It’s hard to say who is more excited for the start of the Ponoka Stampede – the fans, the organizers, or the contestants. Safe to say when the ‘thunder rolls’ on June 26 as the bucking horses gallop down the track to the infield for the 82nd edition, there will be no shortage of adrenaline anywhere on the Stampede grounds.
“I’m very happy and very excited about this year’s program, like I am every year,” comments Ponoka Stampede President Blair Vold. “But this year we’ve got some improvements on the grounds, we’ve paved the midway, and we’ve got some new projects on the go.”
“We’ve also got a bigger contestant list than we’ve had for a while.”
“It’s their Cowboy Christmas and we’re the highest paying of all the rodeos that week, so it’s a ‘must’ stop.”
The list of pro rodeo competitors coming to Ponoka reads like a who’s who of champions, both in Canada and on the world stage. For instance, four-time and reigning World Champion bull rider Sage Kimzey is scheduled to ride, while World All-Around Champion Tuf Cooper will be there, along with Trevor Brazile, the man with 23 gold buckles.
Another World Champion, and last year’s Ponoka Stampede saddle bronc Showdown winner, Zeke Thurston of Big Valley will be back, and he’s been on a roll this spring, racking up the cash at rodeos from Red Bluff to Wildwood.
Then there’s three-time Canadian bareback Champion, Jake Vold, who has a pair of Ponoka Stampede titles to boot. Vold spent the winter healing from surgery after last December’s devastating knee injury at the NFR but he returned to action in June and can’t wait for the chance to defend his title at the ‘hometown’ Stampede.
Curtis Cassidy is another local cowboy with plenty of honors in his trophy case, including two Canadian steer wrestling Championships, as well as a tie-down roping one. So its only natural this is a favorite summer stop for him.
“It’s the Long Score, the atmosphere, and then of course, being so close to home. We’re only sixty miles away from there so it’s almost like hometown for us,” says the Donalda cowboy.
“That’s one of the highlights of anybody’s career by far, is winning Ponoka.”
The famous rodeo family has a legacy at Ponoka, and you just have to check the champions board in the Long Score Saloon to see multiple titles held by Curtis, his brother Cody, and their dad Greg.
“I know who’s ahead,” chuckled Cassidy. “I’ve got three names up on that board and Cody’s got two, and I know Dad’s got one for sure.”
Not that there’s any friendly family rivalry or anything!
Like all the timed event contestants who run down the unique extended box that’s such a big part of Ponoka’s heritage, Cassidy admits the challenging setup generates extra electricity.
“That whole weekend is exciting because everywhere you go you’re running at so much money every day. But Ponoka, by far, gets your motor running more than anywhere else. Anybody that says they don’t get nervous steer wrestling at Ponoka is a liar,” he laughs.
So rodeo fans are treated to a daily Ponoka Stampede performance with the best of contestants, matched up with world caliber bucking stock, to try and win their share of a $362,000 purse for the rodeo alone.
Not only that, but the Ponoka Stampede is a cornerstone of several key series.
“We’re the only stop that’s in Canada on the new Wrangler ProRodeo Tour,” points out Blair Vold. “With the amount of money we have up, there’s a lot of dollar points to go towards that Tour Finals, and to the NFR.”
Ponoka is also part of the Finning Canada Pro Rodeo Tour.
The Stampede’s format is unique in Canada because after the six regular performances, the twelve best in each major event return for the Finals, this year on July 2nd. From there, the four finest get a chance at another $15,000 jackpot during the popular Showdown Round on the Monday evening.
“It’s a big mover and shaker for all the contestants in the standings for the world, and in the Canadian standings especially.”
Yes, a win at the Ponoka Stampede does mean a lot of ground work done for getting to either the Canadian Finals Rodeo in Red Deer, or the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
Just ask Jason Thomas. The Arkansas-based steer wrestler stuffed his jeans with more than $13,000 from Ponoka last year, and that helped propel him all the way to a Canadian championship in November.
Thomas will be in Ponoka this year. However, he’ll only be on the hazing side of the box, after having to withdraw from competing at the last moment.
“I snapped my arm in half this winter,” he explains, about the injury he suffered in Texas in February, while practicing for San Antonio.
Given clearance by the doctors to return to action, Thomas tried out his arm for the first time last month.
“I heard a pop in my arm and I strained a bunch of muscles. The bone was fine, but I had to take time off again. I’ve been rehabbing and working out, trying to get it ready. I went to North Platte the other day and ran two (steers) and then I ran one at Reno before we came up here to Canada. It popped again on me at Reno.”
Given the severity of the original injury, it may not be surprising that grabbing a running steer by the horns and twisting it over is still a bit ambitious.
“I didn’t just break my humerus (upper arm). I snapped it completely in half. That traumatized all the muscles. They put a titanium plate and nine screws in there.”
Thomas embarked on a rigorous program to get the muscles back in working order.
“It felt good. The muscles were getting stronger, they just weren’t strong enough to bulldog, I guess.”
Thomas plans to take another week or so and try again. If he runs into the same issue, the Canadian champion may have to put himself on the DL for the season.
“I made the decision when I broke my arm I’m going to try everything I can do to come back. But if it’s not able, I’m just going to take off this whole year and make sure it’s right, so I don’t rush back and mess myself up for the rest of my career.”
Even though Thomas won’t be running a steer himself this year in the Ponoka long score, his horse will be there. Frosty, who helped him win last year, will be under his traveling partners, and Thomas will be right there doing the hazing for them.
“I told ‘em I’m their cheerleader and life coach,” he joked. “They thought ‘life coach’ was hilarious, and they might be right about that.”
A big new project the Ponoka Stampede is undertaking for 2019 is the Wild West Suites, offering an exclusive infield viewing area for sponsors and corporate guests.
“We’ve been talking about it for years and we decided to go ahead with it,” says Vold. “I think it’s a good long-term plan to promote the sport of rodeo and chuckwagon racing, to get in more sponsorship money. These companies that like to support rodeo want a venue to host their customers and clients.”
There will be sixteen corporate suites built on the south side of the infield, behind the contestant seating area. Eagle Builders of Ponoka will begin construction right after this year’s event wraps up. Vold indicates after the project was announced in May, many of the suites were quickly snapped up for 2019 before the 2018 Stampede even began.
The highlight will be the Wild West Rooftop.
“It’s going to have a beautiful bar and setting overlooking the infield, the grounds and the whole town of Ponoka. It will hold up to 350 people for special events or just a crowd to watch the rodeo or the chucks. It’s a new exciting part of the promotion and growth of the Ponoka Stampede.”