Money increase in 2015 could be game-changer

Trevor Brazile and Sage Kimzey came within striking distance of two of the PRCA’s single-season earnings records at this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

Next year, it will be a lot easier for them to get there.

With the new 10-year contract for the Finals kicking in and the purse swelling from $6.375 to $10 million, Wrangler NFR contestants will have the chance to make an obscene amount of money in 2015. Go-round first-place money will jump from $19,002 to $27,800, and the average champions’ payout will vault from $48,732 to somewhere between $76,000-$77,000, according to PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman.

Contestants will be able to earn much more money at the Thomas & Mack Center in 2015 thanks to the new Wrangler NFR contract.

Contestants will be able to earn much more money at the Thomas & Mack Center in 2015 thanks to the new Wrangler NFR contract.

Not only will those big bumps put more money in contestants’ wallets, but I think they will effectively change the battles for world championships. Since the NFR moved to Las Vegas in 1985, only two people – Allen Bach in 1990 and Cody Hancock in 2000 – have gone from 15th place to a world title at the Thomas & Mack Center, but we may see two contestants do that in 2015 alone.

It won’t be unheard of for a tapped-off cowboy or cowgirl to pocket $250,000 or $300,000 at the Finals, and that is money that levels the playing field. Virtually no world standings lead coming into the 10-day finale will be safe.

“The biggest lead a guy can have coming in is about $50,000, but that will only be two go-rounds,” said Kimzey, who won a Wrangler NFR-best $174,466 this year. “You can kick everybody’s but all year long, but if you come out here and don’t have a good Finals, you’re not even going to be in the top 10. It’s really going to stress the importance of coming out here and having success in Vegas, but I think that’s cool.”

World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Spencer Wright may see bigger money totals flashing on this screen in Las Vegas next year.

World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Spencer Wright may see bigger money totals flashing on this screen in Las Vegas next year.

Luke Branquinho didn’t exactly agree with me when we spoke shortly after he won his fifth world championship, at least not for his event.

“I don’t think it’s going to be as big a deal in the steer wrestling, but it sure might in the other events,” said Branquinho, who banked $136,388 at this year’s Wrangler NFR. “I think the main thing now with the regular season is (to just) get to the NFR, but that’s how it is in the steer wrestling anyway. There are guys in the 15th hole that could have moved up and won the world in the steer wrestling.”

I do admit though that the way the money changes the game may not be epic in proportion, especially considering the Wrangler NFR average winners also won gold buckles this year in six of the seven events. I think the big change is the way it will open up the world title races to all 15 contestants and teams and set up a free-for-all in Las Vegas.

“It’s going to be about who wins the most money and the average, but it’s kind of gotten that way now,” three-time World Champion Team Roper Clay Tryan said. “A lead will mean less, but once it starts, it’ll still be the same percentages as it was before.”

It would be a stretch to claim the new Las Vegas money will marginalize the regular season, but it does create a scenario where cowboys and cowgirls don’t worry as much about whether they arrive at the Finals ranked first or 15th.

“It’s going to turn it into more of (a situation where) you just qualify for the Finals and the best guy on 10 head wins,” Kimzey said. “It’s going to put so much more emphasis on coming out here and being successful. It’s going to definitely change it and throw another kink in it.”

Whether that means contestants back off their travel schedules and go to fewer rodeos remains to be seen.

“If I had (the Wrangler NFR) made, I could see myself not going the extra mile to gain the advantage like I used to do, but who knows?” Tryan said. “We’re competitive guys, and if we’ve got the lead, we might (keep going) and try to get it done.”

Contestants are excited about the new 10-year contract that will keep the Wrangler NFR in Las Vegas, especially with the total purse jumping from $6.375 to $10 million.

Contestants are excited about the new 10-year contract that will keep the Wrangler NFR in Las Vegas, especially with the total purse jumping from $6.375 to $10 million.

Branquinho loves the increases, but wishes the payouts would have been extended past the sixth-place finishers in the rounds and average.

“We’re here to make a living and make money, and the only thing I wish they would have done is have the bottom holes in the go-rounds pay down to eight or 10,” he said. “We have the money, so let’s reward the cowboys who are making good runs on steers that aren’t that good.”

Even with the pay raises, Branquinho’s mentality for what he’ll do after nodding his head in the box will remain the same.

“I’m going to run at the barrier every night, try to win as much as I can and hopefully leave here with three times as much as I did this year,” he said.

Knowing Branquinho the way I do, he’ll probably do exactly that.

