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Bareback rider Caleb Bennett eyes first world title at NFR

Updated December 14, 2018 - 11:50 pm

Caleb Bennett often visualizes himself holding a PRCA world championship belt buckle.

He thinks of hoisting it high above his head before a rowdy sellout crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center on the final night of the National Finals Rodeo as the world’s best bareback rider.

“That’s been a lifelong goal of mine,” Bennett said Friday night before the ninth go-round. “From the time I started riding bucking horses.”

He could realize that goal soon.

Competing in his seventh NFR, Bennett, 30, can win his first bareback riding world championship with another strong performance Saturday. The Tremonton, Utah, native has made $240,389.73 this year and is second entering the 10th and final go-round. He trails Tim O’Connell, the two-time defending world champion, by $12,988.38.

To secure the title, Bennett needs a decisive victory over O’Connell. But Bennett wasn’t thinking about that Friday.

“I’m going to ride bucking horses and have fun,” he said. “That’s my biggest goal right now.”

Bennett was raised around rodeo and started riding bucking horses at 12, mostly as an homage to his father, who also rode them. Caleb Bennett also rode bulls and team roped in high school and won the National High School Finals Rodeo as a senior in 2007 before a successful college career at Weber State and Utah Valley University.

“But there was something about the bareback riding. It’s where I excelled. It’s what I craved,” Bennett said. “Once I graduated college, I looked at my old rodeo coach and said, ‘I’m going to try to make the NFR.’ And that’s what I did.”

In 2012, Bennett won nine rodeos and qualified for his first NFR. He has returned every year since and established himself as a top flight cowboy the past two years, finishing fourth in 2016 and sixth in 2017.

He spends two hours a day lifting weights and reads and watches film in addition to his training.

“It depends how mentally strong you are and how much you can take,” Bennett said. “A lot plays in to that. Sometimes the best thing to do is to not overthink.”

Bennett was the money leader before Friday’s go-round, at which he scored 83.5 points and didn’t place. O’Connell, 27, finished first with 90 points to seize the lead.

“We’ve trained for moments like this,” O’Connell said. “We knew this was going to be a 10-round fight, and I’m ready for a 10-round fight. I needed this round, I needed to get going again.”

The two were separated by about $15,000 at the start of the NFR. And here they are with one ride left.

“Tim is a great competitor,” Bennett said. “He’s got a winning attitude. If I can step up to the plate and take a title and have him come in second to me, that’s saying something.”

More NFR: Follow at reviewjournal.com/nfr and @RJ_Sports on Twitter.

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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