King of the chuckwagon Kelly Sutherland finishes his final race

Chuckwagon driver Kelly Sutherland poses for a photo during his last Stampede Canvas Auction at the Boyce Theatre in Calgary on March 23, 2017. LEAH HENNEL / POSTMEDIA NETWORK

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GRANDE PRAIRIE — Champion chuckwagon driver Kelly Sutherland has retired after more than 50 years controlling the reins of horses as they thundered around the track.

Sutherland, who turns 66 this year, participated in his final race on the weekend in Rocky Mountain House in west-central Alberta.

The 12-time world chuckwagon champion says he has been mentally preparing for this final season for the last few years.

Sutherland says he’s had the ultimate career and feels blessed to have been able to compete — and win — for so many years.

He won his 12th world championship just months shy of his 60th birthday.

He also holds a dozen championships from the world-famous Calgary Stampede, won nine times at the Ponoka Stampede in central Alberta and triumphed once in his hometown of Grande Prairie, Alta.

“I just know from a health standpoint that I am going to get hurt if I stay competing at the level I’m trying to compete at,” he told CJXX radio in Grande Prairie.

He started racing at 14 and had his first win at age 22. He said he remembers that first time he was on stage for a victory in front of 40,000 people.

“When you’re in the sport, you only dream about getting the opportunity to win and I was fortunate when I was young.”

In 2010, Sutherland broke a record by winning the chuckwagon world championship for an 11th time. He added the 12th the following year.

He said part of his motivation for taking up chuckwagon racing was to put Grande Prairie on the map.

“My intention was to let people know exactly where Grande Prairie was, because it has always been home to me,” he said. “There’s always been huge fan support in the Grande Prairie … area and I would just like to say ‘thanks’ because many of them have followed this sport for well over 40, 50 years.”

While other competitors might have wanted to retire after competing at the prestigious Calgary Stampede, Sutherland wanted to go right until the end of the circuit this year for his fans.

“One of the most moving things that hit home was in Saskatoon. I had a couple of ladies come up to me after the event when I was taking the tarp off the wagon,” he recalled.

“They were quite emotional and I didn’t know who they were, but they said, ‘You can’t quit. We’ve followed your career for 40 years,’ and we had a hug and we talked about wagon racing.

“Those kinds of things are pretty moving to me.”

Now that his professional career is over, Sutherland said he plans to ride more with his young grandchildren and spend time in the mountains.

“There’s going to be an adjustment and certainly a big vacuum in my life,” he admitted. “I think I’ll phone a few of my buddies and see if they want to go riding, or fishing or maybe go chase a few cows around.”

(CJXX)