This is the week contestants are either kicking themselves and second-guessing decisions from earlier in the season or rejoicing in the revelry of qualifying for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
It is one of the most compelling, and brutal, weeks in the ProRodeo season, as the regular season comes to a close today and the official audit begins to confirm the numbers that were released on Monday telling the rodeo world who’s in and who’s out of the “Super Bowl of rodeo.” And oh my, what a frenzied flurry to the finish we had in the past week, as competitors raced across the country chasing every last available dollar!
ABC’s “Wild World of Sports” used to talk about “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” and that’s just what materialized the last seven days. A number of contestants jumped into the coveted Top 15 as others dropped out, but the most compelling drama occurred atop the bull riding standings.
Four-time World Champion J.W. Harris plummeted from third to sixth in the world standings after losing his Xtreme Bulls Tour money for not competing in the minimum number of PRCA rodeos required (40) to make his Xtreme Bulls Tour earnings official. Harris, who entered a number of Professional Bull Riders events this year, lost the $47,726 he earned for being the Tour champion and dropped to sixth in the standings with $77,307, a whopping $65,858 behind world standings leader Sage Kimzey.
“That’s going to light a fire under me and motivate me more to do good out there (at the WNFR),” Harris told the PRCA Communications Department.
There’s no doubt he’ll be aggravated and motivated in Las Vegas, but this fiasco may just cost Harris a fifth world title. Kimzey leads the way with $143,165, with Trey Benton III next at $125,547.
Bull rider Beau Hill is at the other end of the spectrum from Harris after banking $4,465 on the final weekend to jump from 16th to 13th and qualify for his first Wrangler NFR in 10 years. Hill, who finished third at the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha, Neb., was ecstatic after his last-ditch effort paid off.
“Ten years is a long time, and it feels special to me to make it,” Hill told the PRCA. “That was a goal of mine at the beginning of the year, and I guess I’m running out of years as far as bull riders go, so it feels good to reach a goal like this.”
Brett Stall was the odd man out in bull riding, finishing $1,498 behind Elliot Jacoby for the 15th spot.
That kind of scenario was repeated in virtually every, including the team, where Tom Richards and Cesar de la Cruz vaulted up to 15th place after huge final weeks. Richards banked $12,120 to knock two-time World Champion Chad Masters down to 16th by $1,802, while de la Cruz won $10,858 to finish just $2,774 ahead of Kinney Harrell for the final heeling spot.
In the bareback riding, Steven Dent earned checks at three different rodeos to bump injury-plagued R.C. Landingham out of the final spot by $3,532. Bulldogger Seth Brockman moved from 17th to 14th in the final week, Blake Knowles dropped to 18th and Ty Erickson finished a mere $64 ahead of Tom Lewis for the 15th and final spot.
Lewis will hope that the PRCA’s official audit, which is ongoing, will uncover a hitch that will put him in the Wrangler NFR, but reversals like that are extremely rare. The audit is a lengthy and tedious process involving numerous members of an accounting firm that set up shop at PRCA Headquarters for weeks to check every record and double-check every decimal point, and it will be a couple weeks before everything is 100 percent official.
Barring any unforeseen incidents, Canadian saddle bronc rider Dustin Flundra will be headed to his third career Wrangler NFR after edging Troy Crowser by $148 for the No. 15 position. In the barrel racing, Texas’ Jana Bean finished $399 ahead of Brenda Mays of Oregon for the final Wrangler NFR position, and steer roper Troy Tillard will head to the Clem McSpadden National Finals Steer Roping in Mulvane, Kan., Nov. 7-8, after edging Jarrett Blessing by $561 for the 15th spot.
Interesting qualification notes
Spencer Wright held on to the 13th spot in the saddle bronc riding world standings to join his brothers Cody, Jesse and Jake at the 2014 Wrangler NFR, marking the first time in the prestigious rodeo’s history that four brothers qualified for the same Finals.
After a strong first half of the season, eight-time World Champion Fred Whitfield failed to qualify for his 21st Wrangler NFR in the tie-down roping after dropping outside the top 20. Conversely, six-time World Champion Cody Ohl, who was outside the top 50 as late as mid-July, finished 14th in the standings and is headed to his 20th career Finals.
Eight-time World Champion Team Roper Rich Skelton qualified for his 21st Wrangler NFR by finishing eighth among heelers in the season standings and can become the all-time winningest team roper if he gets tapped off and claims a ninth gold buckle in Las Vegas in December. Seven-time World Champions Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper, although no longer roping together, have outside chances to tie Skelton and Speed Williams with eight world championships after they both finished in the Top 15. Barnes will arrive in Las Vegas 11th among headers, while O’Brien Cooper will begin Round 1 in the 14th
Steer wrestler Hunter Cure is the only 2013 world champion who did not qualify for this year’s Wrangler NFR. He finished 28th in the standings with just $35,837, $64,163 less than he won in one day at The American Rodeo in March and $72,511 shy of the 2013 Wrangler NFR earnings that carried him to his first gold buckle. Cure was hampered by back problems all season and underwent surgery in June to remove a portion of a herniated disc and was out six weeks after that. Here’s wishing him a strong return to form in 2015.