Kimzey rested, optimistic about first Wrangler NFR

A little time at home resting and recuperating can do wonders for an athlete, and bull riding world standings leader Sage Kimzey can attest to that after the last month.

The 20-year-old rookie has spent most of the last month in Oklahoma, spending time with family and friends and healing up from a tough wreck at a CBR event in Mercedes, Texas, in mid-October. The time away from the arena has done wonders for Kimzey, and he will head to his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo fresh and ready to compete for a world title.

“I’ve been hanging out and enjoying some time off,” Kimzey said. “I’ve been getting on some practice bulls, and everything’s in order now. I’ve just been enjoying the normal life for a while.”

Sage Kimzey leads the bull riding world standings heading into this year's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

Sage Kimzey leads the bull riding world standings heading into this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

The time off has allowed Kimzey to reflect a bit on what he has accomplished this season.

“In the last little while when I haven’t been blowing and going, it’s definitely sunk in a little bit,” Kimzey said. “I’m not sure how much it’s sunk in, but it’s definitely sunk in more lately.”

Kimzey will drive to Las Vegas with his father, Ted, a two-time NFR barrelman (1980, 1987). That trip will give them time to talk about the Wrangler NFR’s pen of bulls, a list Kimzey has already evaluated initially.

“It’s a good set of bulls and definitely a great set of bull riders going, so it should be one of the best NFRs we’ve had in a while,” Kimzey said. “There’s definitely a few in there that will be tough to get by, but for the most part, it’s just a good set of bulls that a bunch of guys are going to ride a high percentage of, and there should be some really high scores.”

Kimzey is one of a trio of Wrangler NFR first-timers ranked in the top five, and seven of the 15 bull riders at this year’s Finals will be Thomas & Mack Center rookies. Despite their inexperience, Kimzey doesn’t expect this crop of talented cowboys to fold under the pressure.

“With the group of guys who are going, I know we’re young and inexperienced and none of us have gone to the Thomas & Mack, but all of us seem to have pretty level heads on us,” he said. “The pressure doesn’t really seem to get to any of us, and in the big moments, that’s when we seem to shine.”

I asked Kimzey to give scouting reports on the other riders who will enter the 10-day rodeo in the top five in the standings. As usual, Kimzey didn’t disappoint, offering great insight about his peers.

Trey Benton III

Trey Benton III

Trey Benton III, Rock Island, Texas

“Trey rides everything. He’s kind of streaky in the sense that he’ll win a bunch of events in a row, and he’s an awesome bull rider. He’s going to have a great Finals. He’s always been banged up (at the Finals), so nobody’s seen the real Trey Benton in Vegas, and I think this year’s going to be a lot different than his last two Finals. Last year, he broke his leg and has had a rough go in Vegas, but most of it’s been because of his health. I look for him to ride six or seven, at least.”

Cody Teel

Cody Teel

Cody Teel, Kountze, Texas

“He’s a guy who pressure doesn’t affect at all. He’s already been in the big moment, and he’s succeeded in the big moment. He’s definitely a guy who’s going to ride anything they run under him and is capable of putting up big scores. He’s just a really solid bull rider. He doesn’t do anything flashy, but gets the job done, for sure.”

 

Tim Bingham

Tim Bingham

Tim Bingham, Honeyville, Utah

“I’d say out of all of us, Tim’s probably the home-run hitter. He can pull off the bull rides that not many other guys are going to make and be a bunch of points whenever he does it. He’s really good away from his hand, is technically sound with his riding, and I look for Tim to have a good Finals, too. Shoot, I think all of the Top 15 guys are going to have a good Finals this year.”

Brennon Eldred

Brennon Eldred

 

Brennon Eldred, Sulphur, Okla.

“Brennon and I grew up riding together. Shoot, that kid is another home-run hitter. When he rides, he always looks really pretty on the back of one, and he’s always a lot of points. It’ll be cool me and him getting to go out to the Finals together for the first time, because we grew up riding together. It’ll just be pretty cool.”

 

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh and final article in a series of monthly pieces featuring Sage Kimzey and his path toward the Wrangler NFR. Each month, NFR Insider Neal Reid will catch up with Kimzey to talk about his progress, successes and setbacks as the rodeo season marches on. Stay tuned for more about Kimzey.

