NFR Insider Insights: Round 1
My friend and fellow rodeo journalist Kendra Santos and I will be compiling NFR Insider Insights into the 2017 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo to tell fans the rest of the story here at Rodeo’s Super Bowl.
I’m very excited to have the opportunity to work closely with Kendra. I’m equally excited for you rodeo fans and our readers. Together, we have over 60 years of experience covering rodeos that spans generations. We may offer opinions, but those opinions will be based on that experience. Kendra is focusing on the timed-event end of the arena, and I will concentrate on the roughstock events. We have a strong belief that the stories in the Thomas & Mack Center go far beyond the victory laps around that arena and are very grateful for the opportunity to share them with you.
The Timed Events – By Kendra Santos
After running into ProRodeo Hall of Famers Fred Whitfield and Rich Skelton at P.F. Chang’s at lunch, I had a pretty cool text exchange with Fred—who won eight gold buckles, including seven in the tie-down roping between 1991 and 2005, and the 1999 world all-around championship—right after the tie-down roping. The subject was this year’s set of roping calves, which are considerably juicier than those roped here in recent years. Fred was scooted all the way up to the edge of his seat watching his signature event on opening night.
“Finally a real set of ropin’ calves,” Fred said. “It looks to me like your horse is gonna be a real important part of a guy’s success here this year.”
The 2017 timed-event cattle conversation carried on in the truck between the Thomas & Mack Center and the South Point, where the nightly go-round buckles are given out on the Showroom stage. In the truck were ProRodeo Hall of Fame steer wrestler Ote Berry, who won his first of four gold bulldogging buckles here in 1985, the first year the Finals moved to Cowboy Town from Oklahoma City, and Dean Oliver, who’s fourth on the all-time gold-buckle-count list with 11—eight in the calf roping, as they called it back then, and three world all-around titles, all in the 1950s and ’60s. Dean roped at the first NFR ever held, in Dallas back in 1959.
Dean’s stayed in fighting shape over the years, and at a very spry 88 is on NFR General Manager Shawn Davis’s production crew here each year. ProRodeo Hall of Fame saddle bronc rider Shawn celebrated his birthday on opening night. Ote’s in town to produce the inaugural Ote Berry’s Junior Steer Wrestling World Championship, which runs December 12-16 over at the Junior NFR, held daily during the run of the NFR at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Like Fred, Dean likes the look of this year’s bigger, stronger calves. Call them old school if you care to, but virtually all cowboys of every era agree that calves of this caliber make for a real-deal roping contest. “The stouter calves will be a little tougher on the smaller guys, but the cream will rise to the top,” Dean said.
Georgia’s Ryan Jarrett took the Round 1 victory lap in the tie-down roping with a salty 7.5-second run. Jarrett’s the only guy who found a way to upset Trevor Brazile’s domination of the world all-around race since 2002, until Trevor’s PRCA absence last year opened the door for Brazilian Junior Nogueira. Jarrett was the world all-around champ in 2005.
“These calves here in Vegas this year are going to sort the boys from the men,” Jarrett said with a great big grin, right before stepping on stage to pick up his go-round buckle.
Texan Trevor made a move of his own after splitting second in the tie-down roping round with Brazil’s Marcos Costa at 7.9. If there’s one thing every cowboy knows it’s never to count out the winningest cowboy of all time until the final curtain closes. There’s an interesting dynamic brewing in the world all-around race between familiar front-runner Trevor and his tie-down roping brother-in-law Tuf Cooper, who also qualified for this year’s National Finals Steer Roping, which was held last month in Kansas.
As Tuf’s dad, Trevor’s father-in-law and eight-time World Champion Cowboy and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Roy “Super Looper” Cooper put it, “I don’t know who’s going to win it, but I’m betting he’ll be at my Christmas party.”
We hustled to the South Point, so Ote could be a part of Round 1 steer wrestling champ and defending World Champion Steer Wrestler Tyler Waguespack’s celebration-party festivities. It’s tradition for each go-round winner to take his special people on stage with him, and Wag’s posse included his NFR barrel racer fiancé, Sarah Rose McDonald; Mom and Dad, Vicki and Mike; close family friends Tom and Tanya Carney; and traveling partners and co-owners of Wag’s winning ride and 2017 American Quarter Horse Association/PRCA Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year Scooter, Tyler Pearson, who placed second in the opening round, and Kyle Irwin, who was 4.8 on his first one. Talk about all-for-one and one-for-all: Pearson hazed for Wag, and Irwin hazed for Pearson.
