World championships in any sport are hard to come by, but in rodeo the gold buckles that signify that you are the world’s best can be as elusive as finding a needle in a haystack.
For many, that road starts with a childhood dream advancing through the levels of competition. At this year’s National High School Rodeo Finals, over 1600 student athletes competed for titles. Hopefully they go to college for the next level where just under 400 athletes qualify for the College National Finals Rodeo.
Welcome to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association where there are 120 spots at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) and nine gold buckles are awarded. The numbers would discourage the faint of heart, but heart is never lacking in a serious contender. The Clem McSpadden National Steer Roping Finals sees another 15 contestants going after one buckle.
It is remarkable to think that of last year’s world champions, only three of them were first time winners. Trevor Brazile’s records are talked about all the time and at last year’s NFR he won his 12th all-around title. He also earned his fifth steer roping world title and has accumulated a 21 gold buckles in those categories as well as tie-down and team roping.
Luke Branquinho picked up his fifth in steer wrestling. Kaycee Feild won his fourth consecutive bareback riding title. Clay Tryan,(team roping heading), Jade Corkill (team roping heeling) and Tuf Cooper (tie-down roping) each picked up their third.
Last year, Sage Kimzey came and left Las Vegas in the number one position in the bull riding. Fallon Taylor started the race for the gold buckle in second place in barrel racing. Spencer Wright had a come from behind story that legends are made of starting the NFR in 13th place in route to winning the saddle bronc riding title. For Kimzey and Wright, it was also their rookie year at the NFR.
“Nobody was more surprised than I was,” Wright said. “I knew I had a lot of ground to make up and that it was possible. I had the mindset that I was going to take it round by round and win as much as I could.”
Of course, he had three older brothers among his competition and Spencer had watched as two of them won gold buckles. The eldest of the riding Wright brothers, Cody has two world titles (2008 and 2010) and Jesse earned the championship in 2012. Jesse’s twin, Jake, came close in 2014, finishing second by just over $10,000.
Kimzey also had been in the Thomas and Mack center as a spectator and watched the world champion buckles presented. Growing up in a rodeo family, he dreamed of winning a world title since he was a child. The goal-oriented cowboy set his sights high and his achievements went right along with that.
There have just been two bull riders to win the world and rookie-of-the-year titles, Bill Kornell in 1963 and Sage Kimzey in 2014. He broke the NFR bull riding earnings record at $175,466 and earned the RAM Top Gun Truck for being the highest money winner at the NFR.
“I set a goal to ride all ten of my bulls,” Kimzey said. “I knew that if I did that, all of the other pieces would fall into place. I didn’t ride all my bulls, but still had an amazing finals. My goal this year is exactly the same, ride all ten bulls and we’ll see what happens.”
For Taylor, the world title has been a lifelong dream that started when she was a young girl growing up in Florida and saw a rodeo on television. Her first NFR was one that she competed at as a 13-year-old riding a mare named Flowers and Money. She qualified twice more on this mare, and once on a stallion named Dr. Nic Bar. Taylor’s family started breeding horses and these two horses had four offspring, the youngest is Flos Heiress that Taylor’s fans all know as Baby Flo.
A 15-year hiatus from rodeo saw her modeling and making appearances in tv shows. But her love of horses and passion for barrel racing was always in the background. As those four offspring of her previous NFR mounts were growing, she picked Baby Flo out of the herd and started riding her when the mare was five-years-old.
Taylor’s return to barrel racing came with great personal fortitude after being injured in a horse accident in 2009 where she broke her C-2 vertebra and doctors told her she had a two percent chance of walking and talking again. Three days later she walked out of the hospital, in a halo to keep her neck and head stable, not just walking but talking as well.
She and Baby Flo clicked from the beginning and when they made a push for the NFR in 2012, she was just $721 from a return to Las Vegas. The next year, she started the NFR in fifth place but after a disappointing finals finished in 11th.
In 2014, she entered her sixth NFR in second place behind Kaley Bass. Lisa Lockhart was third. Taylor was the only world champion at last year’s NFR that didn’t win the average title. That went to Lockhart who won the average. Taylor did better in the rounds and earned $144,970 compared to Lockhart’s $143,897. When it was all said and done, Taylor was just about $11,000 ahead of Lockhart.
“That’s what barrel racing is all about, hundredths of a second and it coming down to the wire,” Taylor said. “It’s been an awesome ride, especially for Baby Flo and my fans. Baby Flo is such an incredible athlete and I give all of the credit to her. Last year was amazing, but this year to be able to interact with my fans with that world championship title on our resume has been awesome.”
Taylor is currently seventh in the world standings and with the additional prize money available at this year’s NFR, she along with other contestants are more concerned about getting to Las Vegas than where they are in the standings.
Last year’s NFR paid $6.6375 million across eight events (team roping heading and heeling) and ten nights. This year, that money has increased by over $2 million to $8.8 million. The difference in the rounds and average is astounding. If Sage Kimzey were to place exactly the same this year as he did last year, he would walk away with $236,711, compared to $175,455. Spencer won $145,123 last year, the same scenario this year would have him at $200,327.
The total on ten (average) paychecks will see the most impact, so this year expect every world champion to also be an NFR Average winner. The difference in first and second place will come down to margins, but the margins for the 2015 race are going to be bigger.
“The money is a big part of getting to the NFR,” Wright said. “But I don’t think it’s the biggest thing. After winning a world title I want to go back and do it again. Everyone is trying to get to Vegas and win a world title. The money is the icing on the cake.”