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.
Bulls, Bares and Saddle Broncs – by Susan Kanode
It’s not often that bull riders and bulls develop relationships or have a history, but that is the case with Garrett Smith and Rafter J Rodeo’s “J Lazy.”
Garrett rode the bull for the third time last night. Its was the second time he won a round at the NFR on the black-white-face who is in the prime of his bucking career. Garrett also tied for the first-round win at the 2016 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo on him. In the three times that Garrett has ridden J Lazy, he has earned $57,628.
What was a first for Garrett and the whole Smith family was a trip to the South Point for the buckle presentations on Friday night. And, fans got to see much more than they ever expected. Older brother Wyatt was there too. Wyatt competed in the steer wrestling here in 2015 and when he finally got a steer down and earned a check, he did a backflip in the arena. Garett was hazing. So, in honor of Garrett’s first round win, Wyatt did a backflip on stage at the South Point.
Flint Rasmussen and Randy Corley might have egged him on a bit, but they were both amazed when it came off without a hitch. Wyatt is retired from steer wrestling and is a full-time policeman in his hometown of St. Johns, Arizona. He never won a round here, so being on stage with his younger brother was pretty special.
There is a third member of the Smith’s family who will also be competing in Las Vegas this week. The youngest of the trio, Payson, has qualified for Ote Berry’s Junior Steer Wrestling World Championhip at the Jr. NFR.
Garrett is two for two in the bull riding at the Thomas and Mack Center. He is coming off a win at the Canadian National Finals Rodeo and is riding at the top of his game. I expect that his first trip to the South Point won’t be his last.
J Lazy has his own story too. Neil Gay, the patriarch of Rafter G Rodeo counted Jim Shoulders among his best friends. In fact, Neil’s son, Jim, who is in charge of day-to-day operations of the rodeo company is named after Shoulders. Jim and his wife, Brenda, have two daughters, Megan and Summer.
It was 10 years ago that we lost the legendary Jim Shoulders. After winning 11 world championships, he ventured into the business of rodeo with his Lazy J S brand. Jim Gay wanted to pay homage to the family friend and waited until the right bull came along. That bull is J Lazy and I would imagine that Jim Shoulders was watching last night’s bull riding from heaven with a big smile on his face.
It looks like we will have a new world champion in the saddle bronc riding after last night’s eliminator pen took care of the cowboys. This event nearly paid ground money as just seven contestants had qualified rides – and they each got a check.
These horses were tough to ride and even more challenging to mark out. Jacobs Crawley, the world standings leader, missed holding his left foot by a fraction of a second or a fraction of an inch and was disqualified. The reigning world champion, Zeke Thurston got on Bridwell Pro Rodeo’s Capone and that didn’t work for either of them.
Capone must have been out on the Las Vegas strip the night before. When it came time to come out of the bucking chute, he turned around and came out backwards. Then, Zeke spurred over his rein and got his foot caught in it. That was the beginning of the end.
This is an eight-year-old gelding that was raised in Red Bluff, California by Tim Bridwell who is a nephew of John Growney. He throws cowboys off more often than they ride him, but Tim said he was confident that Zeke would have gotten a big score if he would have gotten a “good go at him.”
That opened the door for the number-three man in the world standings, CoBurn Bradshaw. CoBurn got on Calgary Stampede’s Tiger Warrior and made as pretty a ride in the e-pen as I’ve seen. It was worth 89.5 points and with two horses behind him, he’s leader of the average and has already won $56,962 here.
The first time I watched CoBurn ride was at the College National Finals Rodeo for Western Texas College. “Watch that CoBurn Bradshaw,” his coach at the time, Greg Rhodes told me. “He’s going to do big things in the saddle bronc riding and my money is on him for a gold buckle.”
That was in 2014 when CoBurn earned the college title, edging out Zeke Thurston by just a half point. The next year was his first of three consecutive trips to Vegas. The first year here he won $153,577. Last year he added $89,115. With what he has already won here this year, he has taken nearly $300,000 out of the Thomas and Mack Center. I’m betting there is a lot more money and a gold buckle in his future.
We saw our first tie for a round win last night in any event in the bareback riding. Tanner Aus got a big boost when he rode Pickett Pro Rodeo’s Scarlett Fever for 87.5 points. Richmond Champion had an identical score on Pete Carr’s Classic Pro Rodeo’s Fancy Free.
There’s not a group of guys that has more fun at the NFR than the bareback riders. It’s become an annual tradition for all 15 of them to go have dinner on Tuesday night after they get their back numbers and qualification swag. And, there is a separate dinner for the wives of the married ones.
There’s been talk of a rivalry between Tanner and Tim O’Connell, who is the current world champion and standings leader. It’s a rumor. They are actually good friends and even though they’ve never traveled together they often find themselves at the same rodeos as they compete in the same circuit.
They both won college championships as Missouri Valley Vikings. Both are married and at this time next year, both will be new fathers. Tim still has a big lead in the race for this year’s gold buckle after a second-place finish last night. But I see Tanner narrowing the gap and leaving Las Vegas with a big paycheck.
Earlier this week, I predicted that Jake Vold was going to be a spoiler here. So far, that’s true. Jake finished in a tie with Tim for third and fourth place last night after winning Round 1 the opening night. He leads the average and is making the Canadians happy.
The money and quality of bucking stock makes the NFR a very exciting place for these guys to be. What makes it really special for us watching is seeing the camaraderie between the contestants and getting to experience all that Las Vegas and the NFR has to offer with their families.
Roping, Wrestling and Running – By Kendra Santos
Trevor Brazile owns just about every record in the rodeo business. The 23-time world champion cowboy is rodeo’s only $6 million man, and he’s now qualified for an unparalleled 50 National Finals, including the NFR and National Finals Steer Roping, which is held in November in Kansas.