Wrangler NFR 30th book becoming a reality

As I sit here working away at Las Vegas Events’ headquarters just down the road from the Thomas & Mack Center, the reality of seven months of hard work coming to a close has begun to set in.

This spring, I was tasked with the immense responsibility and honor of leading the charge on producing a commemorative book to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo’s move to Las Vegas. A controversial decision three decades ago has paid off big-time in the ever-evolving rodeo, and fans have been treated to some amazing things in the “Entertainment Capital of the World” since it moved here in 1985.

The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is always a great show for the more than 17,000 fans who file into the Thomas & Mack Center every year.

The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is always a great show for the more than 17,000 fans who file into the Thomas & Mack Center every night.

It has been no small project and my life as a journalist has been dominated by the book’s production for more than half the year, but it has been one heck of a ride. I interviewed nearly 50 people, including a former Nevada governor and senator, ProRodeo Hall of Famers, world champions, Las Vegas casino magnates and city leaders for this project, and the hundreds of pages of transcripts have produced some compelling stories and anecdotes.

2014_WNFR_30_YRS-1

I knew a bit about the vote that changed the NFR’s home from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas, but had no idea the ins and outs involved with the process, and I was routinely surprised by the stories I was told and the series of events that led to arguably the most important decision in the history of rodeo. I was also interested in telling stories that had never been told before, as well as looking at the rodeo from every angle imaginable.

I feel like we have done just that in the 68-page book that will be available to fans along with the official Wrangler NFR program this year during the Finals, and I am confident readers will enjoy the book as a historical and fun examination of the rodeo they have come to know and love through the years. The Wrangler NFR really is one of the greatest sporting events in the world – and I have seen enough different types to know – and this book hopefully will help others appreciate just how awesome a spectacle it has become.

This week is final edit week for the book, and I will be both relieved and thrilled to send it off to the printer on Monday. The last seven months have been quite a journey and a new challenge, which is something I believe writers must continuously look for as they progress in their careers.

Las Vegas has been an amazing host for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo since it moved from Oklahoma City in 1985.

Las Vegas has been an amazing host for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo since it moved from Oklahoma City in 1985.

As usual, every contestant and everyone associated with the sport and the Wrangler NFR that I either interviewed or leaned on for help was amazingly gracious and willing to support the project. I think the end result will be a one-of-a-kind book people will be proud to own, and I know I will be proud to have my name on its masthead.

It’s hard to believe the concept that was originally discussed eight months ago has come to fruition and will soon be a tangible reality, and I can’t wait to get a copy in my hands for the first time. It may not end up being perfect – but will be as close to that as humanly possible – and won’t win a Pulitzer, but the book will do exactly what it was set out to achieve: tell the story of the world’s greatest rodeo like it never has been told before.

That sounds pretty darned good to me.

First-timers euphoric about maiden trips to Wrangler NFR

Qualifying for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is always a special feat, but contestants will forever remember their first trips to Las Vegas for the “Super Bowl of rodeo.”

This year’s 119-member field includes 27 first-time qualifiers, an influx of new blood that the Finals sees on an annual basis. Their joy of competing in and awe for the world’s richest rodeo is evident by the smiles on their faces, the butterflies in their stomachs and goose bumps they experience on a nightly basis.

This year’s crew of first-timers includes seven of the 15 bull riders and five of the 15 steer wrestlers and barrel racers, and many of the NFR rookies have legitimate shots at world championships in their maiden voyages to Las Vegas.

That includes bareback rider Tim O’Connell, who will enter the Wrangler NFR in fourth place in the standings with $102,890. He trails three-time and reigning World Champion Kaycee Feild by $69,494, but will approach his first NFR with his sights set on gold.

“I’m going to try and be David vs. Goliath and knock off Kaycee,” said O’Connell, who hails from Zwingle, Iowa. “He is very tough, but anything can happen in Vegas. I’m going to go there with the same attitude I’ve had all year.

“I’ll probably get the butterflies the first couple of rounds, but I love high-intensity atmospheres.”

Tim O'Connell

Tim O’Connell

O’Connell said a number of factors contributed to his inaugural Finals berth.

