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A horse of a different color

12/9/2009

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LAS VEGAS — Ask any rodeo fan which athletes are best suited to competing on the sport's biggest stage each year in Las Vegas, and they'll rattle off everyone from current stars Trevor Brazile and Billy Etbauer to former greats like Ty Murray and Tuff Hedeman.

But of the litany of rodeo stars and stock present this year at the Thomas & Mack Center, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone better suited to win a world championship than Willy, the prized bulldogging horse of Curtis Cassidy.

In his career, Willy has carried bulldoggers to four world titles — coincidentally, none of them Cassidy himself — including Luke Branquinho in 2008, Jason Miller in 2007, Lee Graves in 2005 and Rope Myers in 2001.

"About everybody that's stepped foot on him's won a gold buckle it seems like," laughed Cassidy after riding Willy to the Round One win on Thursday night.

At 24 years of age, Willy isn't just old for a bulldogging horse — he's old for any kind of horse. His continued health and consistently solid performances are, according to reigning world steer wrestling champ Luke Branquinho, a direct result of the care afforded him by the Cassidy family, which hails from Bashaw, Alberta, Canada.

"As old as he is and how much he loves what he does, that's what makes a special bulldogging horse," Branquinho said. "It doesn't matter if you're at Fort Worth and have to run fresh cattle where you have to see them out there a ways, or if you're at the National Finals where you have to go before 'em or with 'em — he gives you a chance every time to win first."

Willy's aggressive style is also particularly well-suited to the Thomas & Mack Center, whose cozy confines have given more than a few bulldoggers fits.

"It's really hard to get a horse to leave that fast here, and to keep running to the back end hard every time," Cassidy said. "You've got to go so fast, and then the back end comes up fast, so it makes a lot of horses want to slow up before they get there.

"But if you watch Willy, he's got a really good pattern, and that's probably one of his most important features here in Las Vegas. He just runs up there, takes a little step and goes off to the left corner — he just does exactly what you want him to do."

Willy's resume at the WNFR, in fact, reads better than most of the cowboys'. In addition to the four bulldoggers he's carried to world titles, he hasn't missed a year since his rookie season in 2001, giving him nine career appearances in Vegas — a number most competitors would kill for. He finished second in the PRCA/AQHA Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year race in 2004 and won the award in 2008, and was named CPRA Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year in 2002-03 and 2005-08.

But like any aging athlete, eventually it will be time for Willy to hang up his horseshoes and head out to pasture.

"We're going to probably ride him this winter at some winter rodeos," said Branquinho. "And I think when it comes time he's going to let them (the Cassidys) know, 'hey turn me out in pasture, I'm done, I've done what I loved," just like anything. He'll let them know."

For now, however, Willy seems to be running as strong as ever. Both Cassidy and Branquinho are riding him this week in Las Vegas, and through two rounds he has helped them finish in the money three out of four times. Branquinho in particular, who rode Willy en route to his second world title last year, grows nostalgic when discussing the veteran athlete.

"Probably winning my second world championship was my favorite moment on Willy," Branquinho said. "I had a steer in the eighth round that they hadn't caught. I got a good start, Willy gave me a good go at him and I ended up placing in the go-round."

And like Brazile, Etbauer, Murray and the other rodeo greats, Willy has been good since day one. Of course, no one knows that better than his owner, who speaks of the horse with a warm reverence.

"He's just been an amazing horse ever since we cracked him out, and it's not anything you can train him to be — it's just how great athletes are," Cassidy said. "He gives you that good shot every time, right out front."

The WNFR will be televised nightly on ESPN Classic and ESPN2. At the conclusion of the 10th performance on Dec. 12th, the contestants with the highest earnings in each event will be crowned as the 2009 world champion.

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