With files from Stephanie Babych
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