Vernon’s Clay Elliott couldn’t have picked a bigger stage to serve notice he is ready for a career on the pro rodeo circuit.
Competing in front of daily crowds of more than 20,000, Elliott, now of Nanton, Alta., captured the novice saddle bronc championship at the centennial running of the Calgary Stampede. He won both goes, riding Urban Warrior for an 82.5 in Round 1, and Down & Out for a 76.5.
He earned nearly $1,300 for his performance, and more importantly, a coveted bronze statue.
“Some of the best cowboys in the world have that bronze, and now I have it,” said Elliott, the son of former Canadian team roping champion Vern, and younger brother of pro bull rider Ty, who won the 2009 Wrangler Canadian Tour title.
“The bronze is something else; it’s pretty dang heavy, I know that.”
The down-to-earth 18-year-old has had a few months to digest the significance of the Stampede, and he is still blown away by the whole experience.
“My attitude going into it was pretty good,” said Elliott. “Now, after the rodeo, I kind of understand how big it was and how much that bronze means. Once you think about it after, it kind of sinks in.
“I really gained a lot of experience competing in front of all those people. It was a cool one to win because everyone knows about the Calgary Stampede. I got on some really nice horses and I really built a lot of confidence there.”
Elliott’s goal heading into the season has always been the $1.4 million Canadian Finals Rodeo, Nov. 7-11, in Edmonton. While the top-12 advance for the senior events, only the top three novices make it. Elliott is currently ranked third in the saddle bronc.
“There’s so many good up-and-coming bronc riders,” said Elliott. “We all enter together, but it’s only three that get to go.
“It’s different from any other sport in that you don’t make money unless you win.”
Elliott spent last summer in Nanton, and moved there for good this spring. From a logistics standpoint, he said it just made sense because Alberta is the country’s rodeo Mecca.
“You’re an hour-and-a-half to a good rodeo, where in B.C. you’re six hours,” said Elliott.
“The best guys in Canada…I get to practise with them. You learn from guys you want to be like, so to be around them more often, that’s how you’re going to get better.”
Some of those cowboys Elliott is learning from are legends in the sport. One of them is Wildwood, Alta.’s Rod Hay, a 20-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier.
Another is Winston Bruce, regarded as one of the finest bronc riders ever. He twice won the CPRA championship, as well as a world champion in 1961.
“He’s an older guy, but he loves bronc riding,” said Elliott. “He’s like a philosopher and I get along good with him.”
And then there is always big brother.
“It’s not so much the event I get help with from Ty; it’s the mental aspect.”
Ty is on the cusp of advancing to CFR as well.
“He’s been riding pretty good,” said Elliott. He’s got a shot, he’s just got to stay on a few more (bulls).”
Elliott recently headed stateside to take pre-veterinary courses at Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell. He will compete in college bronc riding, calf roping and team roping.
The school is a member of the Central Plains Region of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, which features five rodeos in fall, and five in spring.
As part of a scholarship package, Elliott will receive lodging in special housing and stalls for his horse JD, an 11-year-old calf horse he started working with five years ago.
“He’s turned out to be a pretty good one,” said Elliott. “He’s got lots of run and he can really stop hard. That’s what you need.
“Calf horses are a special breed because they have to be athletic, yet they have to be calm enough to work on their own when there’s so much pressure on them. When you’re at the end of the rope they have to be backing up and keeping the rope tight.”
As much as Elliott loves working with JD, there is something to be said for not having to tow a horse trailer wherever you go.
“When you’re calf roping and team roping, you’re always having to pack a horse around. The miles you put on with a horse trailer, and the amount you spend in fuel, it adds up.
“When you’re bronc riding, you can get six of ya in a truck and camper and you just head down the road.”
While he competes in multiple events, Elliott felt an immediate connection with saddle bronc.
“It just clicked for me. It started to happen easier and I understood it. It’s pretty cool to find that event, and I’m pretty fortunate I can do it and be competitive. The respect you gain for your ability, it’s pretty special.”