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Bronc rider Zeke Thurston makes Stampede history, wins third championship in a row

Zeke Thurston of Big Valley, Alta., hangs on to Get Smart for 92 points to and his third consecutive title as saddle bronc champion at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary on Sunday.

TODD KOROL/The Globe and Mail/Globe and Mail Update

Zeke Thurston was born during the Calgary Stampede. His mom, Lynda, a former barrel racer, went into labour in 1994 during the final weekend of the world's most famous rodeo.

When he was 10 years old, Zeke and two of his brothers appeared at the Stampede, performing a trick horseback-riding routine under the moniker of the Thurston Gang.

"My family has a long history here," he said Sunday, standing in the dressing room beneath the grandstand. Only minutes earlier he had made history.

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The day after his 23rd birthday, Thurston became the first saddle-bronc rider to win the Stampede three consecutive times. Only two other contestants – bareback riders Davey Shields Jr. and Will Lowe – have won titles back-to-back-to-back in the Stampede's 100-plus years.

"There are guys that go their entire life without ever winning the Stampede," said Thurston, who grew up in Big Valley, Alta. "For me to have won three in a row is unbelievable. It is crazy.

"It is hard to find words for it."

Thurston, who won a world championship along with the Stampede crown last year, edged out fellow Albertan Layton Green and Texan Sterling Crawley in the saddle-bronc competition's championship round.

Like all other first-place finishers, Thurston received a $100,000 cheque and a bronze statue. In the past three years, he has won more than $320,000 at the Stampede, including winnings accumulated during preliminary rounds.

Last year, Thurston used his earnings to buy a herd of beef cows and to help build a house for him and his wife, Jayne. Married only in October, he and Jayne met in the third grade and were high school sweethearts.

He has no idea what they may spend the money on this time.

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"There are people that work every day of the year and don't make that much," Thurston said. "To make to make that in one day is pretty unbelievable."

A sold-out crowd of 20,000 people jammed the grandstand on Championship Sunday at the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. Nearly 1.1 million people poured through the gates at the Stampede in its first nine days, and a crowd of 100,000-plus on Sunday will make it one of the most-attended in history. The record is 1,409,371.

At times this week, the midway was so crowded that navigating was very difficult. Pushing their way through like cattle in a pen, guests chowed down on $40 metre-long sausages, bacon dipped in chocolate, deep-fried chicken feet, Cajun pulled pork, racks of beef and pork ribs, and sampled unusual treats like deep-fried lemonade, churro-stuffed Oreo corn dogs and fried Jell-O.

Over the course of the event, more than two million mini doughnuts were sold, more than 200,000 pancakes were consumed at community breakfasts, and more than 10 tonnes of cooking oil was recycled to be turned into bio-fuel and other products. And more than 170 trucks hauled away animal waste.

The rodeo itself remains the biggest draw, and the $2-million offered in prize money is the most at a single event in the sport.

Other winners on Sunday were Sage Kimzey of Oklahoma in bull riding, Texans Cory Solomon (tie-down roping), Richie Champion (bareback riding) and Tiany Schuster (barrel racing), and Louisianan Tyler Waguespack in steer wrestling.

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Thurston grew up as the son of a saddle-bronc rider. His dad, Skeeter Thurston, qualified for the National Finals Rodeo six times, the Canadian Finals Rodeo five times and also competed at the Stampede.

"You are probably going to have to stick a knife in his chest to deflate it," Zeke said. "I bet he is walking around here proud as a peacock."

Thurston joined his two brothers in saddle-bronc riding, but not before learning roping as a kid. He also rode steers and even tried bull riding before he settled on saddle broncs. He turned professional at 18, and has quickly become one of the biggest names in the sport. A year ago, his earnings on the Professional Cowboys Rodeo Association circuit topped $266,000.

He rode twice on Sunday, earning a way into the final with a 90-point ride aboard Final Delivery, and then winning the championship with a 92-point ride on Get Smart. Green had just scored 91.5 points and appeared poised to win the event when Thurston, the final rider, came through.

In bronc riding, a saddled rider utilizes a rein, attached to a horse's halter, to maintain his seat and balance. Points are awarded for the rider's technique and spurring action, and for the overall bucking ability of the horse.

"Every jump I thought I was going to get bucked off," he said. "That horse is only probably 800 pounds, but he probably one of the strongest I've ever been on."

Thurston actually drew the same two horses two weeks ago while winning a stampede in Ponoka, and will ride Get Smart again next weekend at a rodeo in Edmonton.

"I am pretty fortunate," he said. "I have won a ton of cash on him so far."

Thurston qualified for Sunday's round by earning $10,000 over four days of competition from Tuesday to Friday. He finished fourth in the preliminary competition, but then outscored everyone in the final.

"I was grateful for the opportunity," he said. "I was tickled to death to be here, to be honest. Win, lose or draw, you can't have a bad time at this rodeo."

He said he didn't whoop it up much on Saturday night while celebrating his birthday with his wife. They had a quiet dinner at the campground where they were staying in Calgary, had a little ice cream cake, played a game of football with other cowboys, and then roasted some wieners.

"It was a pretty mild birthday party," he said. "Tonight will be a heck of a lot more exciting."

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