These days, when Trevor breaks a record it’s often one of his own, as he continues to raise the bar on dominance we may never see again in the cowboy sport. After splitting second and third in Round 1 of the tie-down roping, the 41-year-old Texan came back and won it all in Round 2. He was 7.4 to beat all the kids, and take a record 67th National Finals victory lap. To put that not-so-small feat into perspective, six-time World Champion cowboy Cody Ohl—who won five gold tie-down roping buckles and the 2002 world champion all-around cowboy crown—is next in line with 55 go-round wins, and five-time World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Billy Etbauer is third at 51.
I occasionally hear water-cooler comments from folks who by now either take Trevor’s talent for granted, or are borderline sick of seeing the same person in the headlines time after time. That perplexes me to the brink of outrage. What a privilege to get to see the winningest cowboy of all time work his way so deep into rodeo’s record books that we may well never see another cowboy like him in our generation or any other.
We are witnessing history here, and the colossal bonus is that Trevor is a humble and honorable champion we can all be ultimately proud of in and out of the arena. My cowboy sons have been watching Trevor’s every move all their lives, and in this mom’s strong opinion could not have a better role model as a cowboy or a gentleman. Trevor’s always there for his family, friends, fans and this entire sport. This is a guy who picks up calls from rodeo reporters when he’s sitting in the barber’s chair, for goodness sake.
“Each year feels like a gift now,” said our sport’s ultimate ambassador, who again leads the world championship all-around race. “I appreciate winning now more than ever.”
In my 31 years of covering Rodeo’s Super Bowl I’ve never spent a minute in a seat—until now. In the past, I spent all my time back behind the scenes and in the Thomas & Mack Center tunnels. What fun to get to experience the biggest, best rodeo on the planet from yet another perspective. Even better when you get seated amongst the sport’s living legends night after night.
In Round 2, I got to sit with barrel racing royalty, including two-time World Champion Barrel Racer Kelly Kaminski, who’s producing the KK Run for Vegas barrel race over at the Junior NFR here this week, and 1983 Champ of the World Marlene McRae. Both had goosebumps when the truck wheeled into the arena and they rolled out the barrels.
“I remember the first time I ever rode Rocky (her gray dream horse) into this arena before the 2002 NFR,” she said, with happy tears in her eyes. “We were both looking around and taking it all in, and I said out loud to Rocky, ‘Here we are. This is what we’ve worked for.’”
Kelly and Rocky won a pair of reserve world titles in 2002-03 before grabbing back-to-back gold buckles in 2004-05. In the moments right before Round 2, in which Amberleigh Moore and her dream pony Paige set the round record of 13.54 seconds, it was clear Kelly was flashing back to the feelings she had right before riding into that magical arena.
“I always tried to stay loose, so I’d move around in my saddle to the beat of the music,” she said. “It’s really cold down in that tunnel, so you have to keep moving to stay warm, too. I feel like everyone who’s ever come through that alley is part of a sorority and a sisterhood. We’ll all share that bond forever. To keep from being overwhelmed, I kept it simple in my mind. All I focused on was the dirt and the barrels.”
On this night, Kelly scooted all the way up to the front of her seat before the first cowgirl of the night—Round 1 winner Nellie Miller—flew into the arena.
“I don’t know why, but I feel like I need to put a seatbelt on,” Kelly said.
As for Amberleigh, who shocked us all by hitting a barrel on opening night, she was more excited that her beloved partner Paige was ready for Round-2 battle than she was about the actual win itself.
“Paige hit her leg on that barrel so hard she had to jump it to get around it,” she said. “I was so worried about her after the rodeo last night that I didn’t go back to the hotel. I stayed in my horse trailer back by the barns at the arena, so I could be there with my baby. I love that mare more than life itself.”
Poster boys for my standing premise that if you have to go out of the 10-head average here, it’s best to do so straight out of the blocks were Round 2 team roping winners Dustin Bird and Russell Cardoza, who took the victory lap after a smokin’ 3.9-second run. Bird, who’s been fighting the flu since arriving in Cowboy Town, missed their first steer on opening night.
“It sucks to go out of the average here at all, but if you’re going to miss, it might as well be the first one,” Dustin said. “What I really hate is having 24 hours to think about it before getting to run another steer. After winning the round tonight, this next 24 hours will be a whole lot more pleasant than the last 24. I’ve been trying to forget that first run. Now I’ll be trying to soak this run in.”
Bird’s been backing in the box aboard his gray horse, Yahtzee. Russell’s been riding a bay mare by the name of Terra, who was a wedding present from his father-in-law, Northwest cowboy Sam Willis.
“Sam gave her to me when I married Sammy Jo in 2010,” Russell said. “She was only 5 back then. Best wedding present ever—by far.”
Rodeo has always been a family-first sport. It was a case of same song, Round-2 verse, when Canadian Tanner Milan took the steer wrestling victory lap after a snappy, 3.5-second run on his second steer. There are three Milan brothers, including Tanner, who’s the middle brother and is book-ended by big brother, Baillie, and baby brother, Straws, who was a 2013 NFR steer wrestling qualifier.
Tanner has Baillie over on the hazing side, which translates into banking on his first-born brother to literally keep his week—and steers—lined out here.
“Your hazer is critically important here and at every other rodeo,” Tanner said. “That’s the guy who sets up the whole run. Bottom line, if he’s not in the right position, you don’t catch your steer. Baillie’s hazed a million steers for me. We started out together when we were kids, and here we are. It gives me so much confidence not to have to second-guess where he’s going to be. With him over there, all I have to worry about is just doing my job.”