Quite a finish to a stellar season

The last horse has bucked, the final steers have been roped and bulldogged, the last barrels have been circled and calves have been roped for the last time this year.

Another stellar ProRodeo season is in the books, and a new group of contestants have shiny gold buckles, fame and piles of cash to keep them warm during the holidays. Congratulations to world champions Trevor Brazile, Kaycee Feild, Luke Branquinho, Clay Tryan, Jade Corkill, Spencer Wright, Tuf Cooper, Fallon Taylor and Sage Kimzey, who will be fine representations of the sport next year and beyond.

The 30th Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas has come and gone, and it’s been one heck of a ride. Here are some interesting thoughts on what transpired in the Thomas & Mack Center and in ProRodeo these last 10 days.

The best ever?

Rodeo fans watching this year’s Wrangler NFR are seeing the best of the best in the sport today. But are they also seeing some of the top cowboys in the history of ProRodeo? Well, let’s examine that.

With all due respect to Jim Shoulders, Casey Tibbs, Larry Mahan and others, I believe most of the rodeo world is coming to terms with the realization that Brazile is the best cowboy in the history of the sport. He finished the season with $494,369, the second-highest single-season earnings total in history, behind only his $507,921 from 2010.

Some fans who attended the Wrangler NFR this year may not realize they're watching some of the best contestants in the history of ProRodeo.

Some fans who attended the Wrangler NFR this year may not realize they’re watching some of the best contestants in the history of ProRodeo.

Feild won his fourth consecutive Wrangler NFR average title – the first man to do that since team roper Leo Camarillo from 1968-71 – and fourth straight world championship, and steer wrestler Branquinho won his fifth steer wrestling gold buckle. Only Homer Pettigrew has more world titles for bulldoggers, and Feild is the first bareback rider to win four in a row since Joe Alexander claimed five straight from 1971-75.

The 27-year-old Feild prepares for each season thinking about being the best bareback rider of all time, and he’s well on his way.

“When I started my career, I set some goals to be better than anybody else in the bareback riding, and winning four straight as young as I am, it’s looking pretty good for me to achieve my goals,” said Field, who is tied with Eddy Akridge, Marvin Garrett, Bobby Mote and Shoulders and one behind Alexander for his event’s all-time lead. “When I get on a bucking horse, I don’t go out there to have fun or to place. I’m out there to be the best every time, and I want to spur a horse harder than anybody else has.

“I just need to do my homework, get home and hit the gym and get ready for Denver.”

World Champions Kaycee Feild and Luke Branquinho were among the sea of people who gathered in the Wrangler NFR press room after Round 10.

World Champions Kaycee Feild and Luke Branquinho were among the sea of people who gathered in the Wrangler NFR press room after Round 10.

Branquinho, who overcame a pectoral injury that required surgery on July 29, prefers to let others debate his place in the sport’s history.

“I do it for the love of the game, and I’m not worried about the history books,” said Branquinho, 34. “It’s an honor to be up there with that elite group of bulldoggers, and to be in the same category with them is special, but I’ll let everybody else decide that. I’m just going to keep bulldogging, and wherever it falls, it falls.”

Branquinho broke a tie with Jim Bynum, Ote Berry and Everett Bowman, who have four gold buckles apiece, and he is showing no signs of slowing down.

ProRodeo Hall of Famer Joe Beaver, widely considered one of the most complete cowboys of his era, believes we are watching some of the best ever compete this year.

“We can go 60 or 100 years from now and take the best 10 (of all time), and they might be one of the ones in that category,” said Beaver, who won eight world titles. “They’re the elite in their event, and you can tell by the results.”

Fifty years from now, their names will likely be considered among the best ever, and with Tuf Cooper and Jade Corkill winning their third gold buckles this year as well, they just might be there with them. Regardless, it’s pretty amazing to watch them in action.

Trevor Brazile's daughter, Style, joined him in the Wrangler NFR press room with the rest of their family after the world champions' ceremony.

Trevor Brazile’s daughter, Style, joined him in the Wrangler NFR press room with the rest of their family after the world champions’ ceremony.

Brazile, for one, is a huge fan of the current crop of contestants who are at the top of the sport.

“The field that we have here now and the class of world champions, it just makes it fun to be a fan and makes me want to watch the other events,” he said. “I’m just a fan of the talent in the sport right now, because it’s great. There are people who are getting to watch these guys compete every year, and they don’t need to be taking it lightly.

“These guys like Tuf and Kaycee and Luke, they’re not done, and they’re still rolling.”

