MORGAN, Utah – 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; he’s embarking on a trip to compete at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s grand championship set for Dec. 5-14 at the Thomas & Mack Center. It’s his second straight qualification to the NFR, which features only the top 15 contestants in each event.
“I’m looking forward to being down here and am more excited about it this year,” said Bennett, 25, now finishing his sixth in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. “Last year I was excited, but I was more nervous about it because I didn’t know what to expect when I got there.
“Now I know what to expect. I can just calm down, just ride bucking horses and have fun doing what I love.”
That’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, it’s the place where a year’s worth of hard work can come to fruition in a week and a half.
“For me, it’s all about working really hard and getting my mind and my body ready for the competition,” said Bennett, who attended Weber State University in nearby Ogden, Utah. “For the last two months since I’ve been home, I’ve been doing two-a-days; I put in a full hour of cross-fit or cardio in the morning, then later that day I’ll go in and do an hour and a half of lifting.
“In between, I’ll get on my spur board or my Spur Magic (bucking machine). I’ve even been riding saddle horses around with a rigging just to keep that edge.”
He also has been competing. The NFR isn’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.
“I’ve been getting good bucking horses, which helps a lot, too,” he said. “I feel like having the chance to go to the Canadian Finals will help me a lot regarding what’s about to take place down here in Vegas.
“I 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, I’m still in riding shape.”
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 ProRodeo’s gold – world champions in each event earn the most coveted prize in the sport when the NFR concludes, the gold buckle.
“I’ve been thinking of nothing but winning the gold buckle this year,” he said. “Sure, I come in 15th, and I have a lot of ground to make up, but there’s so much money to be won in Vegas that anything’s possible.”
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.
“There are so many great bareback riders out there,” Bennett said. “If you’re not working at it every day, whether it’s riding the spur board or the bucking machine or practice horses, you do have a chance to be in the top 20.”
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 that’s every young cowboy’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.
“My family’s been a huge support for me,” Bennett said. “I swear my mom is my biggest fan. They’ve always been a great support group of mine to get from points A to B throughout the summer.”
The cowboy’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.
“The draw was my biggest struggle of the year by far,” he said. “I had horses that I normally wouldn’t get on, but I’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 I’d get on whatever I could just to make that happen.”
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.
“I got on six horses, and there was only one of those that wasn’t that great,” he said. “The rest were phenomenal. I even had one that humbled me a little bit and bucked me off.
“I needed a little revenge on Stampede Warrior, because I didn’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.”
While his Calgary earnings didn’t count toward the money list in order to qualify for the NFR, it became a critical piece of the puzzle in Bennett’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.
“It’s given me a lot more comfort,” he said of the money. “I don’t have to worry about funding for travel.”
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.
“I didn’t have to worry about debt or credit card problems trying to get from A to B,” he said.
Now he’ll finish the 2013 season during a rugged 10-day stretch in Las Vegas, where he’ll have a chance to get on his share of the best bucking horses in the business. It’s where he needs to be.
It’s where he deserves to be.