It doesn’t matter how familiar a contestant is with the rodeo arena, there’s just something about the Calgary Stampede that drives the adrenaline into a higher gear for participants.

Perhaps it has something to do with the two million dollars in prize money, the legendary reputation of the event, or the packed grandstand with fans from around the world.

It might be the history – the legacy of rodeo champions in the past. Or perhaps the future – what a Stampede championship could mean to a rodeo career.

Whatever the reason, the butterflies are starting to rumble for the 2019 set of contestants, ready to try their fortunes in some of the most famous rodeo dirt around.

Even for Dawson Hay. The third-generation rodeo cowboy has been coming to the Calgary Stampede since he was a youngster. His dad Rod, the newest Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame inductee, has four of the coveted Stampede saddle bronc bronzes in his living room. Heck, Dawson has one of his own, as the 2017 Novice Saddle Bronc winner at Calgary.

Dawson Hay and Cody Hamilton at the 2018 Calgary Stampede Rodeo.

But this year the bronc riding talent makes his debut in the open competition… the real deal… his first chance for a $100,000 cheque.

“I don’t really know what to expect,” admitted Hay, who will turn 21 on Wildcard Saturday. “I’ll be up in Pool B, so it’s a really, really tough group of guys. Hopefully I can just draw some good horses and make it back there for the Finals.”

Last year’s saddle bronc Rookie of the Year for the Pro Rodeo Cowboy’s Association rode at his first Canadian Finals last November. He was making an impact this winter south of the line, but then had to put his efforts on hold for three months for knee surgery. Hay just returned to competition in June, and found himself a bit rusty.

“Taking three months off was hard. I’d never taken that much time off before in my career. It did take a minute to get back in the groove,” admitted the cowboy from Wildwood.

But Hay found his groove again at Wainwright in mid-June with a win, and followed that up by a solid Cowboy Christmas run, including an appearance in the Ponoka Stampede Finals a few day ago.

“I feel like I’ve got the confidence I had during the winter rodeos, and my speed back.”

It will take both confidence and speed in the spurs to make a showing at Calgary, and Hay knows it won’t be easy.

“I think it actually makes me a little more excited, to be honest. The energy, and to be riding against such a high level of contestants is really cool. I know my way around there but I’ve never got to get on this caliber of horses, against this caliber of guys. I’m really confident and excited going into it.”

Cody Cassidy at the 2018 Calgary Stampede.

Whether you go all the way back to father Greg, or sons Curtis or Cody, you’d be hard pressed to find a Stampede year without at least one Cassidy in the lineup. This year Curtis steer wrestles in Pool B, while Cody competes in Pool A, much to his relief.

“There’s not any place I’d rather be that time of year than at Calgary,” insists Cody, the younger of the two brothers. “I needed an invite this year, and last year, so I need to step up to the plate a little bit better and make sure I finish a little higher.”

“Two years ago, I didn’t make the (Canadian) Finals, and last year I did. I should’ve got in through the standings, but I broke a barrier with my horse’s nose one night in Red Deer and I should’ve won the round. That one little mishap cost me getting in there.”

Invitations are handed out sparingly, and the five-time Canadian Champion never assumed for a moment he would be fortunate enough to earn one.

“I’m always worried, if you need an invite, you’d better be worried,” said Cassidy. “It was a huge relief to get in.”

It means a lot to the whole Cassidy clan, a legendary rodeo family in Canada, to have both brothers competing at Calgary again.

“We’ve been going there since we were little kids, as long as I can remember, going there with Dad. That’s a lot of years ago now,” chuckled Cody, who turned 38 last month. “We’ve probably been there every year for thirty-some years. The rodeo’s always been really good to us.”

Greg Cassidy won the steer wrestling twice, in 1990 and 2001, plus he took the tie-down roping championship in 1984. Curtis got the big cheque in 2006 for bulldogging. Cody has been to the Final Four Showdown four times, and finished every place but first.

“Obviously, I’d love to win it one of these years. But if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t take anything away from what I’ve done. I’ve won a lot a lot of money out of there. I’ve never won it, but I’ve had a lot of success.”

“I love the set-up, I love the feel of it, I love the crowds. There’s excitement, there’s money up. I mean, being a Canadian, I mean, that’s the holy grail of rodeos for us, being at the Calgary Stampede.”