Half of what a saddle bronc cowboy's ride will be is the horse he draws. So when Bud Longbrake drew Sweet Betsy on Thursday night at the Days of '47 Rodeo, he knew he could win.
And win he did, with 82 points for a fiery ride that ended with him jumping across the back of the pickup man's horse and landing on his feet. It was a moment of vindication for an aging cowboy who said his days in the arena are numbered.
See, Thursday night wasn't his first ride on Sweet Betsy's back.
The two met last year in St. George as Longbrake sat on the border of qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo. She threw him off one jump out of the gate, and he never made it to pro rodeo's biggest event.
"I was vengeful," he said. "I knew I could ride her."
Now he's sitting somewhere in the top 30 or 40 saddle bronc riders in the country and has a very good chance of making it to the NFR one more time before he quits.
This spring, his 15-year-old son, Jay, took up saddle bronc riding, and Bud wants to be there to cheer for him.
"It's my turn to stay home and help my kids," he said.
Horses like Sweet Betsy are the reason he keeps reconsidering those thoughts of retirement.
"Once in a while, I think about it, and then I get a horse like that and, 'Dang, I'm glad I didn't quit!' " he said, his blue eyes shining with excitement. "When you get done you think, 'All right!' But in your mind you're not 100 percent sure you could ride her every night."
The South Dakota rancher had to test his skill and try his luck in the arena this year after having knee surgery last Thanksgiving. He didn't rodeo for the seven weeks; his doctor forbid him to do so. But because some of the bigger-money rodeos are in the winter, he went riding almost immediately after that.
He's ridden with knee braces, and he's struggled with a little pain but not as much as he did before the surgery.
"I thought they felt pretty good," he said. "I didn't realize how sore they were."
On July 4 he drew a horse named Praying Mantis, and things started to get much better.
"I feel so much better now than when I first started riding (after surgery)," he said. "I wish now I'd waited three or four or five months to come back."
Everything good he's done this year, he said he's done in the last three weeks. Which bodes well for him as this next month is the busy season leading up to the national finals. Then he can turn his attention to the boy who likely prolonged his father's life eight years ago.
"He came home from school and said, 'Dad, we're learning about drugs in school, and did you know chewing is drugs?' " He recounts the moment with a smile. The two discussed whether nicotine was a drug, and it all ended in a promise.
"I said, 'I'll quit if you never start.' That was April 9, 1992."
So 25 years of chewing tobacco ended, and chewing a toothpick began. He struggled to find something to gnaw on — sunflower seeds, gum, candy — not just while he was idle, but while he was spurring a bronc.
"I had to have something in my mouth," he said. Then he tried a toothpick, which seemed to satisfy the craving, even if it got some strange looks and warnings about the possibility of swallowing sharp objects.
"I never take it out," he said.
The rodeo runs through Saturday night, with a special afternoon show on Monday. In other competitions, Sonny Munns was the only bull rider to stay on the required eight seconds for a score of 75. Other nightly winners were: Forest Bramwell, bareback riding, 81; Craig Smith, steer wrestling, 4.3; (tie)Josh Crow and Billy Bob Hutto, calf roping 9.3; Norma Wood, girls' barrel racing, 12.99.