Sitting in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo press room during Round 10, I was attempting to digest everything that was happening and the events of the last 10 days here in Las Vegas. Like a bee hive, the press room was buzzing with activity as world titles were decided and dreams dashed and realized.
Every year I’m here, I’m always amazed by how many developments pop up during the nearly two weeks we spend in the Nevada desert each December, and this year was no different. If you can’t find something at the Wrangler NFR to write about, you’d better just hang it up.
My spot in the press room looked like a war zone, with a mountain of paper strewn in every direction imaginable. In the age of information, stats are essential to the business.
As always, it was a highly active rodeo, both in and out of the arena, and there was plenty to sink my teeth into. The following is my best attempt to put a stamp on this year’s Finals and highlight the big stories that developed.
I’m sure I’ve left something out, but this is at least a good start.
1. Seeing Mary Walker win a gold buckle a year after losing her only son, 21-year-old Reagon, and shattering her pelvis and breaking her hip in three places was the feel-good story of the Finals. The 53-year-old Wrangler NFR rookie is a delight of a person, and she and her AQHA Horse of the Year Latte were simply amazing. They placed in eight rounds, including four wins, and topped the single-season earnings record of $146,100 set by Sherry Cervi in 2009 by $841.
The 53-year-old Wrangler NFR rookie was overcome with emotion after earning the gold buckle.
“I’m just overwhelmed and so excited, and it’s the most amazing thing in my life,” said Walker, who finished with $274,233 in season earnings. “A lot of emotions are going on, especially yesterday. I was really upset with the fact that Reagon wasn’t here with me to celebrate, but I know he is in spirit.”
She joined her husband, 1981 World Champion Steer Wrestler Byron Walker, as a gold buckle winner, marking just the fourth time in ProRodeo history that a husband-wife tandem earned world championships.
Her story makes your heart swell, and the success couldn’t come to a classier lady. Great job Mary!
2. The fact that Les Shepperson and Luke Branquinho were battling for the steer wrestling world title didn’t keep Sheepperson from lending Branquinho the services of his 2012 AQHA Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year Dillon for the final two rounds after Branquinho’s horse, Gunner, was injured was the ultimate show of sportsmanship. The traveling partners hazed for each other at the Finals, with Shepperson taking the Wrangler NFR average crown and Branquinho winning his fourth bulldogging gold buckle.
“You couldn’t ask for a better guy to do that, especially with him having a chance to win his first world championship,” Branquinho said of his buddy. “His heart is as big as that gold buckle I won, and it just goes to show you how good a guy and traveling partner he is.”
Branquinho became the first steer wrestler to repeat as world champ since Hall of Famer OteBerry accomplished the feat from 1990-91. I asked him if he’s thought of the reality that he is a lock for the ProRodeo Hall of Fame now that he’s won four championships.
“After I won my second world championship, that was sure in the back of my mind, getting to go in the Hall of Fame with some of the best guys who’ve ever gone,” said Branquinho, who finished with $158,963 in earnings to finish more than $13,000 ahead of Casey Martin for the world title. “Hopefully it can be a possibility and something a guy can cherish forever. That’s what you grow up in the sport thinking of – winning world championships, being in the Hall of Fame and being in an elite group.”
3. Team roper Jade Corkill won the heeling world title, banking $84,660 in Las Vegas to edge Hall of Famer Clay O’Brien Cooper by $1,131. Corkill and heading partner Kaleb Driggers provided the biggest drama of the night, winning the 10th round in 4.0 seconds to move up to fifth in the average, which was just enough for Corkill to realize his dream. He was joined as a first-time world champ by Walker and 20-year-old bull rider Cody Teel, who nipped three-time World Champion J.W. Harris by $1,056.
4. Young guns Kaycee Feild and Tuf Cooper repeated as world champions this year, edging closer to their fathers’ gold buckle totals. They still have a long way to go to match their proud papas, but they could both be building dynasties. Feild and Cooper are going to be fun to watch for quite some time.
1. Trevor Brazile and Patrick Smith failed to place in the last four rounds and fell from first to third in the team roping world standings. That was one of the big surprises of the rodeo, as the duo was in good position through Round 6 to add more gold buckles to their trophy cases. They finished 10th in the average and added just $50,649 to their season earnings total at the 10-day rodeo.
2. A trio of roughstock contestants left Las Vegas without a check, and that’s always a tough thing to see considering how hard they work all year to get here. Bareback rider Jared Keylon and bull riders Cody Samora and Tate Stratton were blanked at the Thomas & Mack Center.
3. Beau Schroeder may have won the Wrangler NFR average title in his first appearance at the Finals, but he did so riding only five of 10 bulls for 423 points (84.6 average). The bulls finished with a 112-42 edge in their matchups with the PRCA’s top 15 bull riders, a buck-off percentage of 72 percent. That’s tied for the fewest number of bulls covered for a Wrangler NFR average champion in the event’s 54-year history, along with Kanin Asay’s 5-ride average win in 2009.
THIS AND THAT
Walker-ing away with a massive haul
Not only did Mary Walker earn $146,941 in Las Vegas to win the Ram Top Gun Award and claim a world championship, but she pocketed another $5,000 for earning the inaugural Jerry Ann Taylor Best Dressed Award. Walker was voted as the barrel racer who best exemplified a sense of style in her attire during the Wrangler NFR. The award was created earlier this year by the family of former trick roper Jerry Ann Taylor, who died in February. It is sponsored by the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame (in which Taylor is enshrined) and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.
By begin the only bull rider to last eight seconds in Round 9 Friday night, Trevor Kastner of Ardmore, Okla., took home a hefty paycheck. He won $18,257 in official money, but also another $40,637 in unofficial “ground money” as well. The Wrangler NFR pays $58,894 nightly in each event, and the money all went to the 25-year-old, who was competing in his second career Finals. It was just the fifth time in Wrangler NFR history that there was only one qualified ride in the bull riding, and there have also been two rounds with no qualified rides in the rodeo’s 54-year history.
Money for a good cause
The Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund (JCCF), which provides financial assistance to contestants injured in the arena who are unable to compete, received a pair of big donations during this year’s Finals. The ProRodeo League of Women Luncheon raised $100,000 for the worthy cause, and Crown Royal donated $10,000 in honor of the Crown Royal Riders – 2012 Wrangler NFR bull rider Cody Whitney and PRCA cowboys Wesley Silcox, Steve Woolsey and Tilden Hooper.
Speaking of money …
World Champion Bareback Rider Kaycee Feild and Wrangler NFR barrel racer Lisa Lockhart eclipsed the $1 million mark in career earnings at this year’s Finals. Feild pocketed $135,211 in Las Vegas to push his career total to $1,084,831, while Lockhart’s $107,875 put her career mark at $1,064,670. Lockhart joined the WPRA in 2000, while Feild just finished his sixth PRCA season.
Tuf Cooper won his second consecutive tie-down roping gold buckle, but fell short of the millon-dollar mark and will have to wait until 2013. Cooper earned $108,464 at the Finals and now has $992,506 in career earnings.
Trevor on the town
Seventeen-time World Champion Trevor Brazile took some time out of his busy schedule at this year’s Wrangler NFR to have a special date with wife, Shada. The two attended the American Country Awards at the MandalayBayEventsCenter on Dec. 10 and hung out with Hall of Famer Ty Murray and his wife, Jewel. Trevor and Ty looked OK, but the ladies were stunning.
Well, that’s it folks. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my columns again this year, and I look forward to the chance to do it again next year. Thanks for reading, and I’ll keep writing.
Until next time ….