“Staying healthy was a big part of it, because you can’t ride bareback horses sore,” said O’Connell, 23. “I just tried to rodeo smarter and didn’t try to wear my body out. I drew so well throughout the entire year.

“My body was healthy, I felt like I was riding and drawing well, and the good Lord just blessed me.”

Regardless of where he ends up in the final world standings, one thing will be for certain for O’Connell. He’s going to have a blast.

“I’m going to go there and try to win the world, and I’m going to go there and enjoy every minute and second of it,” O’Connell said. “Guys wait their entire lives just to make it to that point, so I’m going to take it all in. I’m going out there to win the world, and if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, I’m just blessed to be out there.”

Bareback rider Tim O'Connell, shown here riding in Omaha, Neb., is thrilled to be heading to his first career Wrangler NFR.  --PRCA photo by WT Bruce

Bareback rider Tim O’Connell, shown here riding in Omaha, Neb., is thrilled to be heading to his first career Wrangler NFR. –PRCA photo by WT Bruce

First-time Wrangler NFR steer wrestler Clayton Hass is another cowboy with a good shot at a world title this December. The 6-3, 235-pound Texan enters the proceedings ranked fifth in the world with $76,576, just $15,228 behind world standings leader Trevor Knowles.

The 2014 season has been a dream for Hass.

“It’s been an awesome year, and I’ve done better at taking advantages of chances when I’ve gotten them,” he said.

Clayton Hass

Clayton Hass

Hass knows he has just as good of a shot at a gold buckle as any other bulldogger.

“If a guy can get on a roll out there and do well, it’s anybody’s ball game,” said Hass, who will celebrate his 21st birthday during the Finals on Dec. 9. “I’m just going to stay focused and be aggressive. That arena is small out there, and if you miss the barrier, it’ll cost you.”

Hass will have ProRodeo Hall of Famer Ote Berry alongside him at the Thomas & Mack Center as his hazer, and World Champion Steer Wrestler Byron Walker is also helping him prepare for the 10-day finale.

His qualification has also been a thrill for Hass’ family.

“Heck, they might be more excited than I am,” Hass said. “They’re tickled to death. My mom and dad will be out there the whole time, and it’ll be awesome for them to take it all in.”

Being able to experience his first Finals with his parents will be a special experience for the bulldogger.

“They’ve sacrificed a lot for me growing up and during my career, and for me to be where I am, it’s something for them to be able to come out there and watch me perform,” he said. “Gosh, all of the money they’ve spent on me rodeoing growing up, it’s paid off.”

Bulldogger Clayton Hass will enter his first Wrangler NFR ranked fifth and with a legitimate shot at a gold buckle.  --PRCA photo by WT Bruce

Bulldogger Clayton Hass will enter his first Wrangler NFR ranked fifth and with a legitimate shot at a gold buckle. –PRCA photo by WT Bruce

Bull rider Tim Bingham has not been able to get the Wrangler NFR off his mind since his qualification was official at the end of September.

“I haven’t quit thinking about it since Omaha’s been over, really,” said Bingham, of Honeyville, Utah. “I’m excited, and it’s coming soon.”

Tim Bingham

Tim Bingham

As is the case with most bull riders, staying healthy has been a big key for the 23-year-old Bingham.

“I finally was able to string more rides together, and my wins, instead of high 80s or 90-point rides at smaller rodeos – which do add up – I was able to make good rides for a lot bigger checks this year,” he said. “So, I’ve been able to make more money, and I didn’t take one doctor’s release this year and never had to sit out any all year. That’s probably the biggest difference for this year to past years.”

Bingham enters this year’s Finals fourth in the standings with $85,634, and while he trails world standings leader Sage Kimzey by $57,531, he knows a gold buckle isn’t out of the question.

“A lot of people see Sage out there with a big lead, and what they don’t realize is a guy could go out there and win $150,000, so $50,000 really isn’t that much,” Bingham said. “I’m not hoping bad against him, and he’d have to stub his toe, for sure, for that to happen, but that’s the thing about the NFR. Not only is it the Finals, but it’s a game-changer that shows it’s not really over until it’s over.

“I look at it as I better step my game up, because it is still possible. It motivates me to do better.”

