CALGARY — Hail bounced off Zeke Thurston's hat while he contemplated his place in rodeo history.
The 23-year-old from Big Valley, Alta., became the first man to win three straight saddle bronc titles at the Calgary Stampede when he completed the hat trick Sunday.
"They say great things and success happen when preparation and the opportunity meet and I guess that's just what that was today," the reigning world champion said.
Thurston scored 92 aboard Get Smart to just beat fellow Albertan Layton Green's 91.5 on Wild Cherry in the final showdown of the top four competitors.
"A lot of guys would go their whole careers and never win this rodeo," Thurston said. "To win it three years in a row is unbelievable."
Thurston was the lone Canadian victor in the $2-million Calgary Stampede rodeo, which dates back to 1905 and is one of the richest in the sport of rodeo.
The only other competitors to win three straight years at the Stampede were bareback riders Will Lowe of Canyon, Texas, (2008-10) and Davey Shields Jr., of Bashaw, Alta. (2005-07).
The winners of the six rodeo events — bull riding, saddle bronc, bareback, tie-down roping, steer wrestling and barrel racing — plus the winner of the championship chuckwagon race each received a cheque for $100,000 on Sunday in addition to any day money they won during the 10-day rodeo.
Thurston got his winning ride in before the weather abruptly turned Sunday. What was a warm, sunny afternoon morphed into thunder and hail for the final two rodeo events — barrel racing and bull riding.
The Stampede doubled prize money for the winners from $50,000 to $100,000 in 2006.
"To have the opportunity to ride for that kind of money, people work every day of the year to make half that amount of money," Thurston said.
"To be able to ride one bucking horse for $100,000 whether you do it or not, that's awesome. I wish there were more rodeos like this."
Sage Kimzey of Strong City, Okla., reclaimed the bull riding title he won in 2015. He scored 91 on Night Moves. The 22-year-old keeps a Canadian bank account for his winnings north of the border.
"I've actually left all my money up here because of the exchange rate," Kimzey said. "I checked the other day and I think it's like 78 cents to the dollar. I'm not taking a thirty-thousand dollar hit.
"It'll stay up here until it gets a little more even."
Cory Solomon of Prairie View, Texas, posted a time of 6.7 seconds to win a second tie-down roping championship after his first in 2012.
He used his previous Stampede winnings to buy cattle and says he'll start looking for land now.
"I did it in 2012 and thought 'it doesn't get much better than this,'" Solomon said. "To do it again, it's a dream come true. It's life-changing."
Tyler Waguespack of Gonzalez, La., won steer wrestling in a time of 3.8 seconds after finishing second in Calgary last year.
"I've never won a cheque this big," he said. "I just bought a house and stuff down home so a lot of it is going to go into that. Might have to get some more horses to play with."
Richmond Champion of Dublin, Texas, lived up to his surname claiming the bareback title with a 90.5 on Virgil.
"There's no other bucking horse like him," Champion said. "He's one of a kind. He's in there just twitching. He's not scared. He's just excited. Just excited as you.
"This is my fourth time coming here and it's always a dream of every cowboy that starts riding or roping, they want to come to the Calgary Stampede. To actually win it, thank god."
Tiany Schuster of Krum, Texas, was the barrel racing winner in 17.032 seconds on Showmance.
"I'm not normally at a loss for words," Schuster said. "I've never won a major event ever."
Kurt Bensmiller of Dewberry, Alta., won his third Rangeland Derby chuckwagon title in four years after victories in 2014 and 2015.
Kelly Sutherland, who owns a dozen career chuckwagon wins, raced for the last time at the Stampede on Sunday as the 65-year-old is retiring after 50 years in the sport.