At the WPCA’s biggest show of the summer, Mark Sutherland took home his first ever Ponoka Stampede title.
The Ponoka Stampede. An 83 year old small-town central Alberta event with over 80,000 fans cheering for cowboys and cowgirls as they compete during Cowboy Christmas for over $80,000 in prize money. Rain or shine, the 800 volunteers ensure every visitor has a good time while visiting their town.
Just the thought of it should send shivers up and down your arms. It’s one of the pinnacle events on the WPCA Pro Tour. Every driver wants to have a Ponoka championship on their resume and after a few close calls (one involving a pigeon causing him to lose to his father by one hundredth of a second), Mark Sutherland finally crossed the finish line first to win his first ever Ponoka Stampede.
The shows leading up to Ponoka are good gauges for Sutherland to see where his horses are heading into the stretch of chuckwagon racing’s "Triple Crown". “The way I train,” explains Sutherland “is I try to do well in the first shows of the year, but what I’m trying to do is have all my horses peaking coming into the Calgary Stampede. What that means is, some of the horses I consider superstars might not get their regular trips at some of the other events. It’s all about timing.”
Speaking of timing, back in 2011 Sutherland just barely lost the Ponoka Stampede to his father, Kelly Sutherland. It’s losses like that, which still creep into his mind. “Oh they haunt me horribly. They’re the ones you remember,” Sutherland describes with a chuckle. “When you only have one Ponoka Stampede Championship and not six (like my father), you remember when you almost did it. I had way more horse power that year; the Ponoka Stampede title should’ve been mine (in 2011).”
In 2019, the tables were turned for Sutherland. Instead of losing by a hair he crossed the finish line with a time of 1:20.24, while eventual Calgary Stampede Champion Logan Gorst and Kirk Sutherland followed behind at 1:20.28, with Vern Nolin rounding out the Tommy Dorchester Championship Dash.
Sutherland won the championship by four one hundredths of a second. What does that look like in a win picture? Vlad, one of Mark’s powerful leaders was stretched out at the finish line to win him the race. It was a true battle down the homestretch. The thunder of the Ponoka Stampede fans was louder than ever.
With a finish so close, it’s exciting for fans to watch the horses rumble down the homestretch. As a driver, it’s just another race. Sutherland says he likes to talk a lot and was hollering at Gorst as they rounded the fourth turn. “He tells me he didn’t hear me, he just heard me chirping, but he didn’t know what I was saying! I was just having fun with it. I felt I had a lot more horsepower than he did. But he kinda came on again and his horses started running.”
It was a special victory for Sutherland as he got to celebrate with most of his family. His Dad, Kelly, came down to watch and his wife, daughter and grandchildren were all there to witness the feat.
When he finally got the text to say he’d won, it was understandably emotional.“It was very emotional for me,” remembers Sutherland. “I’ve come so close at Ponoka before. I’ve got people who I’ve looked up to, friends on the Ponoka Stampede Board, they’re friends of my fathers. It was just great to be able to share it with my wife and my crew.”
As the reigning Ponoka Champion heading into 2021, Sutherland feels he’ll be just as competitive as he was in 2019. He’s got lots of horsepower in his barn and he’s excited to get back to racing.
Continuing down the circuit, after the Calgary Stampede the WPCA heads down the highway to Strathmore for the back half of the 2019 season.
PHOTO CREDIT - Dina Sutherland and Fred Vidiuk