When the stakes are big, Zeke Thurston seems to have figure out how to make his rides even bigger. The saddle bronc superstar’s uncanny ability to excel under pressure was in fine form Sunday night at the 87th Ponoka Stampede’s Showdown Final. Already seeing an 85.25, an 89.75, and a 90 go up on the scoreboard, some riders would be intimidated. But it only fires up the Big Valley cowboy, and that’s dangerous. He nodded his head and turned out of the chutes on the Calgary Stampede horse Dandy Delight, spurring to a massive 92.75 to the delight of the packed grandstand.
“It’s so awesome,” stated Thurston, moments after drinking in the crowd’s enthusiasm and picking up his latest rodeo treasures. “If you could bottle it up and sell that feeling, it would be worth a lot of money.”
“People in Alberta love bronc riding. We have a lot of support, and I’m just really thankful for all of that, and everybody that had a hand in putting this deal on.”
Thurston has been watching the horse he rode come into its own in the broncs pen.
“It’s a process to build a bucking horse, just like it’s a process to turn yourself into a bronc rider. That horse has been going through the steps the last few years and she’s ready to go on to bigger stages. They’ve got her here, and she did pretty good, I’d say,” grinned Thurston. “This winter that horse got five NFR bronc riders in a row, and went unridden. You get one that bucks hard like that and you just try to keep the aggression at an all time high, and the composure level.”
With a sparkling resume that already includes three Canadian and World championships, the win Sunday gives Thurston a third Ponoka championship too, along with an $18,000 boost in the standings. And the thrill doesn’t get old.
“This is top five rodeos of the year in the entire world, it doesn’t matter where you go. This is one of the best rodeos you’ll ever go to. It’s a cowboy’s rodeo. It’s western, and great bucking horses. It’s darn sure my favorite rodeo.”
The biggest single money winner at Ponoka this year was Nick Tetz, of the nearby central Alberta community of Alsike. The bull rider earned almost $24,000, boosted by being the only one of the Showdown four to make the whistle. He did so in style, tapping out 88.75 points on Calgary’s Armed and Dangerous bull.
“It’s pretty unreal,” marveled the 2022 PBR Canada champion. “It’s the only rodeo I’ve been to so far, and to show up and do this is a little surreal. Everyone comes in planning to do exactly what I went and did.”
These days, Tetz is focused more on the PBR circuit, but his appearance at the Ponoka event the night before didn’t go nearly as well as Sunday. Winning so much money might mean pondering his game plan for the rest of the year, opening doors to the CFR or potentially even the NFR.
“I’m going to let everything soak in. I’m two weeks behind on entries for everything for the pro rodeos. I’ve got to go into my book and look and see what else I can make. I’m on the PBR Team with the Arizona Ridge Riders, and I really want to go back-to-back in the PBR Canada because they’ve never had that happen before. So I’m trying to focus my efforts into that.”
“There’s so many options as a bull rider to stay in Canada, so you definitely have to pick and choose and figure out what’s important to you and set your goals.”
The bareback riding bonus dollars went to Manitoba’s Orin Larsen after he made a sparkling 90.75 point ride on Calgary’s Yippy Kibitz, to collect just under $16,000. It was Larsen’s third time in the Showdown round, making the win even more special.
“I’ve been coming here for over a decade, so I’ve been waiting for this one for a while,” says Larsen. “I’ve thought about that horse and having him here, so it was a dream come true,” says the eight-time NFR qualifier, who won Pendleton and a go-round on the NFR on board the horse previously.
“That was a way nicer trip than I’ve ever had her. She’s really come into her own these last couple years and she’s got a set pattern now, and she’s one for the (year-end) halter.”
It was a nail biter in the tie-down roping, when Stettler’s Beau Cooper and Montans’s Haven Meged both tied a calf in 9.1 seconds. Canadian Champion Ty Harris came out and managed to better them by a mere tenth of a second, to win the Showdown and $18,155 for a nine second time.
“Oh man, I love it up here,” says the Texan. “The calves and the people and the rodeos are so awesome, I’m just thankful to be here.”
As in so many sports, inches or fractions of time can make a huge difference.
“Especially when you’re rope against ropers of this calibre, it can go either way at all times,” agrees Harris. “I actually get to ride with the two guys that won second and third back down to the States. I would’ve been so happy for them if they won it, but that’s rodeo. They’re going to have a lot of great wins.”
Harris also picked up cheques at Williams Lake, BC and Greeley, CO over the weekend, and estimates he could pick up nearly $30,000 from the three rodeos.
Dalton Massey, the world season leader for steer wrestling, added to his cushion by winning Ponoka’s Showdown in 4.6 seconds for $18,062, in his second trip to Ponoka.
“It’s a world class rodeo,” says the Oregon cowboy.
Massey was matched up with the same steer he’d run in the afternoon.
“He wasn’t my favorite steer, but I wanted another chance at him and it worked out. I knew I could do a better job.”
Oklahoma’s Emily Beisel and her grey horse Chongo came through with the fastest barrel time of the Ponoka showdown, to claim the Stampede championship and $16,835 in 17.28 seconds.
“I won the long round, the short go and the average in 2019,” recalled Beisel. “But then I hit a barrel in the Finals. That one was a heartbreaker. This is a huge rodeo win for us. It’s really going to help us in the world standings. I’m so proud of him. This is a fun rodeo and the crowd is amazing.”
Team ropers were thrilled to be competing for equal money this year, and that brought up some of the big names from the U.S. Taking home the lion’s share of the cash were Paul Eaves and Erick Rogers after they roped their Showdown steer in 6.9 seconds, to score $20,327 apiece.
“This feels great,” says Rogers, who’s from Arizona. “I’ve been here several times. I wanted this buckle and I’ve got it now.”
“The steer was a little stronger that we ran, but I did my job and whenever the steer turns, Paul does his job every time and gets two feet.”
The All Around honors at Ponoka this year went to Jacob Gardner, who rode bulls and wrestled steers, while Jesse Popescul was the High Point champion. The bareback horse of the Ponoka Stampede was C5’s Virgil, with Volds winning the saddle bronc honors with One More Reason, and the bull of the Stampede with Uncle Kranky.