World title races should provide great drama in Vegas

The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo contestant roster is still in the painstaking process of being approved by PRCA auditors, but that shouldn’t stop me from looking at the top of the standings in each event to prognosticate how world title races will play out.

Picking world champions is a tricky thing, especially considering how much money is up for grabs in Las Vegas during the 10-day rodeo and everything that can happen in the arena. After all, who could have predicted that Shane Hanchey would vault from 10th to first in the tie-down roping or Hunter Cure would go from seventh place to first to claim his first career steer wrestling gold buckle?

Surprises like those happen every year at the Wrangler NFR, and that’s part of what makes it the best and most exciting rodeo on the planet. But I still can’t resist trying my hand as Nostradamus and sharing my gold buckle predictions for December, so here goes.

Bareback riding

The skinny: No offense to the other guys within striking distance, but I will be shocked of Kaycee Feild fails to win a fourth consecutive bareback riding world championship. Field has had a monster season, racking up a ProRodeo-best $172,384 in pre-NFR earnings for a single-event cowboy. He leads Steven Peebles by $45,455 and has been just as dominant in the Thomas & Mack Center as his ProRodeo Hall of Fame father Lewis, who won his three all-around crowns there from 1985-87. Peebles and Austin Foss could certainly get in the mix, but Feild will be nearly impossible to unseat from the top spot.

Dark horse: Perhaps four-time World Champ Bobby Mote from sixth place, but there’s just too much ground to make up.

My pick: Kaycee Feild

Kaycee Feild is once again the man to beat in the bareback riding, and he's also a leading candidate to earn his second career RAM Truck Top Gun Award for being the Wrangler NFR's top money winner.

Kaycee Feild is once again the man to beat in the bareback riding, and he’s also a leading candidate to earn his second career RAM Truck Top Gun Award for being the Wrangler NFR’s top money winner.

Steer wrestling

The skinny: With just $45,723 separating first and 15th, get ready for a crazy roller-coaster ride here sports fans. Trevor Knowles leads the way with $91,804 in earnings, with K.C. Jones and Casey Martin holding down the next couple spots, but this race could have a different world standings leader every night. Once again, it will come down to Round 10 and who can perform in a pinch, and stock draws will play a factor as well.

Dark horse: Technically everyone, but four-time World Champion Luke Branquinho from the eighth position is an easy choice for this category. He’ll be coming back strong and confident after rehabbing a shoulder injury and could booty-shake his way to yet another gold buckle.

My pick: Trevor Knowles

This could be the year Trevor Knowles puts it all together and wins a gold buckle after contending for one for years, but he'll have to survive a wide-open battle to do it.  --PRCA ProRodeo photo by Larry Smith

This could be the year Trevor Knowles puts it all together and wins a gold buckle after contending for one for years, but he’ll have to survive a wide-open battle to do it. –PRCA ProRodeo photo by Larry Smith

Team roping

The skinny: Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill are the defending champions and will enter this year’s battle in the top spot, making them the team to beat. They won the world title last year despite finishing sixth in the average, and my gut tells me they’ll be gunning for the average this year instead of go-round wins. The teams of Erich Rogers and Cory Petska and Trevor Brazile and Travis Graves will certainly be factors, and there is only roughly $60,000 separating first from 15th place, so this race could be insanity personified.

Dark horses: Everyone.

My pick: Trevor Brazile and Travis Graves

Saddle bronc riding

The skinny: This is going to be a good one folks. Two-time gold buckle winner Taos Muncy will arrive at the Thomas & Mack Center ranked No. 1 with $126,879 in earnings, but fellow two-time champ Cody Wright is on his heels, just $15,794 behind. Virtually everyone in the top 10 has a legitimate chance here, and that includes reigning World Champion Chad Ferley from the No. 10 spot. Cort Scheer and Heith DeMoss, ranked third and fourth, respectively, can’t be overlooked either, so it’s a wide-open race.

Dark horses: Sixth-placed Wade Sundell and No. 8 Jesse Wright have made it a habit of winning big in Las Vegas, so they will likely be factors.

My pick: Taos Muncy

Tie-down roping

The skinny: Tuf Cooper leads Matt Shiozawa by $36,839 and has the inside track on this gold buckle. The always dangerous Brazile stands third, $59,973 behind Cooper, and Hanchey is three spots higher than he was before his world-title run of last December with his No. 7 ranking. I talked to Cooper last week, and he learned a lot from finishing fourth a year ago. Plus, he said he’s having more fun than ever this year, and that’s usually a sign that a guy is in a great place mentally.

Tuf Cooper is in position to win his third career tie-down roping gold buckle, but will have to earn it in every round at the Wrangler NFR.

Tuf Cooper is in position to win his third career tie-down roping gold buckle, but will have to earn it in every round at the Wrangler NFR.

Dark horses: Hanchey from his seventh position, or Hunter Herrin from the No. 6 spot look to be the guys lurking in the shadows.

My pick: Tuf Cooper

Barrel racing

The skinny: Kaley Bass leads the way in the standings and is $23,809 clear of Fallon Taylor, with Lisa Lockhart trailing bass by just $33,663. This will be one of the most compelling battles of the Wrangler NFR, especially considering three other women also have more than $100,000 in season earnings. One tipped barrel can be the difference here, and it’s going to be great theater.

Dark horses: Mary Walker is within striking distance in seventh place, and four-time and reigning World Champion Sherry Cervi will begin the 10-day extravaganza in ninth, and both ladies definitely have the horsepower to make a charge.

My pick: Lisa Lockhart

Bull riding

The skinny: This was shaping up to be a three-man showdown between standings leader Sage Kimzey, a heralded rookie, Trey Benton III and four-time and reigning World Champion J.W. Harris. But that was before Harris lost more than $47,000 in Xtreme Bulls Tour money for failing to compete in the minimum number of PRCA rodeos (40) this season. That gaffe leaves Kimzey in the driver’s seat with a $17,618 lead over Benton III, but 2012 World Champion Cody Teel is third and only $40,576 behind Kimzey. This is always one of the most difficult events to pick, because you never know who might get tapped off or injured during the course of the rodeo.

Dark horse: You can never count Harris out, and if he sets his mind right and gets locked in, he can be a machine. He is $65,858 behind Kimzey, but anything could happen.

My pick: Sage Kimzey

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