Stakes rise at Ponoka Stampede

The Ponoka Stampede has upped the ante again. As preparations for this year’s 78th annual event are finalized, organizers have put an extra $5000 per event into the rodeo purse. The cash will go to the Showdown event, meaning the July first winner will collect an extra $7500 as champion, over and above what they’ve earned through the first part of the week. Those are big dollars in the rodeo world.

The Ponoka Stampede has upped the ante again.

As preparations for this year’s 78th annual event are finalized, organizers have put an extra $5000 per event into the rodeo purse. The cash will go to the Showdown event, meaning the July first winner will collect an extra $7500 as champion, over and above what they’ve earned through the first part of the week. Those are big dollars in the rodeo world.

In fact, the Ponoka Stampede lays claim to being the richest rodeo in North America over the July first long weekend, one of the busiest runs in the pro season. That also puts them in the top ten paying rodeos of the year.

This year the committee also boosted the overall purse for the WPCA races by $50,000. That brings it to a total of $325,000. Add to that, another $40,000 purse for tonight’s Jace Harty Memorial PBR bull riding event, and there’s a whole lotta moola on the line!

But for the hardworking volunteers of the little town with the big heart, it’s worth it to keep up the reputation of the world famous Ponoka Stampede. The competitors know what’s at stake, and they wouldn’t miss it for the world. But it also builds some extra pressure.

World Champion wagon man for 2013, Rick Fraser, has been competing at Ponoka for decades.

“It’s the most prestigious event on our Tour,” emphasized the Grande Prairie chuckwagon driver. “This is the one you want to win. It’s all the tradition here, and this is one that you focus on really hard.”

That means the early season tweaking of the team has to be wrapped up, and the best horses ready to perform.

“The trial and error part should be over by now. It’s time to shorten the bench, because the real running starts right here at the Ponoka Stampede. We’ve got the guys we’re going to go with for the next three weeks.”

Fraser is sticking with his main gunners from last year, after some of his promising new horses came close, but couldn’t quite crack the starting lineup. Early into the season, and with last weekend’s High River race postponed, Fraser is sitting 15th in the WPCA world race. The points are close, and drivers will tell you it’s anyone’s game this season whenever the claxton sounds.

“The horses have run really well. They’ve been right there every night,” insists Fraser. “The pilot, though, hasn’t been. It’s just one of those things. Lack of concentration sometimes, I guess. It’s really a mental thing. Any cowboy, golfer or hockey player will tell you the same thing. You’ve got to be focused every night.”

Fraser has won the Ponoka Stampede once before, but it was too long ago, in his mind. He’s part of the Dorchester family legacy, that the Ponoka Stampede proudly salutes with the $50,000 Tommy Dorchester Dash for Cash.

“My grandfather, this is his show. He did really well here, and he was part of the community,” commented Fraser. “It means a lot for our family to make it to the Finals.”

When it comes to famous Ponoka families, the Butterfields have a similar legacy in rodeo. But one of the current family contestants is grappling with a sore knee this week. 2012 Canadian saddle bronc champion Luke Butterfield was on crutches and not competing at Innisfail. He’s lost the crutches, but there’s some uncertainty on his status.

“I was riding at Sisters, Oregon, and I sat on my foot, so basically my foot came up in the saddle and then I came down on it, so like a hyperflexion,” explained Butterfield. “It hurt bad. I couldn’t even walk on it, so I was on crutches. But they told me to get off those as soon as I could.

“It’s feeling a lot better, I just can’t quite get it straight yet. I got an MRI and (Pro Rodeo) Sports Medicine is going to read it. But I’m going to get on here at Ponoka and see. I’ve got a nice horse drawn here Wednesday to test it out, and then pick and choose from there where I go.”

Butterfield plans to limit his travels, so he can focus on Ponoka and his upcoming appointment to ride at the Calgary Stampede.

While Wednesday is the first day of pro rodeo action at Ponoka, the 12th annual Jace Harty Memorial PBR Bull Riding event goes tonight at the Stampede grounds at 6:30.

With the size of the purse, and the amount of PBR points up for grabs, the event attracts some of the big names of bull riding world. Arkansas rider Chase Outlaw is back to defend his title. But B.C.’s Ty Pozzobon won the long round last year, and finished third overall, and he’s been on a roll.

“I actually won a PBR on Thursday night in Saskatchewan, and split Sundre, so it was a pretty good weekend for me,” said Pozzobon. “I just got back up to Canada the middle of May after going to a lot of PBR’s down south. I’m about 20th in the World now. I think I have the PBR Finals in Vegas made, so that’s kind of nice at this time of the summer. It takes a little pressure off so you can just go have fun and ride bulls.”

“I ride at the PBR in Ponoka Tuesday, and then I go down to Reno, and then to Williams Lake, and then back to Ponoka (for the rodeo). We’ll be getting on a bull almost every day here for the next couple of weeks. It’s busy, but it’s good.”

The Ponoka Stampede begins with an evening rodeo performance Wednesday at 6:30. After that, the rodeo goes daily at 1:00 pm, followed by the pony and WPCA chuckwagon races nightly at 6:30, through to the July first Finals.

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