First family of rodeo

Wright was supposed to be the fourth-best Wright brother, but this year, he ended up No. 1 in the world after winning the Wrangler NFR average. He joined his older brothers Cody and Jesse as world champion saddle bronc riders, and three different champions from the same family is a first for the history of the sport. Not even the Cooper or Etbauer families can claim that, and it’s a feat that makes Cody, the eldest, pretty darn proud.

“I’m super proud of Spencer,” said Cody, a two-time world champion. “He did what a bronc rider should and rode the best he could, and it’s just awesome. I know everyone (in the family) works hard to be the best they can and take advantage of every opportunity to win as they can, and it’s paying off.”

Jake Wright finished fifth in the world, and Cody’s son, Rusty, won the PRCA Permit Challenge, so there could be a few more from the family to add their names to the record books in the future.

Sage Kimzey’s season

His accomplishments are so profound, I’m going to mention them in list form so people understand the magnitude of what he achieved.

  • Won his first world championship at age 20
  • Only bull riding rookie ever to win the Wrangler NFR average
  • First bull riding rookie to win a world title since Bill Kornell in 1963
  • RAM Top Gun Award for most Wrangler NFR earnings in a single event with $175,466
  • Single-season PRCA earnings record for rookies with $318,631
  • Tied record for most Wrangler NFR round victories in bull riding history with four
  • First rookie to win a world title since Beaver in 1985

Speaking of records…

This year’s Wrangler NFR total attendance of 177,565 set a new record for the 10-day event. Saturday night’s crowd of 18,095 for Round 10 helped eclipse the previous mark of 176,558 from last year. The Finals now has been a sellout for 290 consecutive performances.

My good friend Jim Bainbridge has done a great job running the Wrangler NFR press room for eight years.  --Photo by Deanna Kristenstensen

My good friend Jim Bainbridge has done a great job running the Wrangler NFR press room for eight years. –Photo by Deanna Kristenstensen

End of an era

This year’s Wrangler NFR also marks the final year the PRCA’s Jim Bainbridge will run the press room, as he’s planning on retiring and/or transitioning into a different role as rodeo historian in the Spring. Bainbridge is the hardest-working person in the association and has given a lot of himself the last eight years in a dedicated effort to promote ProRodeo and its stars and to do so in a thorough and professional manner. The association’s senior public relations coordinator is a great man and a good friend, and I wish him the best in the future.

Kimzey enters rare air with gold buckle, Wrangler NFR average title

Sage Kimzey is going to need new business cards.

The 20-year-old from Strong City, Okla., will have to change his title from “Rookie bull rider” to “World Champion Bull Rider.” He can add Wrangler National Finals Rodeo average winner as well after claiming the round win in the ninth performance on Friday night, and the average title is a first for a rookie bull rider.

Kimzey joined 1963 World Champion Bull Rider Bill Kornell as the only bull riding rookies to earn gold buckles and is the first rookie to win a world championship since ProRodeo Hall of Famer Joe Beaver won the tie-down roping title in his first year as a pro in 1985. Those are pretty amazing accolades for the affable and poised cowboy, who led the world standings for most of the season and didn’t fold under the pressure of having a bull’s eye on his back down the stretch.

Sage Kimzey tied the Wrangler NFR bull riding record with his fourth round win on Friday night and can set a new record on Saturday night.

Sage Kimzey tied the Wrangler NFR bull riding record with his fourth round win on Friday night and can set a new record on Saturday night.

He liked the ring “World Champion Sage Kimzey” had on Thursday night after clinching the title.

“It sounds pretty good,” said Kimzey, who has a rookie record $269,899 in earnings heading into Round 10. “It’s something I’ve been dreaming of and working for my whole life, so to get to this point is pretty crazy. It hasn’t sunk in at this point, because we’ve got two rounds left and my focus is on them. It is a dream come true, it really is.”

Kimzey earned his fourth go-round win of this year’s Finals in Round 9 and has ridden eight bulls in a row in Las Vegas.

“There are very few times you can actually get in a zone like this,” he said after Round 8. “Baseball players always refer to it as a beach ball coming toward you and you know exactly where it’s going, and that’s how I feel with my riding right now. Everything I’ve been on, I’ve felt in rhythm with them, and like there’s nothing that can throw me off.”

World Champion Bull Rider Sage Kimzey has been a regular in the Wrangler NFR press room this week after winning four rounds, the average, Ram Top Gun Award and gold buckle.

World Champion Bull Rider Sage Kimzey has been a regular in the Wrangler NFR press room this week after winning four rounds, the average, Ram Top Gun Award and gold buckle.

