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MORGAN, Utah â€“ The reason Caleb Bennett loves rodeo is very simple.
â€śThe rodeo atmosphere is me,â€ť said Bennett, a bareback rider from Morgan. â€śItâ€™s like whiskey to a drunk or poker to a gambler; itâ€™s just something youâ€™ve got to have.
â€śI love it. I love traveling. I love 10-hour drives with buddies, and I love getting on bucking horses when I get there.â€ť
That passion has carried the 26-year-old cowboy to his third straight qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sportâ€™s year-end championship set for Dec. 4-13 in Las Vegas. Only the top 15 contestants from the regular season in each event advance to the 10-round finale, which offers the greatest payout in the game, $6.375 million.
The combatants will all battle for the $19,000 payday during each go-round over 10 December nights in southern Nevada, and the contestants with the most money earned at its conclusion will be crowned world champions. Through the regular season, Bennett pocketed $85,225 and will arrive in Sin City next week No. 8 in the bareback riding world standings.
â€śEveryone starts the year with the goal of making it to the NFR,â€ť said Bennett, who earned nearly $64,000 last December. â€śThis is how we make our living, so itâ€™s a huge goal.â€ť
The Utah cowboy heads to the finals after his best regular season. He had nine Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association titles in 2014, including wins in Rapid City, S.D.; Clovis, Calif.; Pendleton, Ore.; and the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo.
â€śWinning the national championship was awesome,â€ť he said of the April rodeo in which he won a boatload of cash and a voucher toward the purchase of a Ram pickup. â€śThatâ€™s always been a goal of mine to go to the Ram finals and win that, and this was only my second year of qualifying for that.
â€śItâ€™s just another stepping stone and what I want to accomplish in my career.â€ť
His year was solid from start to finish, and that helped him find a comfort zone to this yearâ€™s NFR. Thatâ€™s quite a change from 2013, when he had to finish with a flourish in order to qualify in the 15th and last spot.
â€śI had a great season, and I tried to plan things differently this year,â€ť Bennett said. â€śI tried to set up my winter runs by hitting the bigger, better rodeos and taking advantage of that. All summer long I entered like that. I tried to enter smarter instead of by quantity.
â€śI won more money this year than I had either year before when I qualified. That really made the month of September a lot easier on me. I could go to the bigger ones and relax a little bit and not have to worry about making it.â€ť
That pressure-valve rele3ase paid off in Pendleton, one of the biggest and most historic events in ProRodeo. He rode Sankey Rodeoâ€™s Thunder Monkey for 87 points to win the short go-round and share the average championship with fellow NFR qualifier Tim Oâ€™Connell.
â€śThatâ€™s a world-renowned rodeo that everybody wants to win,â€ť said Bennett, who competed on the rodeo team at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, after a stellar career that saw him win the 2007 National High School Finals Rodeo bareback riding title in one of his four qualifications. â€śIâ€™d never made the short round before, then I snuck in and happened to draw the best horse.â€ť
Of course, nothing comes without assistance. He gets plenty of support from his family; his father, Bob Caldwell, rode bucking horses and continues to compete in team roping; his mother, Claudine, has always been around barrel racing. Bennett, two brothers and three sisters were all raised around the sport and all but one have competed.
â€śMy familyâ€™s been a huge support for me,â€ť Bennett said. â€śI swear my mom is my biggest fan. Theyâ€™ve always been a great support group of mine to get from points A to B throughout the summer.â€ť
That family also consists of his traveling posse, a foursome of bareback riders who go by the moniker â€śFlow Riders,â€ť primarily because of their long hair. That group also includes NFR qualifier R.C. Landingham of Pendleton, who has finished 16th each of the past two seasons; Clint Laye of Cadogan, Alberta, among the top 25 in 2013-14; and J.R. Vezain of Cowley, Wyo., a three-time NFR qualifier sitting 10th in the world standings.
â€śThe main reason we started growing our hair was to honor R.C.â€™s mom, Wendy Stiver, when she started losing her hair while battling cancer,â€ť Bennett said. â€śShe is such a strong woman, and it goes for anyone out there who battles cancer. Sheâ€™s been an inspiration for all of us. We started growing our hair for her this year.â€ť
Moments like that help the cowboy stay grounded. He realizes he has blessings and talent, and he plans to take advantage of both. He has an amazing support system, which also includes other cowboys.
â€śThe first year I made the finals, Kaycee told me to just keep positive,â€ť he said of Kaycee Feild, a seven-time NFR qualifier and the reigning three-time world champion bareback rider from Spanish Fork, Utah. â€śIâ€™ve just taken that with me every year. If something didnâ€™t go right, I just let it go and started to focus on the next one.
