Thursday, January 16, 2014

Last Tango in Calgary: Stampede Will Host Its Final World Championship in 2014

Reigning World Champion David Varini (right) during a television interview minutes after finding out he had won as he stood on the Calgary Stampede's rodeo stage in front of 20,000 people. Speech bubbles represent what they might have been talking about if the interview had been this week.

Will the last farrier competitor to leave Calgary please make sure the coal fires are out?

After 34 years of inventing, reinventing, polishing and perfecting the world's premier horseshoeing event, the Calgary Stampede has informed the organizing committee of the World Championship Blacksmiths Competition that this year's 35th annual event will be the last at the famous Canadian rodeo. Future plans call for "showcasing" blacksmithing rather than a farrier competition.

Longtime organizing committee stalwart Marshall Iles, a farrier in the Calgary area, broke the news this week with six-time World Champion Welsh farrier Grant Moon taking the message public on Facebook this weekend.

From a statement released by the Calgary Stampede:

In an interview with The Hoof Blog this week, Iles was circumspect about the announcement. He attributed the change to the urbanization of the Stampede, and the marginalization of agricultural events that were once mainstays of the huge rodeo, which calls itself "The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth".

The 2013 Stampede was almost
cancelled when floodwaters rose to
cover the showgrounds.
"(It could be that) our competition just didn't fit in with the more urban audience," he said, referring to a meeting held with Stampede officials. "But the value of the event is irrefutable. It appeals to a small part of our profession, and it is a semi-sport for some of the competitors, but there is no doubt that it elevated skills of horseshoers worldwide."

Iles confided that seeing the early competitions at Calgary actually inspired him to go to farrier school and later to become involved in running the competition. He wasted little time talking about the past, and instead focused on the immediate future, and his plans for the 2014 World Championship.

"There's no doubt that a world championship will be held somewhere after this year, but I can tell you that this year, the final one, will be EPIC. There are some time and space constraints but the entire event will be held on Stampede grounds, with some program changes. 

"A key change is that there will be no team competition, either four-man or two-man. Also gone are the potluck forging and the blacksmith showcase. The scoring will also change--no points for strikers, but there are more opportunities for points. The Top Ten go back to a score of zero but there will be an aggregate between the final and semi-final, and there will be live shoeing."

Calgary has hosted the Stampede rodeo for
101 years. After this year, it can
say that it hosted a fantastic farrier
contest for 35.
Judges for 2014 are Bob Pethick from the United States and Gary Darlow from Great Britain.

Iles said that 1800 different competitors had tried their hands and hammers at Calgary over the years. Many have competed multiple times. Brothers Allan and Jim Ferrie of Scotland have competed there 17 times between them.

World champions crowned at Calgary are (in alphabetical order): Darren Bazin (England, 3 times), Stephen Beane (England, 4 times), Jim Blurton (Wales), Shayne Carter (USA), Billy Crothers (Wales, 5 times), Dave Duckett (England/USA), Austin Edens (USA), Richard Ellis (Wales), Bob Marshall (Canada, 5 times), Mark Milster (USA), Grant Moon (Wales, 6 times), Bill Poor (USA), Paul Robinson (Ireland), Craig Trnka (USA), David Varini (Reigning Champion, Scotland), and David Wilson (Scotland).

The 2014 Calgary Stampede poster
doesn't shout "rodeo" or action; it's just a
beautiful, serene Belgian draft
horse's well-groomed head.
While the traditions of farrier competition have their deepest roots in Great Britain, it was the popularity of the American Farrier's Association's convention contests that sparked the idea that a farrier competition could be entertaining to the North American general public as part of the famous Stampede. Calgary farrier Donn Whenham, along with his wife, sister-in-law and a dedicated committee launched the competition. They were able to wield the support of Whenham's father-in-law, Bill Pratt, who was the longtime general manager of the Stampede. Farriers had a friend in a high place.

Whenham's vision for farriers at the Stampede wasn't a coincidence. A province away in British Columbia, English farrier Bob Marshall had emigrated; he formed the first North American Horseshoeing Team in the late 1970s. His triumphant win at Calgary attracted the attention of British competitors like David Duckett, David Wilson and the Ferries.

