Canada's star rodeo has heavy contingent of American cowboys

CALGARY, AB -- July 12, 2015 -- Timber Moore, centre, is escorted to the stage to receive his $100,000 prize for the Tie-Down Roping Championship by Mick Plemel, left, and Lana Waterchief at the Stampede Rodeo at the Stampede Grandstand in Calgary on Sunday, July 12, 2015. (Aryn Toombs/Calgary Herald)

The greatest outdoor rodeo on Earth could use a little more Canadian content, according to an Alberta competitor.

“The Stampede is significant, it’s wonderful, but it’s really becoming an American rodeo,” said Nancy Csabay, a barrel racer from near Taber who won the Canadian title in 2015 aboard Little Miss Wicked. “A few years ago when I was competing here, there were only three Canadians out of 20. This year it’s the same thing.

“I’m so grateful I get to go but I would like to see more Canadians in it.”

Barrel racer Nancy Csabay gets Wicked ready for their run at the Airdrie Pro Rodeo in Airdrie, Ab., on Friday July 1, 2016. Mike Drew/PostmediaMIKE DREW

Twenty competitors in each of the main rodeo events are invited to attend Stampede mostly based on performance. The previous year’s Stampede and Canadian Rodeo Tour champions are invited, as well as those at the top of the rodeo standings. But more invites are sent to those on the American-based standings than their Canadian counterparts. Cowboys on either side of the border can compete in each other’s association events, but it’s more expensive and a longer haul for Canadians to go south, said Csabay.

“It’s a long, hard road, so a lot of us don’t rodeo in the U.S.”

In barrel racing, those invited include the reigning Stampede Champion and the American RNCFR champion, plus 14 from the Texas-based Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, with the final four spots filled out from the top of the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association — and those could be Americans as well.

“I love the competition and I don’t mind taking their money, either. But the big money won at the Stampede is often going straight to the States. It improves their economy, not ours. The sponsors’ money is going to the U.S.”

Stampede arena director Kynan Vine said it’s only fair to take the top competitors in the world. Clearly, the Stampede wants to have locals roping and riding for the crowd, but it’s up to the competitors themselves.

“The PRCA is based in America but any rodeo in Canada qualifies for it. The ball is left in the competitor’s court to get in events and get qualified.”

The Stampede changed to an invitation-only format in 2006, limiting the number of competitors to 20 in each of the six main events. But it also increased the winner’s payout to $100,000 — making it the richest tournament-style rodeo in the world.

Zeke Thurston of Big Valley, Alta., wins the bareback title at the Calgary Stampede rodeo in Calgary, Alta. on Sunday July 12, 2015. Al Charest/Calgary Sun/Postmedia Network

Vine notes that the Stampede reserves three spots in each event, which are chosen by a committee. They look at marketability and career resumes when choosing, and at least one out of the three competitors will be Canadian.

“We do our best to look at that. We want to produce the best rodeo possible. For us, it’s great to have a lot of Canadians but we also want to have the best in the world.”

Last year, four of the six Stampede champions were Americans. Two Albertans won titles. Clint Laye of Cadogan was best in bareback while Zeke Thurston of Big Valley claimed the title in saddlebronc.

This year, there are six Canadians out of 20 (30 per cent) competing in each of bull riding, bareback and steer wrestling. There are seven (35 per cent) in saddlebronc but only three in barrel racing (15 per cent) and two (10 per cent) in tie-down roping.

Csabay says most spectators in the Stampede Grandstand don’t know the difference between the U.S. and Canadian rodeo circuits. But they do know and love the Canadian competitors.

“The last time I was at Stampede, I was the only one in my pool who was Canadian. And you could hear the reaction. The crowd went wild.”

mjarvie@postmedia.com