Kimzey envisioned a magical season like this, but is at a loss to actually see it come to fruition so perfectly.

“Envisioned it, yes, but it was somewhat of an untouchable dream,” he said. “It was something I’ve always wanted to do, but to reach the pinnacle of professional rodeo in my first year is pretty special. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, definitely.”

Kimzey comes from a strong rodeo family, and his father, Ted, was the NFR’s barrel man in 1987 and served as an alternate in 1986. He was one proud papa after I gave him the official news on Thursday night that Sage had clinched the gold buckle.

“I worked hard in the rodeo business, accomplished a hell of a lot in my life and had a lot of honors bestowed upon me, but undoubtedly this is the greatest moment of my rodeo career,” Ted said. “It doesn’t get any better for a dad. I can’t even put it into words, and this is just the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my life, with the exception of my children being born.

“There’s never been a dad that’s walked the face of the earth that’s ever been more proud than I am of what he’s done in one year.”

Sage Kimzey has no doubt made his father, Ted, a two-time Wrangler NFR barrel man, a proud papa this year.

Sage Kimzey has no doubt made his father, Ted, a two-time Wrangler NFR barrel man, a proud papa this year.  –Photo courtesy of Sage Kimzey

Kimzey also clinched the Ram Top Gun Award, which goes to the contestant with the most earnings in a single event, thanks to his victory in Round 9. He will take home a 3500 Ram Heavy Duty Longhorn Laramie truck, a special Montana Silversmiths custom buckle and a Ram Truck Top Gun-branded gun from Commemorative Firearms in addition to his gold buckle, a pile of cash and a Wrangler NFR average saddle.

If that wasn’t enough, Kimzey’s four round victories tie a bull riding record held by six other men, so he has a chance to set a new record for his event with another first-place finish on Saturday night.

ProRodeo Hall of Fame Bull Rider Don Gay has been impressed by Kimzey and said he believes the youngster has a chance to tie or break his event record of eight gold buckles.

“If he doesn’t, he may be leaving something on the table, because he’s winning his first world title at 20 and that’s how old I was,” Gay said. “Everything is set up perfectly for him, but there’s a lot of things out there that were not available in my day.”

A battered and bruised J.W. Harris, who has four gold buckles of his own, feels Kimzey will make a fine world champion.

“I think he’ll be a good one, as long as he keeps carrying the torch,” Harris said. “It’s good for the PRCA that we’ve got a really good set of young guys who’ve come in to the NFR this year, and it does a lot for the sport.”

He’s quickly become the story of the Finals, and having Kimzey as the sport’s reigning world champion in 2015 should be a great thing for the sport.

Legends abound at Wrangler NFR’s 30th reunion

Virtually everyone who is anyone in the world of rodeo could be found at one place on Friday afternoon in Las Vegas.

ProRodeo legends, Hall of Famers, world champions and dignitaries gathered at the Palms Hotel & Casino’s grand ballroom Friday for the Gold Card Roundup, a celebration of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo’s 30 years in Las Vegas and a great chance for old friends to reunite in fun and fellowship. The more than 400 attendees included a Who’s Who of the rodeo world, from ProRodeo Hall of Famers like Harry Vold, Larry Mahan, Roy Cooper and Deb Copenhaver to world champions Chad Ferley, Jeff Copenhaver and Jimmie Munroe.

The group shared handshakes, smiles, stories, food and fun at the festive event, and the collection of stars and history in the room was simply staggering. I also ran into the likes of Charles Sampson, Dean Oliver, Cotton Rosser, Bob Tallman, Don Gay and Shawn Davis, and there was great history and accomplished cowboys everywhere you turned.

The ballroom at the Palms was filled with rodeo royalty and legends at the Gold Card Roundup on Friday.

The ballroom at the Palms was filled with rodeo royalty and legends at the Gold Card Roundup on Friday.

Pro announcer Brent Jordan served as the master of ceremonies for the event, which was organized by Rodeo Historical Society Board member Larry Jordan and supported by PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman and Davis, among others. Wrangler NFR specialty act Rider Kiesner performed and helped hand out a trio of $250 cash prizes, and the lunch also featured silent and live auctions.

Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson, Stressman, Rooster Reynolds – the son of the late Benny Reynolds – Davis, famed cowboy poet and music artist Red Steagall and Women’s Professional Rodeo Association President Carolyn Vietor all spoke at the reunion.

“It is a great honor for my name to be on the Gold Cards as the PRCA Commissioner,” Stressman told the room that included dozens of PRCA Gold Card members. “There’s nowhere else in the world for the Wrangler NFR to be than Las Vegas.”

