With the increase in the payoff at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in 2015, winning a gold buckle is an option for each of the 120 contestants entered. Once again, this year, it will pay $26,231 to win any of the 10 rounds in each event. And, the NFR champion who has the fastest total time, or highest total score comes with a $67,269 pay check.
Bigger leads mean greater opportunities to earn gold buckles, but no one is safe and that promises to make for good watching for fans here and at home. So here are my thoughts about the upcoming 10 nights of competition and my picks for gold buckles. I know those picks are all the competitors who are starting in the lead and it’s unlikely that they will all remain there. But there is a reason they are starting in first. We never know whose star is going to shine the brightest in Las Vegas. The one thing we can be sure of is that it will be very exciting.
BARREL RACE: The biggest lead going into tonight’s competition is in the barrel racing. It’s amazing. For Tiany Schuster from Krum, Texas. She has a $64,425 advantage over Stevi Hillman from Weatherford, Texas. Schuster went to 95 to get to the top. Hillman competed at one more than that.
Shuster’s mind is on the gold so much that it has influenced her apparel. At the Welcome Reception on Dec. 5, she was all decked out in a sassy dress and tall gold boots. She has had an incredible year, especially considering it was her first full-year on the rodeo trail. A year ago, she finished in 27th place in the world standings.
“I don’t want to finish the year thinking I should have gone to one more rodeo, or that there was something else I could have done,” Schuster said last August at the Caldwell Night Rodeo. She will give it all she has.
And, so will Hillman. Barrel racing fans couldn’t quit talking about her after she won the legendary Cheyenne Frontier Days on her five-year-old gelding Sharpie. This is Hillman’s second appearance in the Thomas and Mack Center. Last year, she placed in five rounds and finished the year in 11th place. I expect her to do much better this year.
There was not a barrel racer in the 2016 field that did better than Amberleigh Moore from Salem, Oregon. She and her fabulous mare, “Paige” took home $187,692 and moved from 15th to 2nd in the world standings. There is no other arena like the one in the Thomas and Mack and it offers challenges to barrel racers. None of that mattered to this duo as they placed in all but two rounds last year and set a new arena record at 13.37 seconds. If it wasn’t for one knocked over barrel, they would have won the whole shooting match. I expect big things out of this duo again this year.
Inisder pick: Tiany Schuster
Spoilers: Stevi Hillman and Amberleigh Moore
NFR Rookie to Watch: Tiany Schuster
BAREBACK RIDING: The reigning world champion has been on a roll for all the 2017 rodeo season and I expect that to continue. Tim O’Connell was the first bareback rider from Iowa to win a world title since Paul Mayo, from Grinnell, won it in 1966. O’Connell is on track to make it back to back and with a new baby on the way he is more motivated than ever. He’s leader of the pack at $201,916, $65,259 ahead of Tanner Aus from Granite Falls, Minnesota.
There is a mere $50,000 separating the bottom 14 spaces, so everyone is in the game. I look for Jake Vold to have another successful NFR and have the Canadian fans on their feet. He tied for second in the average last year with J.R. Vezain and won three rounds. He was second in the money won at last year’s NFR and finished second in the world.
Clayton Biglow, from Clements, California, made his first appearance in the Thomas and Mack Center last year as a 20-year-old. He tied for the win in two rounds and placed in three others. He left Las Vegas with nearly $100,000 in earnings from the NFR. Clayton’s 22nd birthday is just two days after the tenth round and he should have plenty to celebrate. He’ll be playing off last year’s experiences here and riding like a veteran.
Last year, Bill Tutor from Huntsville, Texas, finished the season in 16th. He came to Las Vegas and competed at the Boyd Gaming Chute Out. That lit a fire in him and he never wanted to be 16th again. If worked this year and he enters his first NFR in 11th place.
