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New PRCA sanctioning helps Champions Ride, while ERA hasn’t hurt it

SENTINEL BUTTE--Wade Sundell, last year's Champions Ride Saddle Bronc Match winner, is slated to appear again this weekend, but he will be unable to officially defend his title.

Jake Wright
A saddle bronc rider hangs on during the 2014 Champions Ride Saddle Bronc Match at the Home on the Range near Sentinel Butte.(Press File Photo)

SENTINEL BUTTE-Wade Sundell, last year's Champions Ride Saddle Bronc Match winner, is slated to appear again this weekend, but he will be unable to officially defend his title.

Instead, whichever cowboy walks away as the new winner will compete with Sundell in a ride-off at the very end.

The 59th annual Champions Ride, which begins at 1 p.m. Saturday in Sentinel Butte, is a Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association-sanctioned event after earning the distinction for the first time last year.

Because Sundell now competes solely in the newly formed Elite Rodeo Athletes, a new professional circuit, he cannot compete in PRCA events. Still, the field is stacked without him.

"It's always been a great bronc riding event. We've always had good horses and good cowboys," said Rick Thompson, the executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora. "Last year was by far, in everybody's estimation, our best. When you can come see the best horses, the best cowboys, it's like seeing one day at the National Finals Rodeo."

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A standout aspect of what made last year a huge success was the event's first year as a PRCA event.

"We always have been able to get the good cowboys, but we always had conflicts because they're going to rodeos that paid more," Thompson said, before adding that the Champions Ride winner now takes home about $10,000 that counts toward the world standings. "That's the biggest payday in August for bronc riding. We don't have to invite them now. They're knocking down our door."

Among those on the guest list are 21 cowboys who have ridden in the National Finals Rodeo, and former world champions Taos Muncy, Jesse Wright, Spencer Wright and others.

"It's not every day you can go and watch four of the Wrights get on, a Taos Muncy, Heith DeMoss," said Zeke Thurston, a 22-year-old cowboy from Big Valley, Alberta. "You get all those guys in one place, I think as a fan, that would be pretty awesome to see."

Thurston and a handful of other attendees this weekend can also be found riding on the ERA circuit. They've been permitted to compete across PRCA-ERA lines after giving up their stock options in ERA.

PRCA's non-compete rules were the cause of litigation brought by ERA in February of this year, but that lawsuit has since been dropped.

"(ERA) didn't really form until after (the Champions Ride) event last year," Thompson said. "They were on our radar last year, but we had no idea the PRCA was going to put sanctions on it at all. It's a mixed up mess, but it's starting to sort itself out now."

It still appears to be a point of tension among some of the riders, though.

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Muncy, a 29-year-old cowboy from Corona, N.M., said he would not comment on the PRCA's restrictions or his involvement with ERA.

But he's excited for another trip to the Champions Ride.

"They go a great job getting the best hoses, and that's why they get the top guys," he said. "If you look at the names in that event, you want your name on there."

Part of what makes ERA so appealing, Thompson said, is a reduced travel schedule and bigger payouts.

Thurston, who has competed professionally since 2013, said he was never a shareholder in ERA so he could purchase a PRCA membership card. That allows him to compete on both circuits, make more money than he would by limiting himself to one of them, and, maybe most importantly, he gets the precious and valuable experience of getting on as many bucking horses as he can.

"Every horse you get on is one more horse under your belt, more experience you get," Thurston said. "I guess I could see if you're retiring soon or on the end of your career (ERA would be preferable), but I'm just getting started. It's pedal to the metal."

The travel schedule of any cowboy is unforgiving, but competing on two circuits adds a different element. Thurston said he hasn't minded, however.

"We've actually probably rodeoed harder this year than last year, done some more traveling," Thurston said. "I drew out of some rodeos in the winter because of the conflict (among ERA and the PRCA), so we've been going a little harder and trying to play catch-up."

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Because of the Champions Ride's relatively new standing as a PRCA event, it makes it easier for those cowboys to make up some ground.

"It can push a guy who's in the top 20 and put him in the top 15," Muncy said, "or it can take a guy who's in the top five and push him to the top. It's a big weekend for a bronc rider."

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