Five men – Vold, Bennie Beutler, Jim Sutton, Neal Gay and Rosser – received the inaugural Benny Reynolds Gold Card Awards, and Michael Gaughan, Christenson, Stressman, Mahan and Steagall were given Benny Binion Gold Card Awards as well.

Rooster Reynolds, second from left, helped award the inaugural Benny Reynolds Gold Card Awards to (l to r) Jim Sutton, Cotton Rosser, Neal Gay, Harry Vold and Bennie Beutler at the Gold Card Roundup.

Rooster Reynolds, second from left, joined Miss Rodeo America Paige Nicholson in awarding the inaugural Benny Reynolds Gold Card Awards to (l to r) Jim Sutton, Cotton Rosser, Neal Gay, Harry Vold and Bennie Beutler at the Gold Card Roundup.

Davis thanked everyone for coming and spoke about the rodeo’s presence in Las Vegas.

“This is something I thought was very important to have,” Davis said of the Gold Card Roundup. “The reason for this event is to get people together, and you always have to look at your history before you can move forward. We can entertain ourselves and think about how it used to be, but also talk about the future and how to make it better.

“After I made the decision to bring the rodeo here, I was a little nervous when I saw those empty seats, but it’s my understanding that we have the longest-lasting sold-out event in Las Vegas.”

Mahan interviewed Deb Copenhaver, Vold, Bob Ragsdale and Chuck Henson on stage and kept the crowd laughing and thinking about the special world of rodeo at the same time.

“Rodeo is the event that showcases our Western heritage and culture to the world,” said Mahan, a 1979 ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee. “It requires self-reliance, discipline, sacrifice, mental strength and courage. It’s the ultimate opportunity to see if you have what it takes and to go for it.

“Our Western heritage and culture is such a precious part of this country, and it’s something we need to keep alive.”

Vold, who attended his first rodeo in 1936, talked about the way the sport has changed through the years, as well as Las Vegas’ influence on the Wrangler NFR.

“This thing has changed drastically,” said Vold, who has provided stock for every Wrangler NFR. “Guys used to ride for next to nothing, but now the money really amounts to something. I think the changes are wonderful.”

Members of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame gathered for a group photo at the Gold Card Roundup at the Palms.

Members of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame gathered for a group photo at the Gold Card Roundup at the Palms.

Steagall received a standing ovation after sharing his admiration for the group before him and giving thanks to rodeo for changing his life.

“I can’t begin to tell you how emotional this is for me to stand up in front of all of you, look across this crowd and see the people who created a lifestyle for me that I treasure more than I can explain to you in words” Steagall said. “It took all of us to get rodeo to this point, where it’s the most celebrated sport in the history of our country, and it will take all of us working together to keep it safe, healthy and productive for the next generation.”

Deb Copenhaver, 89, summed up the sentiment of the entire group with some heartfelt remarks while on stage chatting with Mahan.

“If I could go back and retrace my steps, I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Copenhaver, a 1992 ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee. “To be a part of this family and to be a part of this group of people is the most precious thing. This is the most precious moment of my life.

“I can take this to glory.”

Miss Rodeo America title in good hands going forward

I don’t think it’s any secret I have a weakness for beautiful blondes (who doesn’t?), but the judges at the Miss Rodeo American Pageant must have one as well considering who they selected as the 2015 queen.

Last Saturday, Lauren Heaton of Alva, Okla., won the title of Miss Rodeo America 2015, becoming the first state queen from Oklahoma to claim the honor and the 60th woman to wear the crown since the pageant’s inception. The Oklahoma State University graduate stopped by the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo press room Thursday night before the performance, and I was lucky enough to get a few minutes of her time.

 

Miss Rodeo Oklahoma Lauren Heaton was crowned Miss Rodeo America 2015 at MGM Grand on Saturday afternoon.  --PRCA photo by Eva Scofield

Miss Rodeo Oklahoma Lauren Heaton was crowned Miss Rodeo America 2015 at MGM Grand on Saturday afternoon. –PRCA photo by Eva Scofield

We chatted about her dream coming true and her plans for the future, and I found Heaton to be sweet and engaging in addition to polished and poised. She had a lot of great things to say, and she will be a fine representative of the sport next year.

Q: How has your week been since winning the crown? Has it been a whirlwind?

LH: Yes, it’s been a whirlwind. But it’s just like the NFR – as the week goes on, you get a little looser and the cowgirls get a little calmer and more focused. That’s how I feel, and I’m getting a little more focused about what my year’s going to be like.