No matter how much they mentally prepare for what is to come, Wrangler NFR first-timers will be aglow in the splendor of finally experiencing the sport’s crown jewel.

“It’s really happening, and I’ve really accomplished a dream and a lifelong goal,” O’Connell said.

Bass living dream as barrel racing standings leader

Looking through the list of contestants who will enter the 2014 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in the top spot in the world standings, I couldn’t help but wonder about barrel racing leader Kaley Bass and what took her to the No. 1 position this year.

The Kissimmee, Fla., cowgirl is reserved and almost shy, humble and appreciative of the season she’s had, and I found her to be quite a delight during our phone chat. She has ridden a 14-year-old gray gelding named Wonders Cowboy Dan most of the season, and the talented steed was recently named the AQHA/WPRA Barrel Racing Horse of the Year as a reward for his prowess in navigating the cloverleaf pattern better than any other mount in 2014.

Kaley Bass and her AQHA/WPRA Barrel Racing Horse of the Year Wonders Cowboy Dan have been awesome in 2014 so far.  --WPRA photo by Greg Westfall

Kaley Bass and her AQHA/WPRA Barrel Racing Horse of the Year Wonders Cowboy Dan have been awesome in 2014 so far. –WPRA photo by Greg Westfall

Bass, 21, is on top of the world in more ways than one as she heads into Las Vegas leading the 15 best barrel racers on the planet.

“It’s just been an awesome year for my horse and I,” said Bass, who also qualified for the Wrangler NFR the last two years. “I couldn’t be any happier.”

The season didn’t look so promising for Bass and Cowboy early on, as she was 38th in the world before June 30. But that was before Cowboy Christmas.

WPRA world standings leader Kaley Bass

WPRA world standings leader Kaley Bass

Bass and her talented horse went wild during the weeklong extravaganza, banking an event-best $28,814 to vault to 15th in the world. From there, they just kept winning and winning and Bass’ goals changed from simply qualifying for the Wrangler NFR to chasing down the No. 1 spot.

“We started out slow, but my horse always does well in the summer,” she said. “I’ve never had a summer this good, though. I was just going to try and make the NFR and didn’t really care where (in the rankings) I was going in.

“After seeing how well my Cowboy Christmas went, I just decided to keep going. There was no point in stopping.”

Bass also rode a 6-year-old mare she bought at the beginning of the year named Wonders Moon Song at different times during the season, and those breaks helped Cowboy stay fresh and strong. The Floridian will enter this year’s Finals with $155,280, $23,809 more than second-place Fallon Taylor, and she admitted that keeping the No. 1 spot will be a nail-biting challenge.

“It will definitely be nerve-racking, but it’ll be fun,” said Bass, who has owned Cowboy for 11 years. “Already having been there (in Las Vegas) doesn’t make it as nerve-racking, and to be able to go at such a young age is really cool.”

But she feels confident in her four-legged dynamo and knows he will give her everything he has night after night at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“On the horse I’m on, he makes it a lot easier for me, because I know him so well,” she said. “He’s pretty much the same every time and never does anything new, so it’s nice to get on a consistent horse that will take care of you.”

Kaley Bass, shown here in Omaha, Neb., earlier this year, will draw on her experience from the last two Wrangler NFRs as she guns for her first world title.  --WPRA photo by Greg Westfall

Kaley Bass, shown here in Omaha, Neb., earlier this year, will draw upon her experience from the last two Wrangler NFRs as she guns for her first world title. –WPRA photo by Greg Westfall

Bass will celebrate her 22nd birthday on Dec. 21, and she would love to give herself the gift of a gold buckle eight days earlier when the Wrangler NFR concludes.

“Everyone would like to win a world title,” Bass said. “That would be a great birthday present.”

Battered Kimzey trying to stay sharp before Finals

Sometimes, it’s tough being a bull rider.

Rookie world standings leader Sage Kimzey was reminded of that this past weekend, when a bull not-so-nicely stepped on his head at a CBR event in Mercedes, Texas. The 20-year-old Oklahoman has been enjoying a more relaxed October, where he’s been getting on a couple bulls a week to stay sharp, but definitely didn’t enjoy his recent run-in.

