07/18/2012 08:58 EDT | Updated 09/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Chuckwagon Races -- Our Gladiator Fights?

The deaths of three horses in this year's chuckwagon races at the Calgary Stampede, has re-ignited the long-standing debate as to whether the races are cruel and should be discontinued.

A poll of Canadians would probably come out in favour of chuckwagon races as something of an institution around which the annual Stampede is based.

If one could turn the clock back to Roman times, a similar poll would also come down in favour of to-death gladiator fights in the Coloseum, and bear-baiting, lions eating Christians and, of course, Ben Hur-like chariot races.

By today's standards, we consider the Roman Coliseum barbaric, but it sure as hell was exciting and considered invaluable entertainment for the masses.

It's pretty hard not to see chuckwagon races as a sort of modern version of the Roman Coloseum.

More than 50 horses have been killed in Stampede races over the last 26 years. While statistically, that's insignificant number, it's still 50 unnecessary deaths.

Each horse killed or "put down" as a result of chuckwagon injuries is a death caused in the name of entertaining the masses. Part of the excitement and tension in a chuckwagon race is the possibility of a crash that kills horses.

Not too different, one imagines, from the Roman Coliseum crowds.

It's similar in car races, where the possibility of a crash that kills or injures drivers is part of the appeal. Both NASCAR and chuckwagon races are spectacles that are enhanced by the dangers involved and the possibility of witnessing violent death.

For animal rights activists it's a no brainer -- the chuckwagon races should be banned.

Three dead horses are useful to advance their theme. To others, the deaths

are statistically insignificant, and shouldn't affect that races which are already monitored to have the appearance of curbing risks, without actually eliminating risk.

The National Post devoted a page to columns about the races. Perhaps the oddest view was expressed by Barbara Kay, who's usually pretty sensible, when she opined: "I am betting that if horses could talk and if you polled high-competition horses for their opinions on their fate, they would say . . . 'Man, this is the life.'"

Perhaps Roman gladiators would say the same thing, prior to entering a fight before a cheering crowd where one of the competitors was destined to get a thumbs-down

verdict from the fickle spectators.

Kay musing about what chuckwagon horses would say if they were polled is inconsequential, unless she is something of a horse-whisperer with whom they chat.

Jonathan Kay, on the other hand, says if he were a horse (!), he'd "opt for the 'chuckwagon option'" rather than the "monotonous existence within an industrial animal-fattening facility . . . destined to become bacon strips, chicken nuggets or dog food . . ."

(What is it with these Kays and their mystical rapport with animal psyches?)

On the other side, Barbara Cartwright, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, seems to equate horses with unifying qualities more usually attributed to the railway and the last spike: "Without the work of horses, Canada would not be what it is today."

What that has to do with chuckwagon races is uncertain, but she clarifies: "After all that horses have done for us and our country, our events celebrating them should go back to the traditions of preserving their safety and well-being."