It’s all about the Bling.

Sarah Rose McDonald, her boyfriend, Wade Whatley, and two horses left Brunswick, Ga., on May 14th for a road trip that many would think was a summer vacation.

Sarah Rose McDonald, her boyfriend, Wade Whatley and Bling.
Sarah Rose McDonald, her boyfriend, Wade Whatley and Bling.

First stop, Claremore, Okla. This was the first rodeo that Sarah had entered since March. Her mare Bling had a real vacation getting some much needed R & R after a busy winter running in the buildings. Bling was more than ready to rodeo. They finished fourth there and headed to Fort Smith.

That was just the beginning of a journey that eventually took them to Utah where they really did get in some vacation time between rodeos. The dynamic duo won rodeos in Moab and Delta and placed at Cedar City. As of June 25th they are second in the world standings behind Nancy Hunter.

Sarah’s personal journey to becoming one of the nation’s top barrel racers this year started when she was just a kid. She grew up in the country on a farm where her grandfather and uncle (Steve McDonald) always had horses around. Her mother rode and Sarah started riding as soon as she was big enough to put a leg on each side of a saddle.

Her older sister had a western pleasure horse and soon Sarah was riding it and making it go faster. They started competing in pole bending. Every Saturday they loaded up horses and went somewhere to ride and compete.

She would come home from school and ride every day. Her uncle and father made sure that she  had something to ride and that the horse fit her ability and took her to the next level. Her favorite was a palomino mare named Flicka. When Sarah was nine, Flicka died from West Nile disease.

Her next horse was one that her uncle had just traded for, a big gelding named GC Highly Motivated that they called Jerry.

“He taught me so many things,” she said. “I learned a lot just riding him, like what to do to control my horse. Some days, I’d get on him and he’d be hyper, so we would just lope around the field. I always had a chance to win on him and I got really competitive.”

Bling and Hottie enjoying their time off.
Bling and Hottie enjoying their time off.

Jerry helped her win many titles including the 2005 National Barrel Horse Association World Championship. The McDonalds still have the 19-year-old horse today and he is teaching Sarah’s niece the same lessons.

In high school, Sarah played all sports, but kept riding every day. Her uncle, who is a horse trainer, always had a lot of horses around and she helped him by riding, learning from each horse that she rode.

Steve’s best friend Larry Ammons started spending time at the farm and took an interest in the horses. “If you around my uncle, you have to be into horses,” Sarah said with a laugh.

Steve and Larry went to Brian and Lisa Fulton’s production sale in 2007 and they came back to Georgia with a yearling mare named Fame Fling and Bling. She came from the Western 37 Ranch in Potter Valley, Calif., and is by Fulton’s great stallion A Streak of Fling.

That mare that Sarah calls Bling became her project. After Steve got her training going, Sarah started her on barrels and they won the first show they went to.

“We knew she was awesome and really smart,” Sarah said. “We didn’t run her that much and didn’t pressure her. We wanted what was best for her and really took our time with her. “

ATV rented for Sarah’s birthday.
ATV rented for Sarah’s birthday.

All of that time and training has paid off. Sarah’s experiences riding different horses and patience with Bling are coming to fruition and her summer has started off great. And in between rodeos, they did have a little vacation time in Utah. While in Moab, Bling and Hottie – a young mare that McDonald is hauling – got some well-deserved rest. Wade rented an ATV and for Sarah’s birthday they toured around in the canyons.

“Utah is so beautiful,” she said. “It’s been really awesome so far. I love getting to see new sights and so far my summer has been great.”

Vacation is over as they are now at the Reno Rodeo and gearing up for the “Cowboy Christmas” Fourth –of-July rodeo run.

Rodeo is a family affair when talking about the Etbauers

I’ve often thought that mothers are the unsung heroes of the rodeo arena. When we ask contestants how they got their start in rodeo, many of them credit their fathers. Some have moms that competed, but far less than the ones following in their father’s footsteps.

Blu Bryant, the 1998 reserve world champion bull rider, told me how his mom drove him around the country and went behind the chutes and pulled his bull rope when he was starting. I’ve heard similar stories about Lisa Frost, mother to current all-around rodeo athletes Joe and Josh Frost.

There are a lot more similar stories out there. What I think makes moms heroes is all of the support they provide in the way of everyday tasks that often go unnoticed. So I decided to talk to the Etbauer family and gain more knowledge about rodeo moms.
Etbauer family photo
Beverly Etbauer is mother to saddle bronc riders Robert, Billy and Dan Etbauer. She and her husband, Lyle, also have a daughter, Wanda, who is second youngest – between Billy and Dan. The Etbauers made history in 1989 when all three brothers qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

For eight years, the trio got to represent their native state of South Dakota in the grand entry, get off of those horses and come back to the locker room and join the other saddle bronc riders for the competition.

