When the 2016 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) starts in the Thomas and Mack Center on Thursday, it promises to be filled with upsets, thrills, spills and the most exciting rodeo action in the sport’s history.
It’s been a long travel-filled year for the 120 contestants that made it and many more that didn’t. Rodeos across the country have been the stepping stones to getting here and that rodeo road has seen NFR contestants earning more money.
This year, there are 31 contestants that qualified for rodeo’s championships with over $100,000 earned during the regular season. Nearly half of those came in the bull riding and barrel racing. Each of those events had seven contestants that were over the mark.
Last year, there were 18 contestants that earned over $100,000 during the regular season. Collectively, 2015 contestants had total pre-NFR earnings of $10,269,673. This year, they bested that by over $200,000 at $10,502,331.
With the increase in prize money here a year ago, there is a huge drive to get here and have a chance at it. There is $8.8 million at stake during the 10 nights of competition. Each qualifier receives a $10,000 check for getting here bringing the total up to $10 million.
Along with the prize money, which is substantial, there are goals that have been set by many young men and women while watching the NFR growing up and dreaming of having a chance to win a world title. There is the prestigious average title which means that a contestant rose to the top for 10 days and earns the NFR championship. Those champions also earn a $67,269 check. The nightly round wins are worth $26,231 and a trip to the South Point for a round buckle presentation.
There are a lot of new faces at this year’s competition and they’ve been fun to watch all year long. There are also some seasoned veterans and contestants that are somewhere in between. I’m looking forward to the competition more than ever. Here’s a look at each of the events.
Tim O’Connell has had an outstanding year and is the leader of the pack. He is flamboyant in the arena, and has a commanding spur stroke. The former wrestler has won 15 rodeos this season and is ready to win this one. He has a $40,000 lead over the rest of the field and wants to grow that margin, but also knows how easily it can slip away.
Tim is one of six former National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association champions. Wyatt Denny, who qualified for the NFR in 15th place is the reigning college champ bringing the total to seven. Orin Larsen won it twice. Others include Tanner Aus, R.C. Landingham, J.R. Vezain and Ty Breuer. I’ve watched all of them win those titles and am so excited to see them ride in the Thomas and Mack.
I think that steer wrestling is the hardest even to dominate and it’s proven by how tight this year’s race is. Where there is a $40,000 lead between first and second in the bareback riding, there is less than that between first and 15th in this event.
When Trevor Knowles nods his head on Thursday, it will be the 121st steer that he has run in the Thomas and Mack Center. Trevor also was a wrestler in high school and still loves the sport. He used that never-say-die attitude to make a late-season push to get here. I think he’ll use it to get a big chunk of the prize money.
Ty Erickson leads and will be running his 30th steer. In his past two years here, he won one round, but placed in another 11. That means he has been to the pay window more than 50% of the time. He also will be riding “Shakem” the 2015 AQHA/PRCA steer wrestling horse of the year.
Junior Noguiera has the opportunity to make NFR history – again. He did that the first time in 2014 when he was the first Brazilian to qualify in a timed-event. Last year when his team roping partner, Jake Barnes, was injured and Junior roped with JoJo Lemond, there wasn’t a more exciting team to watch through all 10 rounds.
I think that will be the case this year, only Junior will be roping with Kaleb Driggers. Kaleb isn’t afraid to throw fast and that suits Junior just fine. In 2012, Kaleb headed for Jade Corkill. Jade won his first gold buckle, Kaleb finished second. This year, he and Junior are poised and ready to get the gold as a team.
Junior is also in the lead in the all-around standings and his success there will depend on Kaleb’s catching horns. I expect these two to have fun right out of the gate and not let the pressure get to them in any way.
I’m also anxious to see the crowd reaction when Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler ride their horses into the arena for the first time. They are the first all-Canadian team to compete in the history of the NFR. Those Canadians love to wave their flags and are very proud of their competitors.
