Back When They Bucked with Madonna Eskew Pumphrey
If anybody was born with the Wild West in their blood, it was Madonna Eskew Pumphrey. The Ardmore, Okla. cowgirl was the third generation of […]
Shawn Davis has spent his life in the western or equine business with his biggest impact being in the sport of professional rodeo and specifically the National Finals Rodeo. Born Dec. 7, 1940, in Butte, Montana, Davis bought his RCA card in 1962 (RCA became the PRCA in 1975) and it was full-speed ahead. He made a name for himself in the arena winning three world titles in rodeo’s “classic” event of saddle bronc riding and then outside the arena as the General Manager for the “Super Bowl of Rodeo” from 1985 to 2018.
“I am not sure I ever thought of my career in the sport of rodeo lasting so long, but I knew it was something I enjoyed and if I could help move the sport forward while maintaining its history, it was worth trying,” noted Davis. “As a true rodeo fan, it was a blessing to have a front row seat for so many years to watch a number of great rides and achievements of others. Those memories and the friends I made is what I cherish the most.”
During his riding career Davis, who called Whitehall, Montana, home, qualified for the National Finals Rodeo a total of 12 times with his first trip coming in 1963, just a year after joining the RCA, and his final qualification in 1977. In 1963, he finished 13th in the world standings with $8,386. In 1964, he improved on his final ranking from the year before, finishing fifth in the world with $13,289, but it was 1965 that still holds a special place in his memory.
It was 1965 that Davis captured his first world title and set a new record for most money won in saddle bronc riding at the time, and he did all of this while competing against the likes of Winston Bruce, Bill Martinelli, Dennis Reiners, Jim Tescher, Kenny McLean and Bill Smith. Davis won the world after picking up $25,599 in earnings that year and surpassed Marty Wood’s record earnings of $22,148 set in 1964. Davis was among the elite that year with Dean Oliver, Jim Houston, Harley May, Jim Rodriguez Jr., Glen Franklin and Larry Mahan all capturing world titles in their respective events. If being linked as 1965 World Champions wasn’t enough, all of them along with announcer Cy Taillon, were original inductees into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1979.
“Those were fun times and to think now a round at the NFR pays more than I won in that entire year,” commented Davis. “I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything.”
Davis was unable to defend his world title the following year as Marty Wood took top honors with $20,319 in earnings. Davis finished fifth in the final world standings. However, he returned in 1967 to capture his second world title. In fact, he had such a dominating regular season that he had the world title wrapped up before the NFR even started. He finished the year with $25,277.
His third and final title came in 1968, when he edged Larry Mahan for the crown. Davis finished the year with $22,697, while Mahan came up short with $18,990 in earnings. This was Davis’ third title in four years, which cemented him in the rodeo history books.
While in college at Western Montana, Davis began transitioning from competitor to rodeo producer to rodeo coach. The College of Southern Idaho (CSI) in Twin Falls, hired him to start a rodeo program in 1977 and the program flourished under Davis. During his 30 years at the helm of the program, the CSI Rodeo program won an astonishing 24 regional championships, three National titles and 23 National Top-19 finishes. Cowboys like 2000 World Champion bull rider Cody Hancock, two-time world champion bull rider Blue Stone, all-around hand Cody DeMers and saddle bronc rider Cody Wright all went through the program under Davis at CSI. Davis retired from coaching in June of 2007.
“My goal as a rodeo coach was to not only help those students continue to hone their rodeo skills but also give them skills to use outside of the arena,” said Davis, whose grandson Dawson now competes in steer wrestling for Cochise College. “Our biggest fundraiser each year, known as the Boxing Smoker, was an event the rodeo team had to produce from start to finish which included selling tickets, securing sponsorships, event set-up, run of show, etc. I still hear from former students that tell me how much they learned through my program that still helps them in their everyday life.”
Davis has had a front row seat to watching the Wright family become household names in the rodeo business. From helping a young Cody Wright reach the pinnacle of the sport to now seeing his children, who were just babies, rewriting the record books it has been quite a ride.
“Cody’s work ethic was something you can’t teach and his dedication to winning a world title was something I admired,” said Davis. “To watch his kids riding today, winning world titles and setting new records is exciting. Ryder’s feet might be the fastest I have ever seen in the saddle bronc riding. There is no telling how many more records these kids will set before the end of their career.”
In addition to being a rodeo coach, Davis became one of the top rodeo producers in the country, an area he became interested in while in college. He got his first crack at producing a rodeo when he was the President of the rodeo team at Western Montana. The opportunity presented itself and Davis ran with it. While working at CSI, he served on the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Board, including the role of President, and took on the role of producing the College National Finals Rodeo. He resigned from the NIRA Board, when he took over the reins of President of the PRCA. During his tenure as PRCA President, he was very instrumental in moving the National Finals Rodeo from its home in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to its current home in Las Vegas, Nevada. At the time, Davis knew that in order for rodeo to take the next step a new venue was needed and the prize money needed to increase. Since moving the NFR from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas the prize money has gone from $901,550 to a record $10.257 million in 2021.
“Oklahoma City had done a wonderful job, but I felt like rodeo had hit its pinnacle there,” said Davis of the decision to move the NFR. “I felt like the move would help take rodeo to greater heights and I believed that Las Vegas was the perfect place for it to flourish. Thankfully, it has and now it is one of the hardest tickets to get.”
Davis served as the events general manager from 1985 until he retired in 2018. He served as a consultant in 2019.
“I had always been impressed with the Finals and what it stood for, so when I started overseeing the event I wanted to maintain its integrity while entertaining the fans,” said Davis regarding his role as NFR General Manager. “I am a big believer that every contestant deserves their moment of glory and that is why the main focus at the Finals was the competition. Also it is an event to match the best against the best in an entertaining environment.”
Davis remains busy today training thoroughbred race horses at his place in Congress, Arizona and at race tracks throughout the United States. He hopes to one day train the Kentucky Derby winner that will go on to win the Triple Crown.
“My granddad was into horse racing and I remember listening to him tell stories when I was around nine years old,” said Davis of how he got involved in horse racing. “My uncles then bought a horse and when I was 10 or 12 years old, they had me riding him in some races. It all seemed to go from there.”
Davis was known far and wide for his riding skills, so when the jockeys were afraid to get on, the owners and trainers would call Davis. While competing in rodeo, horse racing was not far from his mind. After he and his wife, Jeanna, got married they got more involved in the racing industry. In fact, the first horse they raised won its first race with a jockey by the name of Gary Stevens. During Stevens’ career he has had nine wins in Triple Crown races, winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes three times each.
These days you will either find Davis at a race track or watching his son, Zane, compete in reining cow horse competitions or at one of his grandkids’ (Zayle, Dawson and Presley) events.
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