“I got stepped on the back of my head, chipped a few teeth and all sorts of good stuff,” said Kimzey, who leads the world standings with $143,165. “It was the full meal deal. I’ll definitely take some time off for this injury and let it heal up, but I’ll keep getting on bulls all the way up until the Finals.”

Kimzey plans to find a balance between resting and riding a bull or two each week for the remainder of October and November.

“I’ve just been getting on a few bulls a week and taking it easy until the NFR,” he said. “I want to be on top of my game whenever I get out there.”

Sage Kimzey leads the bull riding world standings heading into this year's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

Sage Kimzey leads the bull riding world standings heading into this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

Kimzey’s road to a possible world title recently got a bit easier after four-time and reigning World Champion J.W. Harris was forced to forfeit more than $47,000 from his official earnings after failing to meet the PRCA’s minimum rodeo rule of 40. As a result, Harris fell from third to sixth in the standings and now trails Kimzey by $65,858 heading into the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

Kimzey was just as surprised to hear about the development as anyone.

“I thought that was crazy,” he said. “I don’t know if he miscounted or what, but I thought it was pretty wild he didn’t get all of his rodeos. On the flip side of that, I think it’s pretty impressive a guy can win that much money without going to 40 rodeos. It was a bad deal, but it is what it is.”

Harris is someone Kimzey respects and looks up to, so he wishes circumstances were different.

“I wish he’d gotten to count his money,” Kimzey said. “The spirit of competition between us and Trey (Benton III) is really strong, and everybody who’s going to be at the Finals wants to compete against everybody. We want everybody to have their best shot to win, and the fact that he doesn’t get to count all of his money stinks.

“In a way, it’s going to hurt the competition at the Finals with him being so far down instead of right in the thick of things for the title race.”

Kimzey knows he still has a job to do – especially with Benton III trailing him by only $17,618 – and that Harris will be especially motivated once the rodeo begins on Dec. 4.

“My job’s still the same,” he said. “He’ll be ready to win. He always is. We better not stump our toe too bad.”

Sage Kimzey, shown here riding at the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo, has been working to stay sharp for the Wrangler NFR, but recently hit a snag when he was stepped on by a bull.  --PRCA ProRodeo photo by James Phifer

Sage Kimzey, shown here riding at the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo, has been working to stay sharp for the Wrangler NFR, but recently hit a snag when he was stepped on by a bull. –PRCA ProRodeo photo by James Phifer

Until that battle begins, Kimzey is enjoying some time off as he works to stay healthy and keep the rust off.

“It’s been awesome just getting to hang out at the house with my buddies and not have to worry about just absolutely grinding going down the road 24/7,” he said. “It’s been pretty great getting a bunch of days off. I’ve enjoyed it a bunch.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth in a series of monthly articles featuring Sage Kimzey and his path toward the Wrangler NFR. Each month, NFR Insider Neal Reid will catch up with Kimzey to talk about his progress, successes and setbacks as the rodeo season marches on. Stay tuned for more about Kimzey.

World title races should provide great drama in Vegas

The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo contestant roster is still in the painstaking process of being approved by PRCA auditors, but that shouldn’t stop me from looking at the top of the standings in each event to prognosticate how world title races will play out.

Picking world champions is a tricky thing, especially considering how much money is up for grabs in Las Vegas during the 10-day rodeo and everything that can happen in the arena. After all, who could have predicted that Shane Hanchey would vault from 10th to first in the tie-down roping or Hunter Cure would go from seventh place to first to claim his first career steer wrestling gold buckle?

Surprises like those happen every year at the Wrangler NFR, and that’s part of what makes it the best and most exciting rodeo on the planet. But I still can’t resist trying my hand as Nostradamus and sharing my gold buckle predictions for December, so here goes.

Bareback riding

The skinny: No offense to the other guys within striking distance, but I will be shocked of Kaycee Feild fails to win a fourth consecutive bareback riding world championship. Field has had a monster season, racking up a ProRodeo-best $172,384 in pre-NFR earnings for a single-event cowboy. He leads Steven Peebles by $45,455 and has been just as dominant in the Thomas & Mack Center as his ProRodeo Hall of Fame father Lewis, who won his three all-around crowns there from 1985-87. Peebles and Austin Foss could certainly get in the mix, but Feild will be nearly impossible to unseat from the top spot.