Insider pick: Tim O’Connell
Spoliers: Jake Vold and Clayton Biglow
NFR Rookie to Watch: Bill Tutor
STEER WRESTLING: Two of the top steer wrestlers had to change their game plan less than a week before this year’s NFR. Last year’s world champion, Tyler Waguespack, and the standings leader, Ty Erickson were both planning to ride “Cadillac.” The two-time horse of the year took Waguespack to a gold buckle and has been instrumental in Erickson’s regular-season success.
These men, along with Tyler Pearson and Kyle Irwin will now be riding the 2017 AQHA/PRCA steer wrestling horse of the year, “Scooter.” Erickson has a $52,201 lead, but that can go away with two round wins by the man in second place, Olin Hannum.
Erickson’s best NFR was in 2015 when he placed in seven rounds. He finished that year in fourth place in the world standings. He recently got engaged to his long-time girlfriend Cierra Kunesh and the couple has big goals. He should keep his momentum going and they will be able to write accomplished by his goal of being a world champion.
It’s been three years since Tyler Pearson qualified for his first NFR. Before the competition even started, he suffered a knee injury, but still managed to finish fourth overall and win a round. This year he’s starting in third place and riding Scooter who he co-owns with Kyle Irwin. Pearson will take a pile of money back to Mississippi.
Baylor Roche is making his third appearance in the Thomas and Mack Center. He won the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo in Wyoming last July, beating 160 other guys. He has won many of the biggest rodeos in the country and has his eye on a big prize here. Roche will be riding the horse that took Hunter Cure to world championships.
Canadian Scott Guenthner will nod his head for the first time at the NFR in fifth place. Guenthner is a planner and that has served him well in his quest to compete for a gold buckle. He is planning on big things in the Thomas and Mack Center over the next 10 days. If things go according to plan, the Canadian fans will have plenty to cheer about.
Insider Pick: Ty Erickson
Spoilers: Tyler Pearson and Baylor Roche
NFR Rookie to Watch: Scott Guenthner
TEAM ROPING: This is the tightest race in the field. Kaleb Driggers leads the heading by $344 and his partner Junior Nogueira has an even narrower gap at $146. Right behind them are Erich Rogers and Cory Petska. Last year, Driggers and Nogueira won $107,947 in the Thomas and Mack. Rogers and Petska were ahead of that at $116,192. Similar results this year would see Petska and Rogers in the number one spot.
This year’s NFR will be different for Petska. His wife, Sherry Cervi, finished the season in 16th place in the barrel racing. So after he ropes, he won’t have to hurry to watch the barrel race, and Sherry will do something she never has, watch Cory rope live instead of on a monitor in the warm up arena.
Team roping is especially challenging in this arena. It is likely to be really fast or for one of the ropers to come up empty. No one knows that better than header Chad Masters and heeler Jade Corkill who have had their share of both. Masters and Corkill are roping here this year with different partners, but they do hold the record in the Thomas and Mack at 3.3. Masters is riding the head horse of the year and roping with Travis Graves who is due for a world champion.
Corkill has three gold buckles to his credit and will be roping with Clay Tryan, who also has three world titles. They earned the last two together. Then there are the newcomers to Las Vegas, Jr. Dees and Tyler McKnight that won the $50,000 at Salt Lake City. This promises to be one of the most exciting contests of the NFR and if you doubt that, go back to last year where the most consistent ropers moved from 14th place to first to be the only Canadians to win world championships in the heading and heeling. That honor belonged to Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler. Buhler finished this year in 15th and is back, but will rope with Tom Richards as Simpson finished 16th.
Insider Pick: Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira
Spoiler Alert: Cory Petska, and Erich Rogers and Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill
NFR Rookies to watch: Jr. Dees and Tyler McKnight
SADDLE BRONC RIDING: Last year, Jacobs Crawley, entered the NFR in first place and Zeke Thurston was in fourth. Thurston left in first place and Crawley finished as the reserve world champion. This year, Crawley is in first again with Thurston close on his tail — $13,596 separates the two.
