For the first time in decades there will be eight Canadians competing at the National Finals Rodeo, which begins Thursday in Las Vegas.
With a 10-million-dollar purse, the local contenders are anxious to claim their share of the gold.
Levi Simpson is part of the first all-Canadian duo to qualify for the team roping at the NFR. The Ponoka resident will be paired up with his heeling partner Jeremy Buhler of Arrowwood.
“It’s pretty cool to be the first Canadian team, and one of the first two Canadian headers to ever make the Finals. That’ll be something I can have in my resume for the rest of my life that no one can take away,” said the 28-year-old with a smile.
“It’s been in the back of my head forever while we’ve been rodeoing that there’s never been a Canadian header at the NFR, so to be that guy is kind of cool. It’s nice to finally break the ice.”
Also following the Canadian flag in during the nightly grand entry at the Thomas and Mack Arena will be fellow team roping header Kolton Schmidt, from Barrhead, who ropes with Texan Shay Carroll. Back in 2007, Drayton Valley’s Dean Tuftin was the first Canadian team roper to ever crack the top 15 in that competitive world. To get qualified meant countless miles of travel for Simpson and Buhler, and sacrifice, especially considering Simpson welcomed baby Annie last February. Levi credits a supportive wife and family for helping make their dream a reality.
“It took commitment by more than just me. The support system we have and the commitment that it takes by everybody is quite big,” said Simpson.
Simpson and Buhler won one round at the recent CFR, and placed in two others.
“We had a decent Finals, but it didn’t go as planned. You always want to go in there and clean house and end up winning a Canadian title. We fell short of that again this year, so we’ll have go into Vegas a little bit more hungry, since we didn’t get as many bills paid from Edmonton as we wanted.”
Simpson and Buckler pocketed $8,475 apiece at the CFR. At the NFR, first place in a round pays $26,000.
“We’ve just got to rope each cow as it comes, and then go on to the next one,” said Simpson.
It will be a second straight NFR appearance for saddle bronc rider Zeke Thurston. The Big Valley cowboy is fourth in the world race, the highest of the three Canadians in the event.
“I’ve been excited (to be back) since the end of the year,” said Thurston, as he drove to Las Vegas this week. “I’m pretty stoked. But it’s a little different this year because I know what to expect. That’s keeping the ‘fear of the unknown’ tamed down, because I have an idea of what it’s like.
“I think I’ll be a lot more calm this year, and a little more laid back. Last year was pretty overwhelming, and kind a blur for the most part. I’m excited to take it all in this year, and I feel like I’m ready for it.”
Despite his rookie jitters, Thurston still managed to collect $55,692 last December, and he’d like to beat that this year. It’s been a busy fall for the 22-year-old, who married neighbour Jayne Lauweryssen Oct. 15th, and they’ve been busy putting the finishing touches on a new home.
Thurston also chose the Elite Rodeo Association Finals in Dallas over the CFR, where he won nearly $14,000. At the NFR, he may be $67,000 behind season leader and defending champion Jacobs Crawley, but even that kind of margin can quickly be erased.
“It’s anybody’s game when you get there, and if you’re hot, you’re hot. Anybody can win it.”
Also flying the maple leaf in the bronc riding will be newly crowned Canadian champion Clay Elliott of Nanton, and B.C.’s Jake Watson. A Canadian with one of the best shots at a world title is bareback rider Orin Larson, of Manitoba, who’s in second place and less than $41,000 behind the leader. But don’t count out Ponoka-raised Jake Vold, who just claimed his third straight Canadian bareback title in November. It’s the second NFR for both bareback riders.
The 10 performance NFR run begins Thursday at 7:45 pm (MST).