In careers that span over 20 years, they have seven world titles and 42 NFR qualifications between them. Robert was the PRCA rookie of the year in 1985. He made his first of 12 NFR appearances  in 1988. That year he was joined by Dan, who qualified a total of 10 times. The next year, 1989, was when they set the record for three brothers qualifying for the NFR with Billy’s first of 21 trips to Las Vegas. Dan also made an appearance in 2008 as a pick-up man. etbauerbros (2)

Through all of the competition, Beverly and Lyle cheered on their sons from the seats in the Thomas and Mack Center. There was only one time that any of the boys got hurt and missed any of the action. That was in 2002 when Billy was out for the last seven rounds.

Beverly watched her sons get on nearly 430 head of bucking horses and never blinked an eye. She had faith in their abilities, understanding of their desires and did what she had done for all of their lives – said a lot of prayers.

“It was wonderful, a very exciting time in our lives,” she said. “I could never want one to beat the other. They were competing against the horse. I watched every ride and was right there riding with them. It was an awesome experience.”

Lyle Etbauer did some roping when the kids were little. Rodeo was a family affair and whenever they went, it was as a family. Billy couldn’t remember a rodeo that they went to without Mom and Dad until after Robert got his driver’s license.
Beverly and Lyle Etbauer
Growing up in rural South Dakota, the three boys spent most of their free time horseback. In the winter, they used a team of draft horses to pull a bobsled around as well as other horses and sleds. It may not have been a bucking horse rein in their hands, but reins and ropes were part of their everyday lives.

“I think mom just tried to keep us out of the house,” Billy said with a laugh. “And she just closed her eyes for the rest of what went on. We didn’t have a lot but we had what we needed.”

The boys spent a lot of time with their dad, but when things got tough in South Dakota, he drove about 350 miles to Moorcroft, Wyo., where he got a job as a carpenter and later in the oilfield. What started as a part-time endeavor for the winter became a full-time way to support his family and he never left.  Robert was a sophomore in high school.

Beverly spent time between the two places and the children’s responsible natures took over. Robert took over ranch duties, Wanda took care of the house and Billy and Dan pitched in wherever needed. There were few squabbles and Wanda and Lyle had confidence in their children’s work ethic and ability to get things done.

“They always had their chores to do,” Beverly said of the kids. “And I knew that they would have them done. Robert had the idea that you feed your animals before you feed yourself. They didn’t have a lot of time to get into mischief and it didn’t hurt them any.”

Robert was the first to take off on the rodeo trail and initially traveled with Deke Latham who qualified for the 1986 NFR and finished fifth in the saddle bronc riding before he was in a fatal automobile accident.

Robert lost his friend and traveling partner and it took him a while to pick up the pieces. When he put them back together his brothers and eventually Deke’s brother Craig were pursuing their dreams together.  Craig became an adopted member of the Etbauer family and his mother Joyce Reclusa considers all of the Etbauers her family as well.

That relationship continues today. Craig is the head coach at Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell and Robert is the assistant coach. That’s where these two along with Dan went to college. Dan still lives in the area and Billy and his family are in Edmond, Okla.

When the boys first took off rodeoing by themselves, Beverly would anxiously wait for their return despite the mountains of laundry, extra cooking and more housework. But the joy of having her family together far outweighed the work. And then before she knew it, she was sending them off again.

“I said a lot of prayers,” she said. “There isn’t anything else you can do. Hopefully you raised them to be responsible and they know right from wrong. All you can do is thank the man upstairs that everything went well. I still pray for them every day.”

The next generation of Etbuaers are now competing thanks to the positive influences of their family. Robert’s oldest son, Trell, is a five-time Linderman award winner. His son Shade is headed for his second College National Finals Rodeo this month competing for Robert and Dan’s alma mater. And, Beverly and Lyle will be in the Casper Events Center cheering him on and spending time with their oldest son.
“We never in a million years dreamed that things would have turned out the way they did,” Beverly said. “When they were little if you’d have told me that I would be doing what I was doing, I would have never believed it.”

While the accomplishments in the arena have stacked up for the family, what may be most important is the legacy they have outside of the arena. Robert and Billy have been inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs. All three brothers are also in the Rodeo Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
“They’ve all just done beautiful,” Beverly said of her four children. Beverly and Lyle have nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.  “They are all so busy now. I just wish they’d all show up at one time so I could do their laundry.”    etbauercowboyhall (2)

Connecting through Communities

I got involved with rodeo because I love animals and the Western lifestyle. I’ve stayed involved because of the people.

I constantly see the generosity and compassion of these people and am proud to be part of the rodeo community – and it is a community. I think a lot of that goes back to agriculture heritage and being part of rural communities. I know not everyone in rodeo has that background, but after they are involved, they soon learn that if they are going to thrive, they need to be part of the community.

