Trevor Brazile may have already wrapped up his 12th all-around world championship, but the majority of single-event gold buckle battles are as tight as they can be heading into the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo’s final three rounds.
It’s officially “crunch time” in Las Vegas, and the contestants know it.
Some events feature leaders with significant world standings leads, but the races in steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping and barrel racing are nearly as snug as Wrangler NFR barrel man Cody Sosebee in the Coors barrel.
In the team roping, Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill stand atop the heap and lead the Wrangler NFR average, but they have plenty of company close by. The team of Dustin Bird and Paul Eaves are in second place by just a few thousand, but are only 11th in the average, while third-place Brazile and Travis Graves are fourth in the average.
Fourth-place Erich Rogers and Cory Petska stand sixth in the average race, and the teams in fifth and sixth place could also be factors down the stretch. One missed catch will prove costly for anyone.
The margin in saddle bronc riding is razor-thin, with Cort Scheer leading the way with $156,049 and a No. 2 average rank. Heith DeMoss is second in the standings with $144,831, but only eighth in the average, while third-place Taos Muncy ($141,437) is fifth in the average.
Cody Wright is fourth in the standings and third in the average, but suffered a severely separated left shoulder at the end of his ride on Wednesday night and is doubtful for the rest of the rodeo after being transported to a local hospital for treatment. One of his younger brothers, Wrangler NFR rookie Spencer Wright, leads the Wrangler NFR average race and is sixth in the standings.
He knows that $48,732 check for winning the average could go a long way.
“I’m just going to try to keep riding well, stay positive and lay back and left,” said Spencer Wright, who won the fourth and seventh rounds. “I’m not nervous. I just feel like I’m riding so solid, and I’m feeling really confident right now.
“I’m trying to stay that way and to not overthink things.”
The barrel racing is developing into a two-woman showdown, with Fallon Taylor holding a $26,558 lead over Round 7 winner Lisa Lockhart heading into the final three rounds. Taylor leads Lockhart by just six-hundredths of a second in the average race, so a tipped barrel could shake things up a bit.
Lockhart, who is competing at her eighth consecutive Wrangler NFR, is going to do her best to give Taylor a run for her money down the stretch.
“I’m not real good about safetying up,” said Lockhart, of Oelrichs, S.D. “There’s just so much money to be won daily that I just think we’ll go out, do our job and let it all hang out. I’m just thrilled to be having some success and to have a really fast run tonight, especially after tipping a barrel last night.”
Tie-down roping is Tuf Cooper’s to lose, and he certainly has no plans of doing that. The two-time world champ split Round 7 with Cody Ohl and leads second-place Matt Shiozawa by $33,111.
Shiozawa leads Cooper by five-tenths of a second in the average race, but it will take a big mistake by Cooper to get him out of the driver’s seat in this battle. Brazile is fourth in the world standings and third in the average and will be going at it hard, but Cooper has been preparing for this stretch run and is focused on the task at hand.
“I went out and practiced some today and took my dad (ProRodeo Hall of Famer Roy Cooper) out there with me at the same roping arena he used to practice at in the ‘80s and ‘90s when he competed,” Cooper said. “We talked about roping and staying aggressive. I’m fortunate and blessed that I came in the Finals in a good enough position that I could make a mistake, but like my dad and I talked about, I can’t make another one.”
Anything can happen in the other events, but world standings leaders have a bit more of a cushion going forward. Three-time and reigning World Champion Bareback Rider Kaycee Feild has a lead of more than $43,000 over Austin Foss and stands third in the Wrangler NFR average, while Foss is fourth in the average and average leader Bobby Mote trails Field by more than $58,000.
Four-time World Champion Steer Wrestler Luke Branquinho is just more than $14,000 clear of second-place Nick Guy, but leads the Wrangler NFR average, while Guy is ninth. Trevor Knowles is third place in the world standings, but 14th in the average, but Casey Martin has a chance from his fourth-place standing and No. 2 rank in the average.
Sage Kimzey split the seventh round with Elliott Jacoby and is an easy pick to win his first gold buckle in three days. The Oklahoman has $239,556 in earnings and is the only bull rider with more than four qualified rides – he has six – so that race is all but over.
Being a journalist, I am horrible at math, so I won’t attempt to spell out endless scenarios that might require a graphing calculator or algorithms. Let me say simply that the next three nights in Las Vegas are going to be interesting, and everyone should buckle up for a wild ride.
The action in Las Vegas has been great so far, and it’s about to get taken up a notch.