By Ted Harbin
How focused is bareback rider Caleb Bennett?
“I go to bed thinking about making a statement with my riding,” said Bennett, now in his second straight qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. “I go to bed thinking about great bucking horses and riding great bucking horses. I wake up, and I think about it all day long.
“Thoughts become things, and I just picture myself winning go-rounds and drawing great horses and winning lots of money.”
He’s right, because thoughts are becoming things. On Tuesday night in Round 6, Bennett matched moves with Three Hills Rodeo’s horse named Peaches N Cream for 84 points to finish as the runner-up that night. He added $14,724 to his NFR earnings, which have reached $46,575.
“Three Hills brought a great horse,” said Bennett, who has placed five of six nights, including the victory in Round 1. “That’s another one I’ve never been on, and I’ve wanted to get on her and have watched her for years. I really thought that was the one to win the round on tonight. She’s very consistent, the same trip every time.”
It’s been a special week for the Morgan cowboy, who has moved from 15th to sixth in the world standings and is the No. 1 man in the average race. His six-ride cumulative score of 497 points is just half a point better than another Utah bronc buster, two-time reigning world champion Kaycee Feild.
“Right now I’m just trying to keep a level head,” said Bennett, 25. “I just keep thinking about the good ones and hope that they’re by my name every time and try to ride them the best I can.”
Cowboys are matched with their livestock by a blind draw, and the NFR features 100 of the very best bareback horses in the game. It takes equal parts of quality horse and a quality ride to make for big scores. Based on the 100-point scale, half the score goes to the animal for how well it performs, while the other half is attributed to how well the cowboy rides. A qualifying ride lasts eight seconds, and cowboys must make the most of every moment they have in the arena.
“I am humbled,” he said. “This is unreal. I read a deal that Wade (Sundell) said that he was far enough down that he had nothing to lose, so he was just going to make a statement here. I know I was 15th, and I know I squeaked in there,” Bennett said. “I know a lot of guys aren’t really looking for me to do that good this year. I’m going to be like Wade, and I’m going to try to make a statement.”
He is … to nearly $50,000 in six nights.
Bennett started out perfectly, winning the first round last Thursday atop Pet Carr’s Classic Pro Rodeo horse Wise Guy. He pocketed 85.5 points and $18,630 to win opening night of ProRodeo’s grand finale at the Thomas & Mack Center. Bennett was the last cowboy to ride Wise Guy, as he retired this week.
“I’ve been watching that horse on TV since I was probably 10 years old,” he said. “I’m 25 now, so I’ve been watching him for a long time. That’s an amazing feeling. Growing up, those sure are the kinds of horses guys dream of getting on. That is one of the greatest horses known to bareback riders.”
Last Friday in Round 2, Bennett rode Pete Carr’s Classic Pro Rodeo horse Fancy Free for 82 points and $1,502. Despite having never seen the horse before that ride, he placed sixth that night.
Round 3 saw him on Frontier Rodeo’s Delta Ship, a horse that almost bucked him off last year at the NFR.
Round 4 on Sunday, Bennett posted an 81-point ride on Bar T Rodeo’s Double Vision to finish in a fifth-place tie in the fourth round. He pocketed $3,906 that night and moved up to ninth in the world standings.
On Monday, Bennett was ready for Round 5 riding Scarlet’s Web. He earned 86 points and $7,813 for a fourth-place finish in the fifth go-round.
He has four more rounds before reaching the final Round 10.
“This start is a lot better than last year,” Bennett said. “I feel like I’m riding a little bit stronger and better than last year. I couldn’t be more tickled. I just want to keep the ball rolling the way it’s going.”
In rodeo, dollars equal points, and the cowboy with the most money at the conclusion of the NFR will be crowned world champion. The Wrangler National Rodeo is considered the “super bowl” of the rodeo sport. Each of the last two seasons, the gold buckle has found a home in Utah with Payson cowboy Kaycee Feild; Bennett would like it to return, but with his name engraved on the wearable trophy.
“I think the key is just staying relaxed,” he said. “I think I’ve been having a little bit more fun this year. I’ve just been enjoying what I do because I love what I do. My goal here is to enjoy it and thrive off it.”