Dark horse: Perhaps four-time World Champ Bobby Mote from sixth place, but there’s just too much ground to make up.

My pick: Kaycee Feild

Kaycee Feild is once again the man to beat in the bareback riding, and he's also a leading candidate to earn his second career RAM Truck Top Gun Award for being the Wrangler NFR's top money winner.

Kaycee Feild is once again the man to beat in the bareback riding, and he’s also a leading candidate to earn his second career RAM Truck Top Gun Award for being the Wrangler NFR’s top money winner.

Steer wrestling

The skinny: With just $45,723 separating first and 15th, get ready for a crazy roller-coaster ride here sports fans. Trevor Knowles leads the way with $91,804 in earnings, with K.C. Jones and Casey Martin holding down the next couple spots, but this race could have a different world standings leader every night. Once again, it will come down to Round 10 and who can perform in a pinch, and stock draws will play a factor as well.

Dark horse: Technically everyone, but four-time World Champion Luke Branquinho from the eighth position is an easy choice for this category. He’ll be coming back strong and confident after rehabbing a shoulder injury and could booty-shake his way to yet another gold buckle.

My pick: Trevor Knowles

This could be the year Trevor Knowles puts it all together and wins a gold buckle after contending for one for years, but he'll have to survive a wide-open battle to do it.  --PRCA ProRodeo photo by Larry Smith

This could be the year Trevor Knowles puts it all together and wins a gold buckle after contending for one for years, but he’ll have to survive a wide-open battle to do it. –PRCA ProRodeo photo by Larry Smith

Team roping

The skinny: Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill are the defending champions and will enter this year’s battle in the top spot, making them the team to beat. They won the world title last year despite finishing sixth in the average, and my gut tells me they’ll be gunning for the average this year instead of go-round wins. The teams of Erich Rogers and Cory Petska and Trevor Brazile and Travis Graves will certainly be factors, and there is only roughly $60,000 separating first from 15th place, so this race could be insanity personified.

Dark horses: Everyone.

My pick: Trevor Brazile and Travis Graves

Saddle bronc riding

The skinny: This is going to be a good one folks. Two-time gold buckle winner Taos Muncy will arrive at the Thomas & Mack Center ranked No. 1 with $126,879 in earnings, but fellow two-time champ Cody Wright is on his heels, just $15,794 behind. Virtually everyone in the top 10 has a legitimate chance here, and that includes reigning World Champion Chad Ferley from the No. 10 spot. Cort Scheer and Heith DeMoss, ranked third and fourth, respectively, can’t be overlooked either, so it’s a wide-open race.

Dark horses: Sixth-placed Wade Sundell and No. 8 Jesse Wright have made it a habit of winning big in Las Vegas, so they will likely be factors.

My pick: Taos Muncy

Tie-down roping

The skinny: Tuf Cooper leads Matt Shiozawa by $36,839 and has the inside track on this gold buckle. The always dangerous Brazile stands third, $59,973 behind Cooper, and Hanchey is three spots higher than he was before his world-title run of last December with his No. 7 ranking. I talked to Cooper last week, and he learned a lot from finishing fourth a year ago. Plus, he said he’s having more fun than ever this year, and that’s usually a sign that a guy is in a great place mentally.

Tuf Cooper is in position to win his third career tie-down roping gold buckle, but will have to earn it in every round at the Wrangler NFR.

Tuf Cooper is in position to win his third career tie-down roping gold buckle, but will have to earn it in every round at the Wrangler NFR.

Dark horses: Hanchey from his seventh position, or Hunter Herrin from the No. 6 spot look to be the guys lurking in the shadows.

My pick: Tuf Cooper

Barrel racing

The skinny: Kaley Bass leads the way in the standings and is $23,809 clear of Fallon Taylor, with Lisa Lockhart trailing bass by just $33,663. This will be one of the most compelling battles of the Wrangler NFR, especially considering three other women also have more than $100,000 in season earnings. One tipped barrel can be the difference here, and it’s going to be great theater.

Dark horses: Mary Walker is within striking distance in seventh place, and four-time and reigning World Champion Sherry Cervi will begin the 10-day extravaganza in ninth, and both ladies definitely have the horsepower to make a charge.