Calgary's future was written on the wall when young British apprentices like Grant Moon, Carl Bettison, Billy Crothers and Neil Bradbury made the trip. They looked like they were on a lark, but they were the insurance policy that Calgary had a future.

Enter Mustad as a sponsor in the early 1980s and something took shape that held together for more than three decades to follow. Mustad sponsored teams and individuals to travel to Calgary in the early years; many did not speak English and vastly different styles of shoeing were presented to judges for sorting out.

Don't blink, this only happened once: A gathering of Calgary world champions in England for a champion-vs-champion head-on competition in 2010 was won by Paul Robinson. From left to right front: Stephen Beane, Shayne Carter, Bob Marshall, Dave Duckett, Austin Edens and Darren Bazin. Standing: Judge Marshall Iles, Richard Ellis, Paul Robinson, Jim Blurton, Grant Moon, Craig Trnka, Billy Crothers, Mark Milster and judge/former world champion himself, David Wilson.

The British standards prevailed, and farriers from all countries adapted to trying to beat the British at what is certainly their game. Several Americans, beginning with Shayne Carter, did just that.

What Calgary was best at was something that farriers across the board always clamor for: it put farriers in the public eye, in a positive light. They were on the front page of the newspaper, on television and radio. The title meant a lot, but so did being the center of attention for thousands of people who observed from the grandstands. Presenting the title on the big stage at the rodeo was a tradition that thrilled even the most hardened competitors. Over one million people per year travel to Calgary to attend the Stampede.

While Calgary would rather showcase the skills of blacksmithing in the future than host a contest where 60 farriers are shoeing giant draft horses, the question remains: what comes next? Without an actual competition, what does Calgary mean to the farrier world after this year?

Farriers rub shoulders with interesting people during the Stampede. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (a.k.a. Prince William and Kate) attended when England's Stephen Beane won the World Championship. (Calgary Stampede photo)

The obvious call was to ask Marguerite Paige, Mustad's marketing director for North America. "While I do not have a formal statement, we are in discussions about the future and we expect 2015 to be a memorable one,” came her reply.

Grant Moon was on his way to Prague but thankfully his plane was late so he could make some comments:

"It's just a passing. Great farriers will meet and there will be a competition. Where it is doesn't matter as long as it showcases what we can do. I'd like to see it move around. Calgary is committed this year to doing a worthy final there. It's time to work on an exit strategy."

Grant Moon, the winningest Calgary Stampede world champion in history, brought his father along to Calgary in 2013. Here they chat during a break between early classes held at Heritage Park. (Marguerite Paige photo)
With any luck, 2014 will not be the end, but just the end of the beginning. Moving a world championship event to a new place (or new places), gives the farrier profession a chance to re-invent the concept and perhaps re-tool it to appeal to a wider swath of the farrier profession and the public.

The last words on this subject go to the man of the hour, 2013 World Champion David Varini in Scotland. How did the news strike him?

David writes from Scotland:

"It's sad for most I think, that it's the last time the WCBC will be held in Calgary at the Stampede. I've never experienced an atmosphere even close to it!--which has to be down to the venue, the title that comes with winning it and the competitors who have made the history there that we all want to be part of. 

"None of that would have happened, though, without the likes of Marshall and the rest of the guys who work so hard, no doubt all year round to make it happen. We can't forget the sponsors of the event, led by Mustad, who continue to reinvest in our trade, time after time! 

"This year is obviously going to be extra special now as it's the last chance for some to compete and win there. I for one wouldn't miss it for the world! Hopefully a new venue will emerge that can create its own history and live up to its predecessor!"

Who'll be the last world champion? Will the world championship find a new iconic home at a world-class event that can equal the Calgary Stampede? And will the event move into the future or will it re-dedicate itself to perfecting and preserving the past?

The future of the world championship could be a bellwether for the profession itself.

To learn more:

Post Card from Calgary 2013: Mustad Magazine interactive web edition about the WCBC

Icon, Brand, Myth: The Calgary Stampede edited by Maxwell Foran, free preview chapters online

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