Saddle Bronc Riding
There is a high probability that this year’s gold buckle will go to a member of the Wright family, but they are going to have to get past reigning world champion Jacobs Crawley. Jacobs has as much fun riding bucking horses as any saddle bronc rider and that is especially true here. He’s competed at five consecutive NFRs and won the average twice, in 2013 and again last year when he won his first gold buckle. He used that momentum for the 2016 season and has a $50,000 lead in the world standings.
That is not a big amount here, but with the success he’s had in the past, he is among the favorites to win another world title. He is always fun to watch. If I could plan things out, I would plan a tie-for a round win with Cody Wright and one of his two sons, Rusty or Ryder. Rusty is coming off of a broken leg and he is craving getting on bucking horses, especially at his second NFR. Ryder will win the rookie title this year. He bought his PRCA membership as soon as he turned 18 and qualified for the NFR in the last seven months of the season.
The family ties in this event are nearly endless. With brothers, uncles, in-laws and outlaws, this year’s saddle bronc riding will likely see more stories develop through the competition than any other event.
There’s one reason that Junior Nogueira is leading the all-around standings – Marcos Costa. Marcos, also from Brazil let Junior ride his horse at some rodeos to earn money in the tie-down roping and qualify for the all-around. That horse has gotten Marcos to the pay window more often than not and I expect that to be the case here.
Marcos made his debut here last year and placed in three rounds. He had his sixth surgery on his right knee after that and won money at the first rodeo back. He is known for his horsemanship and with the short score and noise in the Thomas and Mack Center that will come in handy.
Caleb Smidt came into last year’s NFR in eighth place and moved up to first. He is back again at his third NFR and enters in eighth place. If Caleb gets on a roll like he did last year, he will be looking at a second gold buckle.
I am a tie-down roping fan and that’s largely because of the animal athletes these men ride. One of my favorite all-time horses is returning to the Thomas and Mack Center this year, Reata. I am so excited to watch Shane Hanchey and Reata perform here again. Shane won the world on this sorrel phenomenon in 2013 and they set the arena record for the average at 80.1 seconds. He moved from 10th place to first. Shane made it to Vegas the next two years, last year without Reata. I don’t think there is another horse that loves their job any more than Reata.
The title is Mary Burger’s to lose. She set a regular-season earnings record last August and built on that the last two months of the rodeo year. She and her phenomenal horse, SadiesFamousLastWords, that she calls “Mo” have won more money than any other at $190,977. Their lead over second place is nearly $75,000, the biggest in any event. All she needs is solid performances throughout the week and she will leave here with her second world championship.
There is another buckskin horse that has gained a lot of fans here, Louie, owned and ridden by Lisa Lockhart. They are always exciting and with Louie’s registered name being “An Oakie With Cash,” they are expected to take a bunch of it home to their ranch in South Dakota.
The committee also made changes in the ground and in an event that is so dependent upon the dirt in the arena, records could fall. The barrel racing is always fast and furious and I expect it to be that times 10.
It’s easy to say that Sage Kimzey has been the best bull rider on the circuit the past three years. He enters his third NFR as a two-time and defending world champion and is at the top of the standings. Sage has a $55,496 lead over Joe Frost.
Sage has a target on his back. There are 14 guys that want to take him off of his bull riding pedestal and any one of them could do it on any given day. To do it 10 days in a row is nearly unthinkable. Sage didn’t win a round last year, but placed in seven, finished second in the average and with his lead coming in that was enough.
The world championship and even the 2016 rookie of the year will be decided here. There are two other gold buckle holders in the mix, Cody Teel and Shane Proctor. It’s going to come down to who makes the most eight second rides and you can’t count any of them out.
Not “Just Another Rodeo” —
I can’t imagine how these competitors keep their cool. I know they try to treat this like it’s just any other rodeo, but it’s not. There is so much at stake for each one of them. Just qualifying was a big part of the equation. The rest of the factors will all come into play and as drama unfolds, someone in each event is going to emerge. I can’t wait to see who it is.