My pick: Lisa Lockhart

Bull riding

The skinny: This was shaping up to be a three-man showdown between standings leader Sage Kimzey, a heralded rookie, Trey Benton III and four-time and reigning World Champion J.W. Harris. But that was before Harris lost more than $47,000 in Xtreme Bulls Tour money for failing to compete in the minimum number of PRCA rodeos (40) this season. That gaffe leaves Kimzey in the driver’s seat with a $17,618 lead over Benton III, but 2012 World Champion Cody Teel is third and only $40,576 behind Kimzey. This is always one of the most difficult events to pick, because you never know who might get tapped off or injured during the course of the rodeo.

Dark horse: You can never count Harris out, and if he sets his mind right and gets locked in, he can be a machine. He is $65,858 behind Kimzey, but anything could happen.

My pick: Sage Kimzey

Cooper: Obligation to fans, family drives me to excel

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of guest columns that will be featured on the NFR Insider page on NFRExperience.com from time to time leading up to December’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Two-time World Champion Tie-Down Roper Tuf Cooper is the son of ProRodeo Hall of Famer Roy “Super Looper” Cooper, as well as the current world standings leader who is headed to his seventh consecutive Wrangler NFR. Here, the beloved cowboy gives insight into his back-to-back world championships from 2011-12 and his feelings about his duties as a role model.

BY TUF COOPER

The 2011 season was the first time I ever went into Vegas in the No. 1 spot.

Vegas has always been good to me in the past, and going in with the No. 1 spot gave me a lot of confidence before the first round started. My horsepower was really good that year, and I got to ride one of the best horses that’s ever been in that setup, Jaguar.

Through the 10 rounds, I didn’t win all of the money possible, and it got interesting for a few rounds. But when it was all said and done, winning a world title is something you achieve at that moment that sticks with you.

It took some time to really realize it, even though it was the only thing I’d thought about ever since I was 12 years old. You have goals of winning multiple world championships, and once it happens once, you want to stay on the same path and keep winning another one every year after another.

Tuf Cooper says he's having more fun this year than ever before and leads the world standings heading into the Wrangler NFR.

Tuf Cooper says he’s having more fun this year than ever before and leads the world standings heading into the Wrangler NFR.

I told myself since I was 16 that I was going to win the world, and once it happens, part of you expects you to do it because you’ve believed in yourself and because of all the hard work you’ve put in. The other part is just completely thrilled out of your mind that you just won a world championship. You can’t believe it, and you’re so excited.

Then, you get the buckle a month later with your name on it, and you want to wear it immediately. You’re like, “Man, I can’t believe I get to put a world championship buckle on with my name on it.”

Kaycee Feild and I both won our first world titles that year, and it’s kind of weird how often we’ve been linked together through the years. The first year I made the Finals in 2008, I always thought it was cool whenever Kaycee and I would win the same rodeos during the year that year and other years.

It was awesome being the world champion in 2012, because I got to represent not just my event, but my sport at the highest level. It was the first time I got to do that, and so I made sure that every rodeo I showed up at I stayed focused on not just representing myself, but also the PRCA, the sport of rodeo and the event of calf roping.

It was great being announced as the reigning world champ, but in a way it didn’t mean as much because it doesn’t have any impact on the next season. Wherever you are during that season, you’d better be doing well since you’re the world champ. You’d better act like it and rope like it.

The 2012 season was a good one, but then in the fall I had all three of my good horses went down. So, I just had a good, young 5-year-old horse, and some other ropers helped me by letting me ride their horses at the end of the season.

Justin Maass had been winning and leading the standings all year long. I wanted to get that No. 1 spot all year long, but he was winning and doing well every weekend.

That really pushed me every day to really figure out a way to win. I dang sure prepared and trained like I was winning second.

I was in second place all year long, and going into the Finals I think I was $20,000 behind. I don’t remember what round I took the lead, but it was a tight race all the way to the 10th round.

He roped phenomenal all year long, but I think that was the best year I ever had with total money won, and it was a good race. Having him out front, it pushed me to just want to keep getting better at calf roping and not just maintaining what I had.

It really helped my attitude. It made me really try to get better at roping, focus and not take anything for granted.

