NEAR SENTINEL BUTTE — One of rodeo’s freshest faces continued making a name for himself at one of the sport’s most tradition-laden events Saturday.
Zeke Thurston, who turned 22 years old in July, avoided disaster in the chute and then spurred retiring bucking horse Lynx Mountain to an 87-point ride in front of more than 3,000 fans to win the 60th annual Champions Ride Saddle Bronc Match at the Home on the Range.
The Big Valley, Alberta, cowboy became the first Canadian to win the Champions Ride and second international cowboy following Australian Glen O’Neill, who won in 1999 and 2000.
“I’ve been pretty lucky to have quite a bit of success early on in my career, and you know … you don’t get to go to very many events like this that are this prestigious,” Thurston said with a smile.
The baby-faced bronc rider all but assured his place at the National Finals Rodeo with the $10,000 payday. The second-year pro sat seventh in the world standings coming into the week and will likely move into the top five next week.
While Thurston walked away with one of the biggest wins of his young career, it took some veteran-like moves to get it.
Lynx Mountain, a Calgary Stampede bronc in its 15th year, reared up as the chute opened and nearly caused Thurston to miss his mark out.
But he quickly regained control as the bronc bucked him right and then straight.
“She was really just up under herself,” Thurston said.
The win was a bit of payback for Thurston, who said he’d been matched up with Lynx Mountain last year.
“She’s kind of notorious for rearing out like that,” he said. “She really reared out on me last time, smashed me on the gate pretty good and knocked me off right there. … I kind of felt like I owed her one.”
Thurston said winning the Champions Ride was special because his dad, Skeeter — a four-time NFR qualifier and friend of North Dakota legendary cowboy Brad Gjermundson — used to compete in the Champions Ride.
“It’s got a little tradition and a little background to it,” he said.
While Thurston walked away with a big check, he fell just short in a no-money matchup against last year’s champion Wade Sundell, who is no longer a member of the PRCA and cannot compete in the sanctioned event because of his status in the Elite Rodeo Athletes league.
Sundell, from Coleman, Okla., had an 83 on Cat Man Do to edge Thurston’s 82.5 on Wibaux.
Sundell won a rifle for his efforts.
“My hats off to those guys for letting me come up here and do this,” Sundell said. “Winning trinkets, there’s nothing better than that.”
Of the 13 cowboys who rode in the championship round, eight scored 80 or better.
South Dakotan Chuck Schmidt came the closest to Thurston with an 85.5 on Sweatin’ Bullets, an NFR horse and the same he won the match on in 2012.
“Today he surprised me,” Schmidt said. “He was really good and I was tickled to have him. I was mostly happy because I barely made the short round. … Then I get a good horse, end up getting a good ride.”
Because the Champions Ride is a winner-take-all purse, Schmidt’s walked away penniless despite his outstanding ride.
“You come here, you do the whole thing, hopefully you ride good — the best you ever have — and then you walk away with a smile and go on to the next one,” he said.
60th annual Champions Ride Saddle Bronc Match
At Home on the Range, Sentinel Butte Long Go Round
Finals qualifiers: Shorty Garrett, Dupree, S.D., 83. Chet Johnson, Douglas, Wyo.,
83. Rusty Wright, Milford, Utah, 82.5. Jake Watson, Hudsons Hope, British Columbia, 81. JJ Elshere, Hereford, S.D., 81. Jacobs Crawley, Boerne, Texas, 80.5. Sam Spreadborough, Snyder, Texas, 80. Zeke Thurston, Big Valley, Alberta, 80. Samuel Kelts, Millarville, Alberta, 79.5. Ty Corrington, Hastings, Minn., 78.5. Taos Muncy, Corona, N.M., 78.5. Chuck Schmidt, Keldron, S.D., 78.5. Taygen Schuelke, Newell, S.D., 78.5.
Eliminated: CoBurn Bradshaw, Beaver, Utah, 78. Ryder Wright, Milford, Utah,
78. Clay Elliott, Nanton, Alberta, 77. Tate Thybo, Belle Fourche, S.D., 76. Audy Reed, Spearman, Texas, 76. Sterling Crawley, Boerne, Utah, 75. Layton Green, Meeting Creek, Alberta, 75. Ty Manke, Hermosa, S.D., 74. Nate Stratton, Goodwell, Okla., 74. Cole Elshere, Faith, S.D.,
73. Spencer Wright, Milford, Utah, 72. Dustin Flundra, Pincher Creek, Alberta, NS. Tyrel Larsen, Inglis, Manitoba, NS. Dalton Davis, Holcomb, Kan., NS. Dusty Hausauer, Dickinson, NS. Jake Wright, Milford, Utah, NS. Jesse Wright, Milford, Utah, NS.
Jim and Tom Tescher Championship Round: Thurston 87. Schmidt 85.5. Elshere 84. Crawley 83. Corrington 81.5. Watson 81. Ru. Wright 81. Garrett 80. Schuelke 79. Muncy 79.5. Johnson 77. Kelts NS. Spreadborough NS.
Average winner: Zeke Thurston 167.
Champions Ride Off: Wade Sundell, Coleman, Okla. 83. Zeke Thurston, Big Valley, Alberta, 82.5