What a difference a few days at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo can make.
A handful of contestants have roared out of the gates with guns blazing, turning in impressive performances in the rodeo’s first three rounds to make big moves in the world standings. What they’ve done is nothing short of stellar, and they have given themselves chances to challenge for gold buckles the next seven days.
Bareback rider Steven Peebles spurred Andrews Rodeo’s Cool Water for 85.5 points in the “eliminator” pen en route to his second consecutive round victory on Saturday night. His $37,260 earned thus far has moved him from eighth to fourth in the world, and the Redmond, Ore., cowboy is enjoying every minute of his time in Las Vegas.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Peebles, a five-time Wrangler NFR qualifier. “My plan was to come in here, have fun and ride the very best I can. It’s so dang exciting right now, that it hasn’t sunk in.”
Peebles said he’s taking a less stressful approach to competing this year and has learned from past mistakes he’s made in Las Vegas.
“I think I overthought it all of those years coming in here wanting it so dang bad that halfway through it, I was shaking my head and didn’t know which way to walk,” he said. “This year, I’m just trying to not let anything get to me, and I haven’t been paying attention to any standings or averages. I knew I was behind in the standings, so I came in and said, ‘Just have fun and let everything go, do what you know how to do and hopefully have a big bang right from the start.’”
Steer wrestler Luke Branquinho has won four world titles, so he knows what it takes to climb to the top of the mountain. The Los Alamos, Calif., cowboy followed a second-place finish in Round 2 with a third-round victory Saturday night with a 3.6-second run.
The round win gave him $33,353 through three days and has moved him from 13th to fourth in the world standings. He’s now within striking distance of Casey Martin’s lead and is going to be a major factor the rest of the way.
“I came here so (far) down in the pack, I knew I had to get it done in the go-rounds,” Branquinho said. “I was second (Friday night), and I won first tonight. If I can keep doing that during the week and get some of that aggregate money, maybe at the end of the week I will have my fifth gold buckle.
“But right now, we are just going to run them one at a time.”
In the team roping, the Minor brothers have made major noise, winning Round 1 and splitting the third round with two other teams thanks to a 4.2-second run Saturday night. The Minors have pocketed an event-best $33,454 to climb from sixth to third in the world standings and are riding high.
“This is probably the best week of my life so far,” said Riley Minor, who got engaged to girlfriend Jordan Crossley on the South Point stage during the buckle presentation Thursday night. “I won the first round, I got engaged, then I split this round three ways with my best buddy, Brandon Beers. We traveled with Brandon and Jim Ross (Cooper) all summer, and we pull for them and they pull for us. So, this is pretty cool.”
Even though he didn’t place in Round 3, Cort Scheer has been the big money winner in the saddle bronc riding, adding $25,841 to his 2013 season earnings. Scheer, of Elsmere, Neb., has jumped from sixth to third in the standings, less than $20,000 behind two-time World Champion Cody Wright.
Tie-down roper Shane Hanchey has been red-hot, winning Round 1, placing fourth in the second round and taking second in the third round en route to $41,166. That haul has catapulted him from 10th to second in the standings, and he is in reasonable striking distance of two-time and reigning World Champion Tuf Cooper.
Three-time World Champion Barrel Racer Sherry Cervi and her 11-year-old palomino mare Stingray blistered the cloverleaf pattern for back-to-back wins in Rounds 1 and 2, and they also split fourth place Saturday night. She leads all contestants with $43,570 in earnings, money that has helped her extend her lead over reigning World Champion Mary Walker.
Shane Proctor turned heads by winning the first two rounds with 89-point rides, and his $37,260 leads all bull riders. Despite being bucked off in Round 3, the 2011 world champion now stands third in the world standings after entering the Wrangler NFR in 10th place.
“Bull riding is all mental, and it’s all about confidence,” Proctor said Friday night. “When you’re riding here, it’s pretty simple; you stay on your bull and you earn a check. That’s the way I’m looking at it.
“This is my third year at the NFR, and these last two nights have been my two best rides here ever. I do feel like I’m riding at that same high level as when I won the world.”
These clutch performances early on in this year’s Wrangler NFR have given new life to some, instilled hope in others and opened doors that were once closed. That’s the beauty of the 10-day rodeo, where fates can change in a matter of seconds and things change by the day.
Oh, what a ride it is!