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Calgary Stampede canvas auction sets record with tied top bids

For a second year in a row, Kurt Bensmiller was on top of the auction block, taking home $170,000 in a tie with fellow chuckwagon competitor Kris Molle for the top bids for the 2023 Calgary Stampede canvas auction.

The victory in the auction was the veteran rider’s fifth since 2011 and also represented another Stampede first in decades: a dead heat between bidders.

“Being at the top, it’s just a small part of being at the Stampede. We’re looking forward to actually racing here—that’s when the most important part happens,” said Bensmiller.

The Grey Eagle Resort and Casino made the top bid for Bensmiller, who has a long history and connection to Tsuut’ina.

“I’m fast horse… that’s my Tsuut’ina name, and I wear it proudly on the back of my wagon when I race,” Bensmiller said.

Tyrone Waite, CEO of the Grey Eagle Resort and Casino said that supporting Bensmiller and the sport of chuckwagon racing was a natural one for the organization.

“Kurt’s been a very good ally of the Tsuut’ina nation on multiple occasions. From my perspective, chuckwagon racing is the absolute best sport on the planet. It’s uniquely Calgary,” said Waite.

“We’re in the hospitality business, the Calgary Stampede is the biggest hospitality event there is in the city and Grey Eagle wants to be the best hospitality provider we can, anywhere, so the two go hand in hand and Kurt’s a natural fit for us.”

The total bidding for this year’s auction was $2.75 million, up from $2.105 million in 2022. The average bids were also up by $23,889 over 2022, to an average bid price of $101,852.

Hometown connection for Molle

Molle’s top finish was also not by accident this year, as Graf Mechanical Ltd. came to the auction to bid because of the personal connection that the rider to the company.

“Kris is from the same small town that we’re from,” said Colton Graf, owner of Graf Mechanical.

“My dad and him know each other from a lot of years back, and my dad and I have a business together, and we thought what better time to do it.”

That top $170,000 bid, said Graf, was going towards a good cause in supporting Molle.

“Yeah, it’s lots. It goes to good cause obviously, these guys can’t do it without us bidding.”

Molle was the top-ranked chuckwagon racer in 2022’s Stampede. Something he joked about when talking about the tie placement with Bensmiller at the auction.

“I just teased him on the way up here, ‘it’s nice to be rubbing elbows with the elite.'”

Bids are up, and so too the prospects for the sport

Will Osler, president and chair of the Calgary Stampede said that the organization was grateful for the increase in bidding this year.

“It shows the great support for the sport of chuckwagon racing and the Rangeland Derby in the community,” Osler said.

“We’re delighted that there was a few competitive bids that threw some numbers up. And it’s about the families in what they go through keeping this sport alive.”

Among those competitive bids for the evening was a back-and-forth over driver Codey McCurrah, who netted $80,000 for his canvas during the auction.

Speaking to LWC before the auction began, he said he’d have liked to make that bid level during the evening.

“That would be a nice feather in the cap,” McCurrah said.

“We use these funds to care for the horses. All that money goes back into the horses, so if we’re a little short here, you know, I don’t want to short the horses.”

Osler said that chuckwagon racing has always been an intimate sport for the families that compete, some of them going back to the original races at the Stampede 100 years ago in 1923.

“When someone says that chuckwagon racing is in their blood, they mean it and whole entire families. The moms, the dads, the kids are involved in the sport,” Osler said.

“Without the support that comes from an event like this, it makes it harder for them to run, harder for them to do what they love to do—and it’s important for that reason.”

Canvas auction reflects the big historical movements of the Alberta economy

Prior to the pandemic, the canvas auction had been highly affected by local recessions and major global economic impacts.

Long considered the bellwether of the Calgary economy, the canvas auction has drawn interest from economists and analysts since its start in 1979.

Osler said that the 2023 auction saw an increase in the number of bidders.

"A bunch of bidders signed up registered just this afternoon, so that's a good sign that it makes us think there's maybe some momentum out there. There's more bidders than there are drivers. That's a good thing if we can get some competitive tension going."

McCurrah said that one of his sponsors from last year, Western RV Country, wasn't returning this year to the auction due to changes in the economy.

"I spoke with them this year... it looks like the RV industry is going to be a little stressed this year, so they opted out, which is good," he said.

"I think the oilfield and tech is going to be a big thing this year."

De Havilland Aircraft of Canada was the top total bidder of the evening, spending $215,000 on brothers and competitors Evan and Wade Salmond with a pair of $110,000 and $105,000 bids.

Canvas auction is part of the 100-year history of the sport

Subsequent auctions after the first in 1979 saw rapid growth in the value of the highest bids, with an inaugural high of $3,000 quickly being eclipsed by increases to $30,000 in 1982.

That all came crashing down after the oil industry in the province collapsed in the early 1980s, after worldwide prices of oil fell dramatically. It wouldn't be until 1989 that the highest bids would exceed that early start.

The 1990s saw big increases in both the top and average bids for tarps, culminating in a then-record of $165,000 in 2000.

Following 9/11 in 2001 and the economic slump that followed worldwide, bids were once again down in 2002 before rising to a high in 2008—before once again falling during the 2009 worldwide financial crisis.

The record for canvases would once again be set in 2012 for veteran driver (and the top bid for many years since the start of the auctions) Kelly Sutherland.

Once again, following the decline of oil prices in the mid-2010s, top and average bids fell, before making a slight rise prior to the pandemic.

This year saw an overall increase in the minimum and average bids over 2022, but a $15,000 decline in the top bid from that year.

The 2023 auction also closed out with an auction for the Calgary Stampede Foundation of a pair of limited edition 100th anniversary chuckwagon boots from Alberta Boot Company.

That auction, which was open to all visitors at the Big 4 building, raised $3,500 for the foundation.

"We're obviously thrilled to be participating first of all in celebrating the centennial chuckwagon races, and we're really proud of the boot we designed," said Eytan Broder, CEO of the Alberta Boot Company.

He said that the boots, which are limited to just 100 pairs, celebrate the history of chuckwagon racing by fusing the modern with the legacy of the sport

"We really tried to sort of bring elements from sort of from opposite ends of the design spectrum and pull it all together, and I think it really tells a Calgary story," Broder said.

The Stampede will be further celebrating the chuckwagon centennial throughout the annual 10 day festival. For more details, see www.calgarystampede.com/stampede/shows/evening/cowboys-rangeland-derby.