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MORGAN, Utah â€“ Caleb Bennett spent the better part of Monday along Interstate 15, making that magical seven-hour drive from his home in northern Utah to Las Vegas.
This is a business venture for Bennett, one of the elite bareback riders in the world; heâ€™s embarking on a trip to compete at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sportâ€™s grand championship set for Dec. 5-14 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Itâ€™s his second straight qualification to the NFR, which features only the top 15 contestants in each event.
â€śIâ€™m looking forward to being down here and am more excited about it this year,â€ť said Bennett, 25, now finishing his sixth in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. â€śLast year I was excited, but I was more nervous about it because I didnâ€™t know what to expect when I got there.
â€śNow I know what to expect. I can just calm down, just ride bucking horses and have fun doing what I love.â€ť
Thatâ€™s the right attitude to have in Las Vegas, where go-round winners will earn $18,630 each night. In addition, the cowboy with the best 10-round cumulative score will earn the coveted average championship and a check worth nearly $48,000. The City of Lights is where people dream of riches in the Nevada desert; for rodeo cowboys, itâ€™s the place where a yearâ€™s worth of hard work can come to fruition in a week and a half.
â€śFor me, itâ€™s all about working really hard and getting my mind and my body ready for the competition,â€ť said Bennett, who attended Weber State University in nearby Ogden, Utah. â€śFor the last two months since Iâ€™ve been home, Iâ€™ve been doing two-a-days; I put in a full hour of cross-fit or cardio in the morning, then later that day Iâ€™ll go in and do an hour and a half of lifting.
â€śIn between, Iâ€™ll get on my spur board or my Spur Magic (bucking machine). Iâ€™ve even been riding saddle horses around with a rigging just to keep that edge.â€ť
He also has been competing. The NFR isnâ€™t the only post-season event for which Bennett qualified. He also earned a trip to the Canadian Finals Rodeo, which took place the second weekend in November, and the Professional Roughstock Series Finale, which occurred two weeks ago.
â€śIâ€™ve been getting good bucking horses, which helps a lot, too,â€ť he said. â€śI feel like having the chance to go to the Canadian Finals will help me a lot regarding whatâ€™s about to take place down here in Vegas.
â€śI remember last year after not riding for so long, after about two or three rounds, I was so sore I could barely move. This year, Iâ€™m still in riding shape.â€ť
His riding is in pretty good shape, too. In fact, Bennett earned at least a share of 10 PRCA titles in 2013, spreading from Arcadia, Fla., to Grand Prairie, Alberta. They all came in quite handy in his quest for ProRodeoâ€™s gold â€“ world champions in each event earn the most coveted prize in the sport when the NFR concludes, the gold buckle.
â€śIâ€™ve been thinking of nothing but winning the gold buckle this year,â€ť he said. â€śSure, I come in 15th, and I have a lot of ground to make up, but thereâ€™s so much money to be won in Vegas that anythingâ€™s possible.â€ť
Yes, it is. He finished the regular season with $67,497 and trails world standings leader Bobby Mote by more than $58,000. If all the right things fall into place, Bennett could make up the difference before the fifth round begins.
â€śThere are so many great bareback riders out there,â€ť Bennett said. â€śIf youâ€™re not working at it every day, whether itâ€™s riding the spur board or the bucking machine or practice horses, you do have a chance to be in the top 20.â€ť
Bennett is, and his goal is to remain there for some time. In fact, by 2018, he hopes to have added two world championships to his resume, but thatâ€™s every young cowboyâ€™s dream. 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
The cowboyâ€™s summer was filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. He had a rough stretch where money was tight and getting on great horses was rare.
â€śThe draw was my biggest struggle of the year by far,â€ť he said. â€śI had horses that I normally wouldnâ€™t get on, but Iâ€™d have to get on to scratch enough to place at the bottom just so I could keep my nose above water in the world standings. I needed to keep winning at least a little to even have a shot at Vegas, so Iâ€™d get on whatever I could just to make that happen.â€ť
Still, he found glory in one of the most prestigious rodeos in the world, the Calgary (Alberta) Stampede. Bennett posted a 92-point ride on the horse Stampede Warrior in the final round to win the $100,000 first-place prize.
â€śI got on six horses, and there was only one of those that wasnâ€™t that great,â€ť he said. â€śThe rest were phenomenal. I even had one that humbled me a little bit and bucked me off.
â€śI needed a little revenge on Stampede Warrior, because I didnâ€™t have a very good go on him last year in Vegas. To take him on for a score of 92 was an amazing confidence builder for me. I left Calgary knowing that I had to just go out there and get on bucking horses and take care of my business.â€ť
While his Calgary earnings didnâ€™t count toward the money list in order to qualify for the NFR, it became a critical piece of the puzzle in Bennettâ€™s late-season rush to finish in that potentially lucrative top 15. During the final two weeks of the season in late September, the Utah bronc buster earned a little more than $12,000.
â€śItâ€™s given me a lot more comfort,â€ť he said of the money. â€śI donâ€™t have to worry about funding for travel.â€ť
That allowed him the opportunity to fly from one rodeo to another instead of making overnight drives to get from one stop to another. For instance, in that two-week stretch, Bennett earned his cash at rodeos in Amarillo, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; Pasadena, Texas; Bowman, N.D.; Stephenville, Texas; Kansas City, Mo.; and San Bernadino, Calif.
â€śI didnâ€™t have to worry about debt or credit card problems trying to get from A to B,â€ť he said.
Now heâ€™ll finish the 2013 season during a rugged 10-day stretch in Las Vegas, where heâ€™ll have a chance to get on his share of the best bucking horses in the business. Itâ€™s where he needs to be.
Itâ€™s where he deserves to be.