DULUTH, Ga. – The first New Zealand-born bull rider to compete on the PBR’s Built Ford Tough Series wouldn’t be here today if not for an unlikely dare when he was 17 years old.
Fraser Babbington was working on a farm in Australia’s Northern Territory when a couple of his mates dared him to get on a bull in 2004.
Babbington was a talented horseman on his family’s sheep and beef farm – or “station” as they call it in New Zealand and Australia –in Gisborne, New Zealand and had even competed in the equestrian jumping competition at the New Zealand World Youth Show two years earlier.
He wasn’t foreign to being around livestock, but this still was a bucking bull, and Babbington had seen videos of what could potentially go wrong.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, he decided to give it a shot anyways.
The dare quickly escalated into him entering a local amateur rodeo event that same weekend.
“One thing led to the next so I got on a couple of bulls at the station and they pretty much said you should get on a bull at the rodeo,” Babbington said. “I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that. It is kind of scary looking man.’ They entered me up and I took the dare on and ended up getting third in the bull riding.
“From then on I got the buck fever from that. I just knew from there I wanted to be a bull rider.”
Babbington returned to New Zealand with his newfound passion following the farming season and his friends looked at him like he had seen a UFO.
“When I first went back from Australia to New Zealand, I said to all of my mates back home, ‘Hey I found this new sport,’ Babbington recalled last week in Phoenix. “They go, ‘What is that?’ I said, ‘Bull riding!’
“All of my buddies looked at me up and down and were like stop that.”
Being involved in a sport that involves girt and toughness isn’t an anomaly for the Kiwi people. Don’t forget, New Zealand’s national sport is rugby.
Granted, the now 29-year-old never took quite a wrecking playing rugby as he has since he began competing full time as a bull rider at 18 years old.
“We come from a rugby union sort of country, so if you don’t play rugby when you were a kid you got picked on at school,” Babbington said. “That is our religion back home.”
New Zealand does have a national professional rodeo circuit, which Babbington competed in for a couple of seasons after discovering bull riding. Babbington also finished third in the inaugural PBR New Zealand Cup in 2014.
Babbington became the first New Zealander to compete on the BFTS last month in Kansas City, Missouri.
The right-handed bull rider has yet to record a qualified ride on the BFTS (0-for-4), but he did become the first New Zealander to win a BlueDEF Tour event when he went 2-for-2, including a 91.5-point ride on Bottle Rocket, in Portland, Oregon, two weeks ago.
The victory helped him crack the Top 35 of the world standings after not qualifying to compete at the Choctaw Casino Iron Cowboy, powered by Kawasaki.
“When I got that text for Kansas City, that was my first BFTS event of course,” Babbington said. “This is what I have been dreaming about. This is where I want to be. I got a taste for it. Not getting into Arlington, I went up to Portland and it was my weekend to win that.”
He heads into this weekend’s Duluth Invitational 31st in the world standings.
Fellow Australian Justin Paton is 30th in the world standings – just 7.5 points ahead of Babbington – and is also fighting to remain on the BFTS. He also finished runner-up to Babbington in the 2015 PBR Australia championship race.
“Ah, he has been riding bulls longer than I can remember,” Paton said. “He has been sort of dominating the competition in Australia. He is probably the best New Zealander to ever come about I reckon. It is good to see him over here.
“There is no quit about him. He doesn’t give up until his head hits the ground.”
Babbington, who began to watch videos of Troy Dunn and Terry Don West once he decided to start riding bulls, understands he isn’t technically sound, which is in part because of his late start in the sport.
Instead, Babbington relies on “keeping his hand shut” to make 8 seconds.
“I am just keeping my hand closed,” Babbington said. “When you get into that dead spot on a bull, I am not going to look off. I am just trying to be a cowboy.”
Babbington is honored to be the first New Zealand bull rider to find success in the PBR, but he admits he doesn’t want to think too much about representing an entire country in the arena.
He puts enough pressure on himself knowing his mom, Wendy, and father, Graeme, are cheering him on from home. Babbington also has one brother and sister.
“There are other guys that are in Canada and like that, but riding on the Built Ford Tough, I am the first,” Babbington said. “I am trying not to think about it. That would just be an extra weight on my shoulder. I am trying to keep that kind of weight off my shoulders I suppose. Like, mum is my biggest fan. My family is always waking up Sunday to see how I ride in the weekends. I try to not think about it too much.”
Babbington has drawn Kubota (0-0, BFTS) for Round 1 on Saturday night at the Duluth Invitational.
Babbington won the 2013 Australian Pro Rodeo Association bull riding title before winning the 2015 PBR Australia bull riding title last year.
Twelve years after accepting the risky dare, the New Zealander trailblazer has no plans on slowing down and is looking forward to attempting to qualify for the 2016 Built Ford Tough World Finals.
“I have been going after it pretty hard for the past 10 years to get over here and stay here,” Babbington concluded. “I just had a couple of hiccups with visas and stuff last year. That is all sorted out. I just want to stay over here to make the Finals for sure and hopefully get up in the Top 10.
“I have won every major thing there is there. I am finished in Aussie and this is where I want to be now. I want to be in America.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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