Wag credits Mike and Tom for teaching him how to bulldog, and Ote for teaching him how to win. So it was fitting to have the whole herd of family and friends up there on that stage applauding Tyler’s 3.5-second run. First-time finalist and Wag’s fellow Cajun cowboy Rowdy Parrott was part of Wag’s posse, too, and right behind Pearson’s 3.9, Rowdy split third five ways with Canadian Scott Guenthner, Wisconsin’s Jon Ragatz, Minnesota’s J.D. Struxness and South Dakota’s Chason Floyd.
On a savory side note, Rowdy rounded up this year’s Thanksgiving dinner from the Louisiana woods, and his dad, Mitch, made a huge pot of squirrels and gravy—served over rice—after Mike skinned them. The Wags, Carneys, Parrotts and Berrys all gathered round for feasting and fun after spending the better part of each day that week in pre-NFR warm-ups bulldogging in Carney’s arena. Rowdy’s little brother, Remey, qualified for Ote’s event at the JNFR also, by the way.
Georgia’s Kaleb Driggers and Brazil’s defending World Champion All-Around Cowboy Junior Nogueira rode into NFR ’17 the leaders of this year’s team roping pack, and opening night was a case of saving the best for last. As the 15th of 15 teams to rope, they rode out the back end of the arena and right back in for a fired-up victory lap, whooping and hollering right back at their frenzied fans. Both have been on the brink of gold team roping buckles before, only to have one tiny twist late in the rodeo turn the tide a different way. Everyone knows they have the talent and then some. Maybe their time is now.
Before I caught up with Kaleb and Junior over at the South Point, I got to visit with Clay O’Brien Cooper, who’s best known to his cowboy compadres as “Champ.” Clay and Jake Barnes have 56 NFR qualifications between them, and won seven world team roping titles as one of the cowboy sport’s ultimate Dream Teams. Of course, Speed Williams and Rich Skelton also fall into that category with their eight-straight world championships won between 1997-2004.
“What a great team roping to watch,” Clay said. “Kaleb and Junior have the ability to start a new dynasty as a team, in my opinion. It’s their time, and the opportunity is now to capitalize on it. But just like in days past, there are other great teams out there trying to build their own, as well. That’s why it’s so fun to watch.”
California’s Nellie Williams Miller rode her AQHA/Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Barrel Racing Horse of the Year, Sister, to the 13.64-second win in that event on opening night. Miller has made the NFR cut twice, the first time in 2010 on Sister’s half-sibling, Blue Duck, who’s also a blue roan and was also started by her cowboy dad, Sam. Sister and Blue Duck’s mom, Reba, was Nellie’s multi-event high school rodeo horse.
“Blue Duck was a real bronc, but Sister just wants to be your buddy,” said Nellie, who’s mom to two little girls, Payton and Hadley. “The similarities between them are because my dad trained both of them. So their foundation is the same. Dad does all the hard work, so when I get on them they already know what to do.”
Nellie rode Sister most of this year, but banked on big brother Blue Duck when she felt like little sister needed a break. “Sister’s best traits are her confidence and consistency,” she said.
We’ve all learned to expect the unexpected here in Vegas, and tipped barrels by both Stevi Hillman, who won the Daddy of ’em All in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and set an arena record on this same horse, Sharpie, at the rodeo in Caldwell, Idaho, this summer, and Amberleigh Moore, who was on fire here last year and lost the world title by one lone tipped barrel late in the week, on opening night was just one of many examples of that fact. And that, as they say, is why we play the game.
The Riding Events – By Susan Kanode
What a bull riding we saw last night, maybe one of the best first rounds ever. There were seven qualified rides and the race for the world title tightened up. Garrett Smith, who is second in the world standings, rode Frontier Rodeo’s After All for 85.5 points.
Garrett didn’t get to take a victory lap, but his score was good enough to tie for third and it added $13,327 to his earnings. Sage Kimzey, the world standings leader also rode his bull, but a 79-point effort didn’t get him any money. The gap has narrowed to less than $20,000.
I’ve known Garrett for a few years now and I can say that one of my favorite things about him and this year’s set of bull riders is they are cowboys and have a lot of “cowboy try.” This is his second qualification in the bull riding, but his third time to be in the arena at the NFR. In 2015, his older brother Wyatt qualified in the steer wrestling. Wyatt was struggling and needed to change things here. So, he went back to his roots and treated this like it was just another practice run. And, if you are making a practice run, you might as well get your younger brother to haze for you.
