postheadericon Champ races into circuit lead

DUNCAN, Okla. – The rodeo trail can be rugged. Cowboys, cowgirls and their equine partners spend hours, even days, driving cross country chasing their gold-buckle dreams.

It’s a tough life, but one most wouldn’t trade for the world. They’re competitors, and the rodeo road leads to championships. Across the Plains, many seek the coveted title of being a regional champion, which only comes through a qualification to the Chisholm Trail Ram Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo, set for 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16-18 at the Stephens County Fair and Expo Center in Duncan.

Gretchen Benbenek

Gretchen Benbenek

But the rodeo trail offers a few landmines along the way. Combatants get weary, and so do their athletic partners. Such is the case of Gretchen Benbenek’s speedy mount, Shot of Firewater, a 10-year-old bay gelding she calls Maverick.

“He was getting really sore,” Benbenek said after a run through July that saw limited winning. “I went up to Canada in June; I was making good runs, but I was running in the mud. It would dry out later, and the other girls were getting the faster times.

“Then my horse got sore. I won a little bit in Calgary (Alberta), but I think my horse was just too sore to work right.”

The struggles continued through mid-July. Once she and Maverick arrived in Cheyenne, Wyo., for Frontier Days Rodeo, she enlisted the assistance of equine therapist Troy Brandenburg.

“He uses acupressure for the most part,” she said. “I use a lot of chiropractic; I think you need to do the chiropractic plus the muscle work plus the vet. He was sore in his back. Once I got Troy to work on him, he’s been a different horse.”

The proof came the very next week during an all-important Prairie Circuit run across Kansas. From July 28-Aug. 3, she and Maverick raced in Sidney, Iowa, and at Kansas rodeos in Abilene, Phillipsburg, Hill City and Dodge City. In all, she pocketed about $7,400. It pushed her from fourth in the circuit standings to the No. 1 spot. Now she owns a lead of more than $4,000 over the runner-up, traveling partner Ivy Hurst.

“The last two weeks have been pretty big for me,” Benbenek said. “I get to catch up on some bills and, more importantly, catch up in the standings. I had actually won money at every rodeo I went to since Cheyenne. My horse has been really consistent the last three weeks and getting me the money everywhere.”

That’s vital in the Montana-born cowgirl who was educated in Oklahoma and now lives in north Texas. She is the defending Prairie Circuit champion barrel racer, who utilized a solid 2013 run in the region to a perfect finish and the national title at the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo.

“I was behind, and I didn’t think I was going to make a move yet,” she said. “I also didn’t think I was going to jump like that. I went into the circuit finals in Duncan last year winning it for the year-end, and I’d sure like to do that again.”

Regional titles depend on performing well in Duncan, which is another key reason why she’s excited to return.

“The last two years the circuit finals has been in Duncan, it’s gone really well,” Benbenek said. “The committee there is great, and they’re looking for ways to keep making the circuit finals better and provide a good home for us there. I’m excited to go back there. My horse seems to like that arena.”

The expo center is home to many rodeo and rodeo-like events throughout a calendar year, but none compares to the prestige and the caliber of competition that arrives in Stephens County for the circuit finals. The top regional contestants in the circuit standings must qualify to perform in Duncan, where they’ll battle for the titles and money that come with an event of this magnitude.

“This is why we rodeo,” Benbenek said.

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