Q: Have you been able to digest everything and realized what you accomplished?

LH: Every time I meet somebody new or a person I’ll be working with this next year that I’ve been looking up to, that’s when it really starts to hit me about what I’m about to represent, who I’m about to represent and the type of people I’ll get to work with. That’s exciting.

Q: It must be pretty special to win this title as the Miss Rodeo America association celebrates its 60th anniversary.

LH: It’s very special, and I’m also the very first Miss Rodeo Oklahoma to ever win the title of Miss Rodeo America. So, tying that in with being the 60th Miss Rodeo America, those are two incredible titles and honors I’m excited to have. I hope to be able to do a lot with those titles this year and represent the best I can.

Q: What was it like to ride in the grand entry at the Wrangler NFR after you won the crown?

LH: It was surreal and adrenaline-packed. I must say, the most exciting thing about the whole run was when they announced I was from Alva, Okla. I had a large group of my supporters stay an extra day to be able to go to the rodeo that night, and I’m from such a small community and they’ve given me so much support throughout the year. That was one moment I got to have, and I just thought about how many people in the Thomas & Mack Center must have thought, “Where’s Alva, Okla.?” I was excited to be able to represent them that night.

Q: Saturday was a big day for you, but also your alma-mater, which beat Oklahoma in football. That had to make the day even more special.

LH: It did, and to top it off, coach (Mike) Gundy Tweeted me and said, “Congrats to Oklahoma State graduate.” I Tweeted back and said, “Congrats on your win, too.” He said, “You’re welcome any time at Oklahoma State football.” So, to be an Oklahoma State alumni and be such a big Oklahoma State football fan, that was another one of those sink-in moments when it hits you that you just won Miss Rodeo America. That was a really cool experience.

Q: The week of the pageant is long and grueling. Was it a grind, or did you enjoy the experience?

LH: We had a great group of girls this year, and we all became really close. Every day, we were just enjoying every part of the pageant, and it was a blast. I really just took it day by day, took it one event at a time and tried to put my best foot forward and make it through the week. I really enjoyed it.

Q: Are you ready for more than 100,000 miles of travel and being one of the sport’s top ambassadors next year?

LH: Oh, absolutely. This sport and this industry has given me so much in life, so I’m really excited. I also love traveling and meeting people, and it’s really combining my two favorite hobbies of traveling and rodeo. It’s going to be a great year.

Miss Rodeo America 2015 Lauren Heaton was nice enough to chat with me before Round 8 of the Wrangler NFR.  --Photo by Ted Harbin

Miss Rodeo America 2015 Lauren Heaton was nice enough to chat with me before Round 8 of the Wrangler NFR. –Photo by Ted Harbin

Q: I hear you want to pursue a master’s degree after your year as Miss Rodeo America. What do you want to do with that degree?

LH: The Miss Rodeo America scholarship foundation is really phenomenal, and I received almost $28,000 in scholarships when I won. That’s phenomenal, not only for paying off student loans, but also for using it for future education that really gives something to Miss Rodeo America to be able to use after her reign. The business aspect of rodeo is really important, and it’s something I’m really interested in becoming more knowledgeable about. To be able to use that scholarship and become more educated to help the sport is important, and I hope to stay in this industry after my year (as MRA) and help give back.

Q: Did you grow up as a girl who wanted to be Miss Rodeo America or a Wrangler NFR barrel racer?

LH: I grew up with two older brothers, so I’m actually a team roper now. I did grow up barrel racing, but I have a high appreciation for team roping and love that. But you see Miss Rodeo America when you watch the NFR, you look up to her and it’s something I’ve aspired to since I first started rodeo queening. To see how much she does for the sport and how much she gives back to the cowboys in the events I love, it’s something every little cowgirl dreams of being. It’s an honor to be in this position now.

Wrangler NFR hodgepodge, Take 2

Three rounds remain at this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and it’s been one heck of a seven days here in Las Vegas.

The last week has been a frenzied blur, and it’s taken me a bit to organize the highlights into something resembling order. Here’s a look at the week that was and the major events of the first week of the world’s richest rodeo.

Injured Wright out for at least two rounds

Two-time World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Cody Wright will miss at least the eighth and ninth performances after suffering a severe left shoulder separation in Round 7. He suffered the injury after riding Sutton Rodeos’ Camp Fire for 65 points and was transported to a Las Vegas hospital to have the shoulder treated. Not only is it a shame because Wright is such a nice and well-liked guy, but he was fourth in the world standings and third in the average before having to doctor release for the next two rounds.

