Zeke Thurston saddle bronc riding

Everyone has their ‘favorite place’ in sports. Maybe it’s a certain hole at the local golf course, a particular hockey barn, or baseball diamond.

But it’s a place you ‘own’, where success comes easily, where magic happens.

For some rodeo contestants, it’s in the middle of the arena at the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.

Zeke Thurston is a perfect example. For each of the last three years, he’s worked his way through the Stampede pools, made it to Championship Sunday and walked out of Calgary with a big bronze and an oversized cheque for $100,000 as the saddle bronc winner.

The Big Valley talent took a step towards a potential quadruple victory, by winning first place on the opening day of the 2018 Calgary Stampede.

It’s the fifth time Thurston has climbed on board the bay mare Stampede Warrior in the bucking chutes, with regularly spectacular results. But it’s the first time the two have met in her home playpen, and with spurs sparkling in the sunshine, Thurston tapped out a sky-high 89 point tune, putting $5500 in his pocket as a Pool A competitor.

“You can’t ask for a horse to buck any harder or better than that one. She’s just a sweetheart. She just tries her heart out. I have a lot of respect for that horse,” credited Thurston.

“She must like it here. Her name’s Stampede. She knows this is her rodeo,” he chuckled.

You could say the same for Thurston.

“I don’t know,” he responds, when asked to described why Calgary has been so good for him. “Honestly, I think it’s just a lot of the stars have aligned, I guess. I don’t know what you’d say it is.”

“I went to probably fifteen rodeos in the last two weeks and haven’t won but for $4500. I didn’t have any luck. As long as I ride the horses the best that I can and take care of business, that’s all you can ask for. It’s pretty nice when you draw one like Stampede Warrior. You can show off a little bit,” grinned the 23-year-old.

“You can look down the top fifty of the world right now and any one of those guys could beat you any given day, all depending on the draw. There’s so many young guys that ride great it’s pretty fun. I love the competition and that’s what it’s all about.”

Thurston’s good friend and the current Canadian champion Layton Green was only two points behind, marking 87 on another Stampede horse called Umber Bubbles, to pick up $4500 for second place.

Lisa Lockhart barrel racing

Like Thurston, you can see the Calgary Stampede is a happy place for Lisa Lockhart and her buckskin horse Louis. They claimed the big prize in 2015, but they consistently make trips to the Calgary paywindow. Friday was no different, as they rounded the barrel pattern in 17.360 seconds, which was fastest of the round, for $5500.

“Louis is in good shape,” agreed the busy Mom from Oelrichs, SD. “I have used another horse a lot this year. Her name is Rosa and she’s a buckskin as well. But you know, it’s just hard to not start out on such a seasoned veteran, one who has proven that he likes this arena. It puts me in my comfort zone, and so it was just a no-brainer for day number one to start out on Louis.”

“The pattern’s a little different, angled differently this year. Even though we were at practice this morning, when I turned the first barrel today, I found we had to go down the pen more for the second (barrel) and then the third is set towards the bucking chutes more. So I’m thinking about this as I’m going, but I’m like ‘you can’t think about that’. It’s just three barrels. You go and turn them, no matter how they’re proportioned in the arena.

“It’s great to start off with a bang and I’m so glad to be in Calgary.”

Lockhart is coming off a much-enjoyed break at home after a very successful winter rodeo run, using both her horses. She’s also been busy with her kids and their rodeo finals, and is just getting back into rodeo mode herself.

“Calgary has been good to us in the past, so definitely one of my favorites, in rain, shine, mud. Louis doesn’t care, so I don’t care,” she laughed. “It’s just such an exciting atmosphere and so different, and the money’s so good. There’s just a million great things I can say about it.”

Texan Kelly Bruner was just a tenth of a second behind Lockhart, at 17.460 seconds, picking up $4500 for second place.

Calgary is also a place where Richmond Champion likes to excel. Champion left a year ago as the bareback champion of the Stampede, and he picked up right where he left off.  The Texas cowboy spurred to an 86.5 on a Kesler horse called Garden Party for $5500. The 2015 Stampede winner Clint Laye of Cadogan wasn’t far behind, clicking out an 85.5 on Tootsie Roll, for $4500.

And the story was echoed in the tie-down roping, where 2017 Champion Cory Solomon was up to his Stampede form. The two-time winner sizzled through his run in 6.9 seconds, to tie up his first $5500 of this year’s event. But at his first Calgary Stampede, Kyle Lucas of Carstairs was on his heels, picking up $4500 for a 7.3 seconds run.

Cue another Stampede winner back for more when Louisiana steer wrestler  Tyler Waguespack was last man out and fast man in, with a 3.9 second run. He scooped up the $5500 for top spot in the Pool A standings. But Alberta cowboy Cody Cassidy wasn’t far off the pace, collecting $4500 for a four second flat time.

The only exception to past winners winning Friday was in the bull riding, where a pair of cowboys shared the high mark, each collecting a bronze and $5000.

Texan Cooper Davis marked his 85.5 on Wounded Warror.

“I’ve been here to Calgary a few times, but it’s the first time I’ve ever won a round though, so I’m pretty excited,” he smiled. “That was a bull I was excited to have and thought we’d have a pretty good score on him.”

“To be able to have that cushion, and be confident going into the next three rounds is really a pick-me-up.”

Joe Frost of Utah equaled that mark on Scorpion, getting the first Stampede go-round win of his career.

“That’s the tenth bull I’ve been on in the last eight days. I was 88.5 in Red Lodge, but I didn’t win a bronze. So we’re off to a better start and if we can keep it rolling, this pays a hundred thousand,” he grinned.