Well, folks, the time has come. December is here, and, with it, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
Everyone has polished their boots, brushed their Resistols, polished their buckles and pressed their shirts, and now it’s time to rodeo. Tens of thousands of people will convene in Las Vegas once again beginning this week to enjoy the best the sport has to offer.
They’ll be there to watch 120 of the top cowboys and cowgirls in the world battle for gold buckles, six-figure pay days and glory. It’s a heck of a 10-day stretch, and I’ll be there once again to witness it all.
It’s hard to believe, but this will be my ninth Wrangler NFR, and I can’t wait to get back to Vegas. It’s a city like none other, and it transforms into a Western wonderland each December.
I’m always amazed how many surprises there are every year during the Finals, and there’s no reason to believe 2012 will be any different. Whether it’s a Wrangler NFR rookie claiming a go-round victory, a heartbreaking injury, a first-time average winner or even a world champ that comes from nowhere, there are plenty of mouth-dropping moments at every “Super Bowl of Rodeo.”
I look forward to those head-shaking times, because surprises are part of what makes sports so darn appealing. Some things, however, are close to foregone conclusions, and here’s a look at those, as well as a few of my educated guesses on how the action will play out at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Ten for Trevor
Even though he failed to qualify for tie-down roping for the first time in 13 years, it’s only a matter of time before Trevor Brazile claims his 10th all-around gold buckle. Brazile leads second-place Steven Dent by more than $100,000, and that will be more than enough of a lead to assure him of yet another all-around crown. My guess is that Brazile will secure the championship in Round 6.
Top Gun yet again
With no one qualifying in more than one event, it’d be difficult to bet against reigning World Champion Kaycee Feild for the Top Gun Award, which goes to the top money-earner at the Finals. Feild claimed the prize last year, and he’s my pick to do it again. Saddle bronc riding world standings leader Jesse Wright could give him a run for his money, and it will be a battle that goes down to Round 10 no matter who’s in the running.
More glory for Walker
Barrel racer Mary Walker has taken the rodeo world by storm this year by guiding AQHA Barrel Racing Horse of the Year Latte to a monumental breakout performance. I’ve already written about the impressive Walker this summer, and I firmly believe she and Latte will win 2-3 rounds at this year’s Finals. Being a Wrangler NFR rookie may cause the dynamic duo to get off to a slow start, but they will round into form and be a force by Round 7.
And the World Champions will be …
Bareback riding—Feild will repeat as world champion, but will have to earn it with Dent and three-time World Champ Will Lowe pushing him hard. Unless Feild gets off to a really hot start, I anticipate the world standings lead to change hands multiple times during the 10-day extravaganza.
Steer wrestling—This one is a crapshoot. You can’t count out multiple-time World Champs like Dean Gorsuch and Luke Branquinho, even though they trail world standings leader Ethen Thouvenell by five figures in the standings. One go-round victory, and there’s a new No. 1, and this event may have a different leader in six of the 10 rounds. Wade Sumpter is a bulldog of a bulldogger who won’t fold under the pressure, and he will factor into the equation. Buckle up for this battle. My pick: Branquinho.
Team roping—They have a lead, and Brazile won’t be juggling two events, so the smart money is on him and Patrick Smith to earn another pair of gold buckles. Brazile and Smith won the team roping world championship together in 2010, and they’re my pick to do it again. Chad Masters, the 2007 world champion header, and seven-time World Champ Clay O’Brien Cooper will give them a run for their money, however, and this event is primed for a big run by a dark-horse team. Who that will be remains to be seen.
Saddle bronc riding—This one is Jesse Wright’s to lose, but I think he will hold on and join his older brother, Cody, as a gold buckle winner. Jesse has arguably the toughest group chasing him, so he will have to earn it. Wade Sundell is a beast in Vegas and lives for the spotlight, Cody DeMoss is a proven vet who is usually rock solid in the Thomas & Mack Center, Taos Muncy is the defending world champ and has two gold buckles, and Cody Wright is also a multiple-time gold-buckle winner. Don’t take your bathroom break during this event any of the 10 nights. It’s going to be a sizzler!
Tie-down roping—Justin Maass has the bull’s eye on his back, and Tuf Cooper will make a big charge in hopes of successfully defending his title. Cody Ohl no doubt still has some magic in him, and I expect to see some if it this year. The smart money may be on Cooper, but Maass is a solid veteran who’s won rounds in Vegas. He’ll be battling with everything he’s got to maintain his $20,000 lead, and he’s going to need to place in at least six rounds to earn his first gold buckle. My choice: Cooper by a nose.
Barrel racing—Walker will make her presence felt aboard Latte, but the gold buckle will go to either Brittany Pozzi or Lindsay Sears for the fifth time in six years. Pozzi’s lead is nearly $35,000 over Sears, and I think that’s just too much for the Canadian to overcome. Sears, the defending champ, will make it interesting, but Pozzi will perhaps be conservative, target the average title and then claim the gold.
Bull riding—It’s the young guns against the dynasty-maker. Most people think it’s a two-horse race between world standings leader Cody Teel, a 20-year-old Wrangler NFR rookie, and three-time World Champion J.W. Harris, but Wrangler NFR rookie Trey Benton III has had a great season, and Kanin Asay has been riding great. Teel and Harris are nearly three go-round wins ahead of the rest of the field, and I think it’ll come down to them. Teel is polished for his age and is the real deal, but Harris has been scary good in Vegas. Harris is healthy, and he knows how to get tapped off in the Thomas & MackCenter, plus he has HUGE goals for his career. My pick is Harris, because he has ice in his veins and is a future Hall of Famer, but Teel won’t make it easy for him.
My boldest prediction: It’s going to be a heck of a spectacle.