“It makes me sick, it really does,” Wright told me over the phone on Thursday afternoon. “I hate to turn out in the middle of the year, let alone coming here and doing it. But like I told these boys of mine, I could get on and ride, but I’m here riding the best horses in the world against the best cowboys in the world.

“Can I get on and be competitive? No, I don’t think I can. I could get on and tough it out and hopefully not hurt myself, but I’m more likely to hurt myself worse and be out more next year.”

Wright said doctors sedated him before popping the shoulder back into place, and he will follow up with an MRI as soon as he can in order to discover if there is structural damage to the shoulder. He said he could potentially ride in Round 10, but had not yet made a decision.

“I’m just going to play it by ear and see how it feels,” Wright said. “I’ve felt worse (pain), but it was pretty bad. I’m not planning on this little upset being the end of my career.”

Kimzey, Yates lead round winners

Bull rider Sage Kimzey and tie-down roper Marty Yates – both Wrangler NFR rookies this year – lead all contestants in round victories with three. Kimzey, the bull riding world standings leader, won the third and fourth rounds and split Round 7 with Elliot Jacoby, while Yates took Rounds 1 and 4 and split the sixth round with Matt Shiozawa. Fourteen contestants, including six-time World Champion Cody Ohl and barrel racing world standings leader Fallon Taylor, have two round wins apiece heading into Round 8.

Tie-down roper Marty Yates is tied with bull rider Sage Kimzey for most Wrangler NFR round victories through the first seven rounds with three.

Tie-down roper Marty Yates is tied with bull rider Sage Kimzey for most Wrangler NFR round victories through the first seven rounds with three.

Some contestants to pull for

Everyone has their favorite cowboys or barrel racers, but there are six Wrangler NFR contestants I think all ProRodeo fans should pull for in the final three rounds. They are the only ones of 119 contestants who still have not won a check in Las Vegas, and I hate to see anyone go home empty-handed. So, cheer for bareback rider J.R. Vezain, tie-down roper Reese Riemer, barrel racers Christine Laughlin and Samantha Lyne and bull riders Reid Barker and Josh Koschel to make it to the pay window down the stretch so they can enjoy a happier holiday season with their families.

Cody Ohl now has 51 Wrangler NFR go-round victories after splitting Round 7 with Tuf Cooper.

Cody Ohl now has 51 Wrangler NFR go-round victories after splitting Round 7 with Tuf Cooper.

Ohl ties Etbauer

With his split of first place in Round 7, Ohl tied ProRodeo Hall of Famer Billy Etbauer for most Wrangler NFR round victories in an individual event with 51. Ohl also has three go-round buckles from the Clem McSpadden National Finals Steer Roping for a grand total of 54, three shy of Trevor Brazile, who holds the overall record with 57 round wins.

Superlatives for scores, times so far

Justin McDaniel’s 89-point ride on Frontier Rodeo’s Delta Ship in Round 3 is the highest-scored bareback ride of the rodeo so far, while Kyle Irwin’s 3.2-second run in that round was the fastest steer wrestling run of this year’s Finals. Luke Brown and Kollin VonAhn had the quickest team roping run of the rodeo in Round 4, and the highest saddle bronc ride of the Finals, 87, is shared by Cort Scheer from Round 1 and Wade Sundell from the third and fifth go-rounds. No tie-down roper has been faster than Ohl, who won the third round with a 6.6-second run. Michelle McLeod’s 13.66-second run to win Round 5 is the fastest barrel racing run so far, and Aaron Pass’ 89.5-point mark on Rafter H Rodeo’s Seeing Red to win Round 2 is the highest-scored bull ride of this year’s Finals.

Tight world title races shaping up in Las Vegas

Trevor Brazile may have already wrapped up his 12th all-around world championship, but the majority of single-event gold buckle battles are as tight as they can be heading into the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo’s final three rounds.

It’s officially “crunch time” in Las Vegas, and the contestants know it.

Sage Kimzey, front, split Round 7 with Elliott Jacoby and has all but wrapped up the bull riding world title.

Sage Kimzey, front, split Round 7 with Elliott Jacoby and has all but wrapped up the bull riding world title.

Some events feature leaders with significant world standings leads, but the races in steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping and barrel racing are nearly as snug as Wrangler NFR barrel man Cody Sosebee in the Coors barrel.