Sean Mulligan at the 2011 NFR – (c) Mike Copeman
Sean Mulligan at the 2011 NFR – (c) Mike Copeman

On May 9th, Wrangler NFR qualifier Sean Mulligan hosted a steer wrestling jackpot in Coleman, Okla., to raise money for a scholarship given in the name of his friend Levi Wisness. Sean had help from Will Cook who provided steers and put up part of the added money. He secured the U Cross Arena and raised more money from sponsors and the Wisness family. When it was time to enter, he had $8,000 in the pot.

Steer wrestlers from around the area came to play. They were drawn into four-man teams for an incentive and to sell in a Calcutta. 1999 world champion steer wrestler Mickey Gee got his auctioneering license in March and volunteered his services.

When it was all said and done, Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo qualifier Ace Campbell won the jackpot and over $4,000. An additional $4,000 was raised for the scholarship and a silent auction raised $4,400 for rodeo publicist (and my coworker) Julie Mankin who was seriously injured in an auto accident.

Not bad for a one day event put on by cowboys. It reminded me of all of the volunteers on our rodeo committees and how important they are to the communities they serve. All of the big winter rodeos are part of livestock shows encouraging youth in their agriculture pursuits and raising lots of money for scholarships along with giving back to their communities.

Communities that host rodeos are very loyal to support us and we should never take that for granted. I applaud every volunteer on every rodeo committee. They work tirelessly to put on events that largely started to as benefits and ways to give back.

Cowboys and cowgirls are very good at taking care of their own. Case in point, the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund has given over $7 million to 1,100 injured rodeo contestants in the past 25 years. Cindy Schonholtz, president and CEO estimates that 99% of the donations to the fund have come from the rodeo community.

When Sean Mulligan was approached about hosting a steer wrestling jackpot, he saw it as an opportunity to give back and remember a friend and fellow competitor in Levi Wisness. This is the second year the event has benefitted the scholarship.

Levi Wisness who finished 17th in the PRCA world standings prior to being diagnosed with cancer
Levi Wisness who finished 17th in the PRCA world standings prior to being diagnosed with cancer

In 2006, I had the idea to start a scholarship to honor my friend Shane Drury. He was a college champ and NFR qualifier in the bull riding who was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. Through numerous surgeries, treatments and come backs, Shane kept his fans involved with updates that reminded us to keep smiling and live our lives to the fullest.

Shane was at the College National Finals Rodeo that next June to present the first award. Cancer took him from us the next October. Corey Navarre rode at the PBR World Finals with stickers on his helmet honoring Shane that said “Nothin’ But Try.” The scholarship was renamed.

Today the Nothin’ But Try scholarships honor Shane Drury, Levi Wisness, Betty Gayle Cooper and Lee Akin. They are given to members of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) who have faced adversity but refuse to give up. It is about how these people lived – and in Lee’s case – are living their lives.

Levi Wisness was the NIRA steer wrestling champion in 2003. He graduated from the University of Wyoming and represented the Central Rocky Mountain Region on the board of directors. He was a talented athlete who was on track to qualify for the NFR when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery and treatment were successful and he was deemed cancer free. His unexpected death in 2008 was a shock to all of us.

Levi’s friend and traveling partner Dane Hanna volunteers for the jackpot along with NFR saddle bronc rider Wade Sundell. Last year, the duo roasted a pig and donated it for lunch taking donations for the scholarship. This year, rain kept them from doing that but they were both an active part of the event.

“Levi would have loved this,” Hanna said. “He was the friendliest guy I’ve ever known. When we were traveling it would take us an hour to get out of the gas station. He just loved everybody. Kids, adults, it didn’t matter he took time to visit with them all.”

Cambpell, who graduated from the University of West Alabama in 2012 with a degree in business administration qualified for the CNFR two times. He saw the Nothin’ But Try scholarships presented there and was glad to be part of the jackpot.

Team Sundell -- Pictured left to right are J.D. Struxness, Ace Campbell, Wade Sundell, Sean Thomas, Dane Hanna and Sean Mulligan. Sundell was the team buyer for the Cosequine Team Incentive which included Struxness, Campbell, Thomas and Hanna. The second annual Nothin’ But Try Steer Wrestling was organized by Mulligan. Hanna and Sundell also volunteered for the event.
Team Sundell — Pictured left to right are J.D. Struxness, Ace Campbell, Wade Sundell, Sean Thomas, Dane Hanna and Sean Mulligan. Sundell was the team buyer for the Cosequine Team Incentive which included Struxness, Campbell, Thomas and Hanna. The second annual Nothin’ But Try Steer Wrestling was organized by Mulligan. Hanna and Sundell also volunteered for the event.

“This was a great event,” Campbell said. “The weather probably hurt it this year, but it should just grow. The cool thing about it is Sean does it all to benefit others.”