Crawley won his first world title in 2015 and is hungry for a second. He and his wife added a son to their family in October. He has even more inspiration to win. Thurston has heard his name announced across North America during this year’s regular season as the reigning world champion. He has represented his home country of Canada well and he’s anxious to do that again.
The only saddle bronc rider in this year’s field to have won multiple world championships is Taos Muncy. He enters in 13th place and with his history in the Thomas and Mack Center is expected to move up. Then there are the Wrights. Ryder Wright set the NFR on fire last year winning the first four rounds and $141,000 over the 10 nights of competition.
When Ryder entered last year’s NFR, he was just 18 and the youngest competitor in the field. He still hasn’t reached his second decade of his life, but he rides like a veteran that has been getting on the back of bucking horses for 20 years. He’s watched his father and uncles earn gold buckles and wants to be the first of his generation to take that title to Utah.
Brody Cress made history this year winning three of the oldest and most legendary rodeo’s in the business. He started his climb up to sixth in the world standings with a big win at California Rodeo Salinas, then won Cheyenne Frontier Days in his home state of Wyoming. A win at the Pendleton (Oregon) Round-Up made a nice trifecta for the 21-year-old.
Insider Pick: Jacobs Crawley
Spoiler Alert: Zeke Thurston and Ryder Wright
NFR Rookie to Watch: Brody Cress
TIE-DOWN ROPING: What a year it’s been for three-time world champion Tuf Cooper. He broke Cody Ohl’s regular season earnings record and has a $48,251 lead. Five of the top six entering the NFR have earned gold buckles and this race will be another fun one to watch.
And there is a lot more at stake than the tie-down roping title. Cooper is second in the all-around world standings. Caleb Smidt who will start tonight’s competition in second place is in third. Leading the all-around race is the phenomenal Trevor Brazile who is sixth leads the all-around race.
The tie-down roping will likely come down to horsepower. Cooper has an arsenal with him, has been training hard. He and his horses have been winning all season and that trend is expected to continue. Smidt will be riding Pockets, the horse he won the 2015 world title on and that helped him earn over $100,000 here last year.
Third place is the 2013 world champion Shane Hanchey who has two great horses, one of them being the tie-down roping horse of the year. The reigning world champion, Tyson Durfey is in fifth. In fourth place is Marcos Costa, who hopes to become the first Brazilian to win a gold buckle in this event.
Cooper Martin has been preparing for the NFR all his life. The Alma, Kansas, resident qualified in 14th place. Roping against his heroes won’t phase this determined 20-year-old. He’s made an impression all year and that should continue.
Inider Pick: Tuf Cooper
Spoiler Alert: Caleb Smidt and Shane Hanchey
NFR Rookie to Watch: Cooper Martin
BULL RIDING: Arguing with success would be pointless when it comes to Sage Kimzey. The three-time world champion wants to be remembered as the greatest bull rider in the world and he comes closer to that with every eight-second ride.
He’s got 80 seconds ahead of him to stay on his path and earn his fourth consecutive gold buckle. He set a regular-season earnings record of $237,152 this year surpassing Matt Austin who won $228,386 in 2005. But Sage, can’t get to comfortable and he won’t.
Garrett Smith is at his second NFR and has had the best season of his career and is just $32,913 behind Kimzey. Smith has nearly doubled his career earnings before he even nods his head in the Thomas and Mack Center.
Then there is Cole Melancon who juggled a competition schedule that included college rodeos last spring. He won the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association championship last June. In August, he had a 90-point ride on the bull of the year, SweetPro’s Bruiser.
Don’t rule out Joe Frost who will start his fourth NFR in fifth place. According to the ProBull Stats website, Frost along with Kimzey and Smith have all ridden over 60% of their bulls this year. The gold buckle always comes down to who rides the most bulls. Kimzey is always the favorite, but he along with bull riding fans around the world will be watching the rest of the field anxiously.
Insider Pick: Sage Kimzey
Spoiler Alert: Garrett Smith and Joe Frost
NFR Rookie to watch: Cole Melancon