“That was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life,” Garrett said. He was just 19-years-old at the time. “I much prefer riding bulls here. I like being in charge of my own destiny.”
The first night that Garrett hazed for Wyatt, Wyatt got a check. He also did a backflip in the arena. I don’t think we will see the same antics from Garrett if he wins a round, but we can always hope.
Garrett won $77,269 here last year and finished at the top of the leaderboard in the 10th round. That is the only round that doesn’t include a trip to the South Point for the buckle ceremony. He just won the Canadian title last November. That gave him a lot of momentum he is using here. I’m counting on a round win and a trip to the South Point for the whole family and you can bet I’ll be right in front when that happens.
While the gap narrowed in the bull riding, it widened in the bareback riding. Reigning world champion and world standings leader Tim O’Connell tied for third place and added $13,327 to his earnings. He is now $78,585 ahead of Tanner Aus.
Tim and other bareback riders were happy to get a check, NFR rookie, Bill Tutor, was happy to get a score. Bill finished last year at 16th, missing the NFR by just under $3,000. He was busy getting ready during the opening ceremonies and grand entry, admitting that he didn’t take much time to absorb the atmosphere.
He was the first bareback rider out and wanted to be ready. Doing what he has done for most of his life, he was ready. The horse he would ride was Topped Off from Pickett Pro Rodeo. When the horse came out of the bucking chute, it lost her footing and while it didn’t completely fall, judges felt that Tutor didn’t get a fair opportunity.
So, the NFR rookie has already been on more bucking horses in the Thomas and Mack Center than any other contestants. He still didn’t get anytime to absorb that atmosphere. He made a hurried trip back to the bucking chutes, got his rigging and started all over again on “Weenie,” owned by Three Hills Rodeo.
Tutor did what he has done all year to get him here and scored 80 points. Not near enough to get him a check, but enough to get him excited to ride again.
“I was just glad to get that first one behind me,” he said. “It all happened really fast, being the first one out and then getting the re-ride. I’d much rather be farther down the line up. When there are high scores ahead of me, that really inspires me.”
When Bill finished short last year, he competed at the Boyd Gaming Chute Out while his traveling partner, Evan Jayne, was riding in the Thomas and Mack. This year the tables have turned and Evan told me he hoped that competing at that event would light a fire under him like it did Bill.
“Bill was so determined, and I hadn’t seen that before,” he said. Jayne qualified in 2015 – 16 and finished this year at 17th. “I think I’ll start the new year with the same drive after having seeing what he has accomplished.”
The past two years, NFR rookies have won the first round of saddle bronc riding, showing none of the first-time jitters that would be expected from riding at rodeo’s championships.
Last year, we watched Ryder Wright, the youngest qualifier–then and now–win the first round.
That was the beginning of one of the most electric competitions in the history of the event. I have never felt the excitement at the NFR that I experienced when Ryder won four consecutive rounds. I also experienced a collective sigh from fans when he came off early in the Round 5 last year. The Wright name has been part of the saddle bronc riding in the Thomas and Mack Center since 2003 when Ryder’s father Cody qualified the first time.
Ryder is back this year and had a good ride last in the first-round scoring 86.5 points on C5 Rodeo’s Black Hills. That earned him a third-place check for $15,654. That was just one-point shy of taking a victory lap.
Enter first-time qualifier Hardy Braden. He took the victory lap after winning the first round with an 87.5-point ride on Cervi Championship Rodeo’s HATitude Alpha Dog. It also added $26,231 to his checking account.
While it is Braden’s first time here, his family legacy also includes multiple NFR experiences. His mom, Tammy has timed here. His father, Butch, is a pickup man and before he had a family rodeo saddle bronc horses.
“I’m sure that my dad rode good enough to be in the saddle bronc riding here,” Hardy told me. “But raising two kids and his family were his priority. That’s been good for me and my sister. Our parents gave us lots of opportunities.”
Hardy is not one to take any of those opportunities for granted. I get to work with his mom at the National Western Stock Show Rodeo in Denver in January and last summer she was also a timer at the Caldwell Night Rodeo. This week there are no stop watches in her hands, but I’m sure the eight-second clock is going in her head every time her son nods his head and the chute gate opens. I’m also confident that she is much more nervous than he is and that his Butch is sitting back taking it all in. They have raised a very grounded cowboy who seriously is taking this just like any other rodeo.
“When it comes down to it, you’re still putting your butt in a saddle and nodding your head,” Hardy said. “The basics of what every contestant has done to get here don’t change. So I’m just going to stick to basics and nod my head.”