Mulligan has already started planning for the third annual Nothin’ But Try steer wrestling jackpot. He and his wife Bryel both graduated from the University of Wyoming and love that they can do something to support education while remembering a friend.

“Levi’s family really got behind us and that means a lot and lets me know how much this means to them,” Sean said. “I couldn’t do it without the support of sponsors, friends and Bryel. I just want it to keep growing and raise more money.”

If anyone wants to support the Nothin’ But Try Scholarships or the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund, drop me a note susan@cowgirlimaging.com. I’ll be more than happy to let you know how to support these worthy causes.

A fond farewell to Neal Reid, an introduction to Susan Kanode and a horse named Bling.

I’ve been an avid reader of the NFR Insider for the past five years and have enjoyed Neal Reid’s insights, excellent reporting and writing. When Neal accepted the position of Media Relations Manager at Las Vegas Motor Speedway I was honored to be asked to fill in as the NFR Insider.

While the paths that got us involved in rodeo are quite different Neal and I share some commonalities as well. We worked hard to earn journalism degrees. We appreciate good journalism and believe that integrity in reporting is very important. Most importantly of all, we are both rodeo fans and love sharing these stories.

376 Sarah McDonald
(c) Dan Hubbell

On that note, last summer I was sitting in the stands watching the barrel racing slack at Cheyenne (Wyo.) Frontier Days. All of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association competitors had their first round runs on Tuesday before the first rodeo performance the next Saturday. The top 96 from that round advanced to a second round held during the performances. That Tuesday, July 15, 2014 was the first time I saw Sarah Rose McDonald and her horse Fame Fling N Bling “Bling.”

The horse quickly caught my eye. Bling is a small mare and is bay roan in color. Part of the reason she caught my eye is because I have been the owner of a small gelding that is similar in color for the past 10 years.

There haven’t been a lot of roan horses in the barrel racing world and that probably makes them even more memorable. And, while I am a barrel racing fan, I am certainly not an expert. When I watched this team work, I took notice. I saw the fluidity of the horse making her turns and this young women smooching and encouraging and just knew I’d be talking to her in the future.

I couldn’t help but think about how far away from their home in Brunswick, Ga., they were or how different it must be to be competing in one of the largest rodeo arenas in the world. The traditions and history at Cheyenne’s “Daddy of ‘em All” are legendary and for many just competing there is a highlight of their careers.

McDonald and Bling narrowly made it into the progressive round and got to make another run. While they were far out of winning a paycheck I still admired the grit and determination they had just to be there.

Just days after Cheyenne, this duo set the arena record at Spanish Fork, Utah, with a 16.77-second run, nearly three-tenths of a second faster than that of Wrangler NFR qualifier Kassidy Dennison. That earned the Georgia pair $5,616 and confirmed that her decision to come “out west,” was a good one.

Barrel racing fans across the country weren’t surprised at McDonald’s success while rodeo fans were trying to figure out just who she was. She and Bling earned a world championship in the National Barrel Horse Association where Bling was voted the top five-year-old mare in the nation.

She had dreams of rodeo competition and bought her Women’s Professional Rodeo Association permit in February of 2014. She entered rodeos within a day’s drive of her home and consistently picked up checks. Bling was eight years old and McDonald also wanted to give the mare a chance to win big.

She and her friend Erica Norris were at the lake one day when Norris suggested they take off for the summer and rodeo. So with Norris by her side and Bling and Rose (her backup horse) in the trailer, they set off July 5, 2014 to make the nearly 2,000 mile journey to Casper, Wyo.

This was the first time to compete at a rodeo “out west,” and actually the first for them west of the Mississippi. The change in altitude and environment didn’t faze either one of them. They got the last paycheck in the first round, came back and won the finals and finished second overall. That added up to $5,180.

“We got to Casper and I’d never seen an arena or a pattern that big,” McDonald said. “Seeing all the girls that I had watched on tv was pretty crazy. It was motivating running against them. I just wanted to do good and give my horse a chance.”

That was just the beginning. Prior to their adventure, McDonald had won just shy of $8,500. When the season ended she was the WPRA Rookie of the Year and 19th in the world standings with over $64,000.

“I didn’t even know that I could win the rookie,” McDonald said. “It all came down to Omaha and we won enough there to get the title. Omaha is always going to be special for me because of that.”

Her success has continued in 2015. She won every round at the Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo last February with times of 16.42, 16.37 and 16.32, getting faster with every turn in the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum. She was the big money winner there at $20,932. That gave her an early lead in the world standings.

sara_rose_2015
(c) Kenneth Springer

They are in second place as of May 1 and are enjoying time at home before their next trip “out west.” They will start the summer run the end of this month at Fort Smith, Ark. We will be following McDonald’s and Bling’s adventures as they pursue their first Wrangler NFR qualification, and we will be telling you more about the background of both of these athletes.

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.