â€śThatâ€™s what Iâ€™m going to do this year. I feel healthier and stronger than Iâ€™ve ever felt. I have a good workout routine to hopefully better me. Iâ€™m going to just go in there with goals and a winning mindset, because I really want to win that rodeo.â€ť
Doing so would mean finishing with the best 10-ride aggregate score. Feild has done that each of the past three seasons, which is a key reason he won those world championship gold buckles. Itâ€™s a great lesson for Bennett, who could add a $48,732 bonus if he were to win the NFR average.
â€śAnything can happen either way in Las Vegas,â€ť Bennett said. â€śIâ€™ve watch guys go in and struggle. Last year Kaycee struggled the first two rounds, then all of the sudden, he just stepped up and went hotter than a firecracker.
â€śTo me, that is the biggest lesson. Even if you have a few bad rounds, you can still come back and do well. The last few years I started stronger than I finished, and this year my goal is to finish stronger than I start.â€ť
With that goal in place, Bennett has his eyes set on the top prize in the game: The gold buckle.
LAS VEGAS â€“ If seven is a lucky number, Tyson Durfey is counting his blessings.
Next week, Durfey will compete in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for the seventh time. Itâ€™s just another major step in an already-amazing 11-year tie-down roping career, which includes three Canadian titles, a Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo championship and a $100,000 payday this past March for winning tie-down roping at RFD-TVâ€™s The American.
Over his previous six trips to Las Vegas, the Missouri-born cowboy has had a mixed bag of results. Heâ€™s seen great success and struggled. Since his first qualification in 2007, Durfey has missed the finale just once; that was two seasons ago when he finished 18th in the world standings â€“ only the top 15 cowboys at the end of the regular season make the trip to Las Vegas.
â€śMy dad was a cowboy, my grandfather was a cowboy and my brothers were cowboys,â€ť said Durfey, the youngest son of Roy Durfey, a man well known as an elite trainer of tie-down ropers and calf-roping horses. â€śAll I wanted was to be a cowboy.â€ť
Heâ€™s been that way since he was a young man growing up on his fatherâ€™s place near Savannah, Mo. Thatâ€™s where he was taught the lessons of being a true rodeo hand. Itâ€™s whatâ€™s carried him through his 31 years, both as a talented roper and as a man.
â€śOne thing I still hold onto today is that when I give someone my word, thatâ€™s as good as anything I can give them and that I will stand by it,â€ť he said.
Thatâ€™s a vital point to being a cowboy, but so is competing at a high level.
At 23, Durfey became the first American-born contestant to win a Canadian Professional Rodeo Association title. That came in 2006. He followed that with two other Canadian titles, one in 2008, the last in 2011. Earlier that season, he won the national title for the first time.
â€śIt felt good to win the national championship and the Canadian national championshipâ€ť in the same year, he said.
He also has made adjustments to his life and his livelihood, which has made a significant difference in how he approaches the work of being a professional rodeo cowboy.
â€śWhen I was younger, Iâ€™d let that pressure get to me more,â€ť said Durfey, who has sponsorship agreements with Next IT Corp., Zoetis Animal Health, Pro Vision Equine Digital Surveillance, Cinch, Corral Boots, Logan Coach Horse Trailers, Willbros Group Inc., Swift Transportation, HR Workplace Services, Priefert and Silver Lining Herbs. â€śAs Iâ€™ve gotten older, I guess Iâ€™ve gotten more focused and more confident. Every win gives you a little bit more confidence. If you can take every win, you can just build your confidence over time.
â€śI rely on what my capabilities are. I know my strengths and my weaknesses, and I know what Iâ€™m capable of. If Iâ€™m able to stay focused, stay relaxed and rope, the winning takes care of itself.â€ť
Each year on the rodeo trail means another level of experience he carries with him. These days, he also shares his life with his wife of one year, Australian-born country singer Shea Fisher. They live on a place near Weatherford, Texas, when sheâ€™s not singing and when heâ€™s not on the rodeo trail.
During his first qualification to the NFR in 2007, he had a much different approach to the game than he does now. The adjustments have made a world of difference.
â€śI just wanted to win and beat them, but at the end of the day, it boils down to being the best person you can be and doing the best you can do every time,â€ť Durfey said. â€śI was more focused on trying to win than I was at trying to be the best I could be at the rodeo.â€ť
Itâ€™s working rather well.
PONDER, Texas â€“ Bray Armes isnâ€™t much of a gambler, but he loves Las Vegas.
He returns to the City of Lights next week with his third qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. This is a business trip for the steer wrestler from Ponder, and he takes care of business quite well in the Nevada desert.
