Adding new dimensions to America’s homegrown sport brings much needed attention to the game.
Four years ago, the Western world started hearing early rumblings about a one-day rodeo with a million-dollar purse. Even the most imaginative among us had no real idea of the level of excitement that would generate. We sure didn’t see the complexities of the qualification processes for the cowboy and cowgirl contestants or the added dimension and exposure that RFD-TV’s The American Presented by Polaris Ranger would contribute to the sport.
Promoting the great qualities and ethics of the sport of rodeo in a nation that’s become decidedly urban in population is important to the growth if not the very survival of the culture. There are challenges involved. The culture, and so the sport, has its own language. More than 80 percent of the U.S. population is urban with little or no exposure to large animals, their natures, or native power. Most of the collection of events included under the umbrella of rodeo were born on the great cattle operations that fed our country and continue to do that today. Unlike mainstream sports like baseball, football, and soccer, rodeo isn’t a part of every child’s physical education activity that lends a basic understanding without much effort. If rodeo is to be a part of the future, there’s a lot of work to be done.
Events like The American provide legitimacy, exposure, and excitement, and create interest simply based on the prize money. Doing a great job of showcasing the skills, work ethic, sportsmanship, and fine animal stewardship is vital. Part of that showcasing means providing an understandable format. Tying that format in with quality, established traditions is wise.
This year, the RFD-TV family added another million-dollar dimension to the format called The Triple Crown. Open to the three contestants who had won their respective events for the last two years, repeat wins this year by all three would have seen them split the million equally.
“Producing three champions who have won two years in a row is one of the most amazing things that’s happened on its own with The American,” said Randy Bernard, CEO of RFD-TV Events. “The Triple Crown creates an incredible amount of excitement, but it also puts a lot of pressure on these athletes because now they’re running for $1 million out of a $2 million purse.”
The contenders were Kaleb Driggers, the team roping header from Stephenville, Texas; Wade Sundell, the colorful bronc riding Iowa native, and Lisa Lockhart, the South Dakota professional barrel racer who’s partnered with the heartthrob of most every fan of fast horses who drop into the dirt to turn three oil barrels and accelerate like rockets away: the big, drop-dead gorgeous buckskin gelding known the world over as Louie. All of these Triple Crown contestants would have to win their respective events for a third time. That would mean placing in the top four in the opening round to advance to the championship round, then beating the competition in the final four.
Driggers didn’t make it past the first round of the tournament-style competition, leaving Sundell and Lockhart going into the final, “four man” round. Sundell won his event handily on Maple Leaf, the horse he would have chosen to ride had the choice been his. It rarely is for a bronc rider. They rely on a random draw in competitions like this. He was marched to the podium to wait on pins and needles for the tie down roping to conclude and the barrel racing to begin.
The crowd raised the roof of AT&T Stadium when relative rookie Sarah Rose McDonald and her freakishly fast roan mare Bling laid down a smoking run to take the lead, but all eyes were on Louie as he made his way up the alley to run under the seasoned veteran who loves him. Every heart in the 80,000 seat house stopped for a beat and breathed a quiet prayer of some kind, wanting the best for these two champions and loving the spirit of competition no matter who they wanted to emerge the winner of that entire $1,000,000, Lockhart or Sundell.
Aside from raw talent, Louie’s claim to fame is consummate equine professionalism and consistency. It’s what put the pair into Triple Crown contention in the first place. He’s never won a world championship, a goal that Lockhart pursues relentlessly feeling that her great horse deserves his place in the record books. No one who loves a fine horse doesn’t understand that and hopes for it right along with her.
Their run was flawless. Unfortunately, it was also two one-hundredths too slow for first place. The $1,000,000 belonged to Sundell in its entirety.
As for McDonald, she won a whopping $100,000 for her Sunday’s work. When asked how she’d spend it, she replied, “It belongs to Bling. She brought me here to win it. I’ll be spending it on her.”