In the team roping, Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill stand atop the heap and lead the Wrangler NFR average, but they have plenty of company close by. The team of Dustin Bird and Paul Eaves are in second place by just a few thousand, but are only 11th in the average, while third-place Brazile and Travis Graves are fourth in the average.

Fourth-place Erich Rogers and Cory Petska stand sixth in the average race, and the teams in fifth and sixth place could also be factors down the stretch. One missed catch will prove costly for anyone.

The margin in saddle bronc riding is razor-thin, with Cort Scheer leading the way with $156,049 and a No. 2 average rank. Heith DeMoss is second in the standings with $144,831, but only eighth in the average, while third-place Taos Muncy ($141,437) is fifth in the average.

Cody Wright is fourth in the standings and third in the average, but suffered a severely separated left shoulder at the end of his ride on Wednesday night and is doubtful for the rest of the rodeo after being transported to a local hospital for treatment. One of his younger brothers, Wrangler NFR rookie Spencer Wright, leads the Wrangler NFR average race and is sixth in the standings.

He knows that $48,732 check for winning the average could go a long way.

“I’m just going to try to keep riding well, stay positive and lay back and left,” said Spencer Wright, who won the fourth and seventh rounds. “I’m not nervous. I just feel like I’m riding so solid, and I’m feeling really confident right now.

“I’m trying to stay that way and to not overthink things.”

Lisa Lockhart was back in the Wrangler NFR press room on Wednesday night after winning Round 7 and hopes to give Fallon Taylor a run for her money in the final three rounds.

Lisa Lockhart was back in the Wrangler NFR press room on Wednesday night after winning Round 7 and hopes to give world standings leader Fallon Taylor a run for her money in the final three rounds.

The barrel racing is developing into a two-woman showdown, with Fallon Taylor holding a $26,558 lead over Round 7 winner Lisa Lockhart heading into the final three rounds. Taylor leads Lockhart by just six-hundredths of a second in the average race, so a tipped barrel could shake things up a bit.

Lockhart, who is competing at her eighth consecutive Wrangler NFR, is going to do her best to give Taylor a run for her money down the stretch.

“I’m not real good about safetying up,” said Lockhart, of Oelrichs, S.D. “There’s just so much money to be won daily that I just think we’ll go out, do our job and let it all hang out. I’m just thrilled to be having some success and to have a really fast run tonight, especially after tipping a barrel last night.”

Tie-down roping is Tuf Cooper’s to lose, and he certainly has no plans of doing that. The two-time world champ split Round 7 with Cody Ohl and leads second-place Matt Shiozawa by $33,111.

Shiozawa leads Cooper by five-tenths of a second in the average race, but it will take a big mistake by Cooper to get him out of the driver’s seat in this battle. Brazile is fourth in the world standings and third in the average and will be going at it hard, but Cooper has been preparing for this stretch run and is focused on the task at hand.

“I went out and practiced some today and took my dad (ProRodeo Hall of Famer Roy Cooper) out there with me at the same roping arena he used to practice at in the ‘80s and ‘90s when he competed,” Cooper said. “We talked about roping and staying aggressive. I’m fortunate and blessed that I came in the Finals in a good enough position that I could make a mistake, but like my dad and I talked about, I can’t make another one.”

Tuf Cooper is in the driver's seat to win world title No. 3, but can't afford a mistake in the final three rounds.

Tuf Cooper is in the driver’s seat to win world title No. 3, but can’t afford a mistake in the final three rounds.

Anything can happen in the other events, but world standings leaders have a bit more of a cushion going forward. Three-time and reigning World Champion Bareback Rider Kaycee Feild has a lead of more than $43,000 over Austin Foss and stands third in the Wrangler NFR average, while Foss is fourth in the average and average leader Bobby Mote trails Field by more than $58,000.

Four-time World Champion Steer Wrestler Luke Branquinho is just more than $14,000 clear of second-place Nick Guy, but leads the Wrangler NFR average, while Guy is ninth. Trevor Knowles is third place in the world standings, but 14th in the average, but Casey Martin has a chance from his fourth-place standing and No. 2 rank in the average.

Sage Kimzey split the seventh round with Elliott Jacoby and is an easy pick to win his first gold buckle in three days. The Oklahoman has $239,556 in earnings and is the only bull rider with more than four qualified rides – he has six – so that race is all but over.

Being a journalist, I am horrible at math, so I won’t attempt to spell out endless scenarios that might require a graphing calculator or algorithms. Let me say simply that the next three nights in Las Vegas are going to be interesting, and everyone should buckle up for a wild ride.

The action in Las Vegas has been great so far, and it’s about to get taken up a notch.