With the opportunities I had starting on the first night of the Finals, I knew I wasn’t going to get them again. So, I really tried to stay focused on doing the best I could.

Tuf Cooper looks up to a number of rodeo legends as role models. He spent some time talking with ProRodeo Hall of Famer Ty Murray earlier this year at a photo shoot in Las Vegas.

Tuf Cooper looks up to a number of rodeo legends as role models. He spent some time talking with ProRodeo Hall of Famer Ty Murray earlier this year at a photo shoot in Las Vegas.

I’m leading the world standings this year, and to win three gold buckles in four years would be awesome. It would be in line with my goals, and it’s something I dream about every year.

Everybody who’s ever roped wants to win the world every year, and three out of four wouldn’t be horrible.

You have your daily goals, your year-end goals and your ultimate goals about what you want to be. My daily goals are usually to win the rodeo I’m at, the yearly goal is to win a world championship, and the ultimate goal is to be the best calf roper that’s ever lived.

As long as I stay focused on those three things every day and make decisions based on those goals, I’ll be fine. I definitely have a better opportunity to do all that roping calves than anybody’s ever had, just because of what my family offers me every day.

I’ve been put into the best situation anybody’s probably ever had, and I’m here to make sure I don’t let the family down that’s given me that opportunity. I don’t want to let my dad down, or Trevor Brazile, Stran Smith or my brothers down, because they help me just as much as they help themselves every day.

It’s no pressure, really, and if it is pressure, it’s the best kind you can have. I have fans telling me that I’m a Cooper and Coopers are supposed to rope well, and they know that Trevor is my brother-in-law so they expect me to do well when I nod my head.

It’s more them giving me confidence to win, and no matter what situation you’re in or where you come from, you’ve got to be positive.

I’m blessed to have even one person follow me, and it makes me really excited every day that somebody would want to look up to me or see what I’m doing on Twitter or whatever. I know it’s a job, so I’ve got to do the best job I can of being the best role model I can for the little kids following me.

Tuf Cooper has a dedicated fan base and always makes time for his fans. Here, he enjoyed helping a special friend at the Wrangler NFR Exceptional Rodeo in 2011.

With one of the most dedicated fan bases in ProRodeo, Tuf Cooper always makes time for his fans. Here, he enjoyed helping a friend navigate her way through the Wrangler NFR Exceptional Rodeo in 2011.

I’m blessed and really thankful to have that opportunity to be somebody who’s looked up to. I know it’s my job to be the best role model I can be, and I try to make decisions while thinking about that.

When I’m practicing, I know my fans expect me to be the best I can and push it hard, and it makes me want to practice harder. It also makes me try to make the best decisions outside the arena, because somebody is always watching.

It’s just so important for me and my career where it’s at right now to remember the role models I’ve had and people I’ve looked up to since I was young and still look up to. My heroes are the people I’ve looked up to and wanted to be like and the ones I used to watch videos of on YouTube to see how they competed and carried themselves.

That played such an important role for where I am today, and I know it’s that important for me to be the right role model for little kids who want to grow up and put themselves in my shoes. And if you look up to the wrong people who are not headed on the right path, how are you going to be able to go in the right direction?

After last year’s Finals and finishing fourth in the world, I decided that I wasn’t going to do anything unless it was productive and fun. If it’s not, then I don’t want to do it.

Tuf Cooper will likely be bombarded by interested media again this year at the Wrangler NFR as he goes for gold buckle No. 3.

Tuf Cooper will likely be bombarded by interested media again this year at the Wrangler NFR as he goes for gold buckle No. 3.

This has been the most productive and fun year I’ve had. I’m enjoying every second of my career and my job right now.

You can make it fun, or you can make it not fun, and it’s really up to you in rodeo and in this industry. So, I’m making sure I’m having a blast every day.

Cooper led the world standings heading into the 2011 Wrangler NFR, placed in five rounds there and finished with $192,042 in season earnings. That was $18,266 better than second-place Matt Shiozawa. The following year, Cooper overcame injuries to his horses to chase down world standings leader Justin Maass after finishing second in the Wrangler NFR average to finish with $232,885 for the season. That was $35,291 more than Maass’ final total and gave Cooper his second consecutive gold buckle.