Nebraska, Montana competitors: First-Time Pendleton Champions
Two area athletes won the biggest title of their careers at the revered Pendleton Roundup. Riley Wakefield of O’Neill, Nebraska won the steer wrestling, while the breakaway roping buckle went to Jacey Fortier of Billings, Montana.
Neither Wakefield nor Fortier have qualified to the National Finals Rodeo, though it was on their list of goals for this year. Both, in fact, were in a “slump,” failing to pull many checks as the 2021 season came to a close on Sept. 30. The NFR is out of reach for them, but a Pendleton win to round out their year was a true highlight. Most incredible is that neither one of them intended on going to Pendleton this year.
Fortier had entered Pendleton, but was turning out of fall rodeos as the NFR and then the Tour Finale left her grasp late in the season. She was undecided whether or not to drive to Oregon the week before the rodeo. Yet, she had been to “The Green Mile” once before, and decided that the rodeo would always be worth going back to. “The atmosphere is so much fun,” she said.
When Fortier roped her short round calf in 2.7 seconds, she held her breath as several capable ropers gunned for her top average time. She was announced champion and was stunned with disbelief, asking herself if they had made a mistake. “This is something that could never happen, but I made it happen. I still am overwhelmed,” she says. Equally as overwhelming was the realization that many career cowboys and cowgirls covet that title for decades, like Kaycee Feild, who won his first Pendleton Roundup this year.
Fortier was mounted on “Teddy,” a 14 year old grade gelding that came to her family from the Blackfeet Reservation. Teddy is a 1D barrel horse and was a switch-ender in the team roping, but he is now used exclusively as Fortier’s breakaway horse. Their combined times of 3.3 and 2.7 topped the average by just .2 seconds. Fortier was launched in the standings from 62nd to 42nd. Though this won’t help her for this year’s NFR, it put her back into the top 50, which gives her qualifications to big winter rodeos such as the Fort Worth Stock Show and San Antonio. She hopes to “capitalize” on those rodeos to carry her into the spring and summer seasons.
The Pendleton Roundup carries a certain nostalgia, even if one has never set foot there. “It’s a cowboy setup,” says Wakefield, comparable to Cheyenne Frontier Days. The history and reputation of Pendleton makes a cowboy’s hair stand up, or so it was for the Nebraska hand.
Wakefield, who has always been a three-event athlete, actually won the event that is not his usual métier. He works hardest at tie-down roping, but steer wrestling has been a constant in his life. In fact, one could say that his bull dogging career came full circle while competing at Pendleton for the first time.
As a skinny teenager, Riley Wakefield jumped his first steer in Allen Good’s barn in Long Valley, South Dakota. “I was way more nervous on my first steer than I was for Pendleton. I dropped my reins on my first run and grabbed the saddle horn,” Wakefield says. Luckily, that horse, which he later purchased from Good, knew his job. Wakefield rode another Good horse for Pendleton, with Allen Good hazing for him. Everything was exactly as it was the first time Wakefield ran a steer, except this time, the run was worth nearly $7,000, a huge confidence boost, and everlasting notoriety.
Wakefield’s father, Jim, was a five-time Badlands Circuit Finals qualifier. Wakefield’s late brother, Brady, was an avid bull dogger during his life. “I lost my brother when I was a senior in high school. That was tough on my family and all of us, but we got through it. We put up a bunkhouse in his honor. We like to talk about him all the time. We like to talk to people about their faith when they’re going through tough times,” says Wakefield. Though he has struggled to win as much as he wanted this year, his outlook remains positive in light of life’s blessings and losses.
“I want people to realize that not quitting is the biggest part,” he says. After asking his parents whether he should quit and come home this summer, they told him to finish his season. “If I wouldn’t have done that, I wouldn’t have won Pendleton. I would have had that blessing in my life. Don’t quit right before the miracle,” Wakefield says.
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