In 2012-13, Armes has earned more than $288,500 grappling bovines â€“ he pocketed $185,755 of that in Las Vegas over 20 December nights. Now he goes into ProRodeoâ€™s premier event sixth in the world standings. He trails leader Trevor Knowles by $22,500, but that gap can be closed in a hurry at the NFR, where go-round winners earn $19,000 each night.
â€śMy whole thought is that Iâ€™m going into the finals in the best position Iâ€™ve ever gone in,â€ť said Armes, who grew up in the northern-most area of the Texas Panhandle near Gruver. â€śIâ€™ve got just as good of a shot as anybody to go in there and win the gold buckle. Iâ€™m going to try to win as many rounds as I can and see where it falls in the end.â€ť
Last December, he downed 10 steers in a cumulative time of 44.8 seconds to win the coveted NFR average championship â€“ it is the second greatest accomplishment in the game, only to be outdone by the world championship.
To say he likes the set up at the Thomas & Mack Center would be a bit of an understatement.
â€śI like a fast start,â€ť he said. â€śIâ€™ve always seemed to do pretty good at quick starts, and itâ€™s definitely as fast as anywhere we go. Iâ€™ve been blessed to ride good horses out there every year, and Iâ€™ve had great hazers.
â€śEverythingâ€™s been lined up good for me.â€ť
Itâ€™s been worth the wait. Armes focused on competing sparingly early in his career, then stepped away from the game in 2009-11. When he returned in 2012, he did so with a goal of being one of the best in the game. Heâ€™s been one of the elite ever since. He finished the 2014 regular season with more than $69,000.
He won the Wrangler Champions Challenge in Kennewick, Wash., and also earned at least a share of the title at Jackson, Miss.; Lake Charles, La.; Armstrong, B.C.; and Dodge City, Kan.
â€śDodge City is always one Iâ€™ve wanted to win, and Iâ€™ve had the opportunity to win it before,â€ť said Armes, a four-time College National Finals Rodeo qualifier while attending Howard County Junior College in Big Spring, Texas, and Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. â€śThat was pretty awesome to get the win at it.â€ť
It was the perfect time of year. He had just enjoyed his family being on the rodeo trail for two weeks. As a rodeo cowboy who spends much of his time away from home, those few days with his wife, Neelley, daughter, Breely, and son, Drake, were priceless. In fact, Breely was still with him when he won the title in western Kansas.
â€śMy family came out with me more than they ever have, and Breely stayed with me another week because she had never done that by herself before,â€ť he said. â€śMy family means the world to me. They take care of everything at home. A smile or anything, just to see them, it tends to bring you back. When youâ€™re down, they can always pick you back up.
â€śAll it takes is a little smile from them, and you seem to forget about everything else.â€ť
In fact, that sentiment will bring some big changes for the Armeses in 2015.
â€śWhen I got home, I told them I wasnâ€™t ready to quit, but I was willing to do that or they needed to make the decision to go with me all year,â€ť he said. â€śI donâ€™t want to miss the kids growing up. Weâ€™re all so close. They pretty much build me up all the time and keep me happy. The hardest part of what I do is being away from them, and Iâ€™m ready to be with them every day instead of away from them.â€ť
Thatâ€™s bound to make everything better for next year, but Armes has no other complaints about his 2014 season. He leaned on hazer Sean Mulligan, a four-time NFR qualifier from Coleman, Okla., and on his horse, Ote, a lightning quick palomino gelding.
Heâ€™ll do so in Las Vegas.
â€śThey donâ€™t make them any better than Sean Mulligan,â€ť Armes said. â€śWhen I back in the box, Iâ€™ve got to worry about one thing, and thatâ€™s bulldogging. Oteâ€™s going to work great every time, and Seanâ€™s going to have the steers right there where I need them every time. Seanâ€™s hard to beat because he has the steers picked up for you every time.
â€śIâ€™m blessed to have Ote, because he gives me a chance to win every time. If I donâ€™t win, itâ€™s usually pilot error. He scores great and gives me everything heâ€™s got ever time. Thereâ€™s not a lot of them out there that do that.â€ť
With that kind of team in his corner, Armes is coming out swinging when the 10-round NFR slugfest begins Dec. 4. He has high goals â€“ â€śI want to wear them both, the average buckle and the gold buckle,â€ť he said â€“ and he has the right frame of mind to do it.
â€śWinning the gold buckle means everything to us; itâ€™s why we do what we do,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s the highest point that we can get to in our careers. To be able to win the world title would be something special.â€ť
It would be a dream come true.