There’s just something about Ponoka – at least for Stephen Culling. The steer wrestler from Fort St. John, B.C. proved Saturday that it’s a favorite stop on his rodeo calendar, when he surged to the lead in the same town where he walked out with the champion’s spoils two years ago.
In the morning round of slack, the bulldogger became the pacesetter with a smooth 5.1 second run. He followed that by shaving off a tenth and getting the job done in five flat in the afternoon, to be 10.1 on the two runs, nearly a full second faster than the man now in second place, Ponoka’s Craig Weisgerber.
“It’s been an outstanding day,” beamed Culling, moments after his second steer wrestling run. “I drew two good ones. I was right on the barrier on my first one. I was trying to be a little bit safe on that second one, and ended up missing it and running him quite a bit further than I had planned, but it all worked out.”
Judging the right time to hit the end of the long score box so you find the fine line between breaking the barrier and being late for a runaway is no easy task at Ponoka with its unique timed event set up.
“I was a little ‘safer’ than I had planned. It’s terrible to try to be safe here because you can end up screwing yourself up pretty easy and go from being safe to being way too long. You’ve got a plan in the back of your mind and that’s what you go with, and don’t try to overthink it a whole bunch. You’ve got 90 feet to judge where you’re at.”
Culling remembers well his 2016 Ponoka Stampede drama, and the $12,000 boost to his bank account that helped him get to his first Canadian Finals Rodeo.
“I was 11th and I was down in the States at some rodeos, and really hadn’t figured I’d get another one here. I was up at the beginning of the week, and it was raining and I was long.”
But strange things can happen at the Ponoka Stampede and a last-minute check showed there was another steer waiting for him at the Finals, if he could get there.
“I was in Livingston, MT that night, and jumped in the truck and drove all night. I got here just before the short round started. I ended up winning the short round and getting into that four man.”
Then in a Showdown round where everything that could go wrong in steer wrestling did, Culling actually ended up winning the whole deal, despite having a ten second penalty for a broken barrier.
“With the four guys we had here tonight, no one would’ve thought that not one would’ve worked out. Crazy things happen at Ponoka, especially on Sunday,” he’d said that Finals night.
Fast forward to 2018, when he’s been traveling with Matt Richardson, and both are inside Canada’s top ten bulldoggers in the standings.
“This year, I’m a little more confident in getting another one Monday,” he chuckled. “I’m a little more confident in everything. I ended up winning good out of Wainwright and I’m winning second at Williams Lake right now, so it’s shaping up to be a pretty good week. When it’s working, the ball starts rolling and its exciting and fun.”
Ironically, Culling and Richardson’s rodeo route after Ponoka Saturday includes Airdrie, Cody (WY) and then Livingston, before Monday’s Finals. So the road will be the same as two years previous.
“I’m planning on coming this time, not surprised when I get told I’m in!”
Other steer wrestlers Saturday who can also likely schedule a return trip to Ponoka include Louisiana’s Zack Jongbloed, with his 11.9 second total on two; Jonny Webb at 17.0 seconds; and potentially Culling’s traveling partner Richardson at 18.5, but he’s in tenth spot and could still be bumped.
It was a stellar day for team roping with seven runs at 7.2 seconds or faster in the performance in front of the packed grandstand of rodeo fans. Best of the go was the Oregon-based duo of Garrett Rogers and Russell Cardoza who got the job done in 6.2 seconds. Combined with their time from slack, the 12.9 moves them into third behind leaders Tristin Woolsey and Denver Johnson. Dallying up for second overall were Brady and Riley Minor of Ellensburg, WA with their tally of 12.8 on two. Joining the ranks of likely qualifiers from the fifth performance were also Cole Davison and Kolton Schmidt (14.0); Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler (14.3); and Tel Flewelling and Tyrell Gordon (14.6).
There’s a new name at the top of the tie-down roping leaderboard, but it’s a cowboy who’s no stranger to Ponoka Stampede. Rhen Richard of Utah is a regular on the Canadian roping scene, and put together a pair of tied calves in 17.7 seconds, to push Clayton Smith of Eckville back to second place (17.9).
It was a speedy round where Ty Harris of Texas tied a calf in 7.4 seconds, and Shane Hanchey was 7.8.
“There was a lot of good runs today,” confirmed Richard. “Usually it seems when you’ve got a lot of good guys in a set, and the calves are good, they start making good runs, and it’s just the snowball effect after that.”
“I missed the barrier a little more than what I probably should have right there,” he admitted, of his 9.2 second effort. “But I dang sure wasn’t going to break the barrier. It all worked out good.”
Like all successful ropers, Richard credits his horse, Little Joe.
“For my horse, this deal right here is right up his alley. He’s an older horse and you can really get him running before you hit the barrier. He’s smart enough on this setup that the faster you get him running, the better he is, so it fits him good.”
Zack Jongbloed is in great shape to make the Finals in two events, since he’s fifth in the tie-down roping average (18.7), now also joined in the qualifying ranks by Jordan Ketscher (18.9); Hanchey (19.0); Justin Malone (19.1); Cody Craig (19.2) and Cimarron Boardman (19.4), proving what a great day of tie-down roping it was on Saturday.
Barrel racer Rene Leclercq of Holden had the fastest time around the pattern, but her 17.858 is holding down the final qualifying spot at this point, so she’s on the bubble. Bareback rider Dantan Bertsch is in a similar situation after tying the bottom end mark with his 82.75 on Black Feathers in the fifth performance. That’s the same mark and same scenario for Zeke Thurston, who came out on Black Betty in the saddle bronc riding. But Taos Muncy emerged in a little better position Saturday, because he was 84.5 on Lady Gaga, to sit seventh, behind leader CoBurn Bradshaw with his 86.25. No bull riders made the whistle this day, so there remains eight qualified rides to date, with twelve spots eligible to return for Monday’s Finals.
Organizers paid tribute to longtime Ponoka Stampede member and leader Shorty Jones, who they lost this past year. As well, Shelley Buss was presented with the Errol Macmillan Volunteer Award.