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.
Roping, Wrestling and Running – By Kendra Santos
Cowboy coincidence? I think not. There are much more fitting explanations for the fast and furious runs that lit up the timed-event end of the Thomas & Mack Center Arena during Round 3: Horsepower and the best version of amnesia.
The horses are half the score in the bucking-horse events, and that scale tips even more dramatically in the horses’ favor in the timed events. Anyone who saw the super-sized scoreboard at steer wrestling’s end listing the Round 3 steer wrestling results saw that 2017 American Quarter Horse Association/PRCA Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year delivered a one-two-three-four punch to sweep the leaderboard.
Alabama Slamma Kyle Irwin delivered the 3.4-second run of the rodeo, and was followed closely by world leader Ty Erickson; winningest bulldogger in the early going here, Tyler Pearson, who’s already cashed $67,115 in NFR ’17 checks; and defending World Champion Steer Wrestler Tyler Waguespack, who split the fourth slot with Baylor Roche.
“What Scooter did here tonight shows this horse’s heart and character more than anything,” said Kyle, who co-owns Scooter with Pearson. “It takes a special kind of horse to perform in this arena. To be of the caliber to compete here once is good. Scooter’s success tonight makes me more proud than anything I did. He gets all the credit.”
Kyle, Tyler Pearson and Waguespack hit the post-rodeo buckle awards presentation wolfpack-style, so I pulled each one aside and asked him to describe Scooter in a word. Irwin called him “outstanding.” Pearson and Wag both said, “easy”—out of each other’s ear shot and without pause.
“When a horse does his job, all you have to do is yours,” Kyle said. “The horse makes all the difference. So many times when you see someone struggle it’s because he’s having horse problems.”
This equine dream-team ditty doesn’t end there. Pearson’s gray hazing horse, Metallica, has his hands full here times five, as in addition to Kyle, Tyler, Tyler and Ty, he’s also handling the hazing chores for Finals freshman Rowdy Parrott.
“The hazing horse is just as important as the bulldogging horse, if not more,” Kyle explained. “The start is so quick here that when the bulldogger nods, he’s gone. The hazer can’t leave until after that nod, and if the hazing horse can’t keep up, it’s trouble. When you’re hazing, you’re late from the get-go. There’s a lot of pressure for the horse and the hazer over there on that other side, because if they’re not in the right place at the right time, that’s when you see steer wrestlers crash and burn.”
This week’s NFR barrel racing event is sorting itself out as somewhat of a Sister Act sequel. Nellie Williams Miller rode her blue-roan AQHA/Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Barrel Racing Horse of the Year Sister to the Round-1 win, and Hailey Kinsel and her blonde bomber horse, Sister, stormed the cloverleaf pattern for a shiny, new NFR record of 13.11 seconds in Round 3.
Kinsel and Sister are both at the extreme young end of the age spectrum here this year at 23 and 6, respectively, and the NFR record is right in line with their epic 2017 season. They won The American in Dallas for $433,333.34, and in June captured the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association crown in Casper, Wyoming, not long after Hailey graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in ag economics, finance and real estate.
Hailey and Sister shared The American’s million-dollar spotlight three ways with bull rider Sage Kimzey and saddle bronc rider Cody DeMoss, who each won checks worth $433,333.33. “Sage and Cody said I should get that extra penny because I have a horse to haul,” Hailey said, still laughing about her cowboy counterparts’ generous gesture.
There are so many horse stories with humble beginnings here this week, and this one is no exception. Hailey and her mom, former Miss Rodeo Texas, Lesli Kinsel, bought Sister at an auction when she was just a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 2-year-old.
“We rode her on the ranch for a couple years and let her grow up,” Lesli said, speaking of Sister so adoringly that it’s as if she’s her second daughter.
It’s astounding to think that Sister’s first-ever rodeo performance was earlier this year at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver.
“Yes, we’re still seasoning her,” Hailey said, giggling at the irony that a horse who’s still technically “green” on the experience gauge now owns the record at Rodeo’s Super Bowl. “This horse has completely flipped my life upside down. You don’t know what they’re capable of until they lay it down. The horses are everything, and if you don’t have a great one, you don’t have a career. This horse has exceeded and expedited all my expectations and dreams. The only explanation I can come up with for this is that it’s God’s timing.”
We surely should not leave the Round 3 barrel racing notes before giving Hailey’s fellow Texan Kassie Mowry, and Martha and Jeff Smith’s buckskin horse Junior a shout-out for their snazzy, second-place run of 13.36 seconds, which also bested the previous 13.37-second NFR record shared by Taylor Jacob and her beloved buckskin Bo in 2013, and Amberleigh Moore and Paige in 2016.
Like the humans who straddle the saddles on their backs, the great horses love their job. And it shows. As two-time World Champion Barrel Racer Kelly Kaminski reminisced about her once-in-a-lifetime steed Rocky a couple nights ago, “They have to love it to be big-time winners. Rocky loved it so much that I’d take him to barrel races and tie him to the trailer after I retired him, just so he could still be a part of it. He’d see me getting ready to go, and I could read his mind. He was like, ‘Take me, take me!!’ I swear, he would have loaded himself if he could have.”
Tie-down roper Timber Moore is closing in on a million dollars in career earnings, and there’s a good chance that he wouldn’t trade that cool million for his four-footed partner, 2016 AQHA/PRCA Tie-Down Roping Horse of the Year Colonel. This is Timber’s sixth NFR, and he and Colonel’s victory lap in Round 3 was their first ever. The first roper out on Saturday night turned in the fastest run of the rodeo so far in 7.1 seconds.
“This one’s for Colonel, and my success is thanks to Colonel,” Timber said. “Horsepower makes or breaks you. If you don’t have a great horse, you don’t have a chance.”
Timber’s slow start this week—he was blanked in the first two rounds—was nothing next to the devastation of not winning a dime at last year’s NFR.
“I came into last year’s NFR second in the world with high hopes and won zero,” he said. “After the first two rounds here this week, I started having flashbacks of last year. It looked like things were headed south again. I’m pumped to finally get the monkey off my back, turn things around and get my first go-round buckle. I show up every night thinking I have a great chance. I have a lot of confidence in my horse, and I know how to be fast, but I hadn’t put it all together here. Finally.
“Every cowboy has a bad month now and then. What gets bad is when it snowballs the wrong way. I’ve had bad Decembers, and there’s only one rodeo in December. It just happens to be the biggest one we’ve got.”
Still, the sportsman in this horseman lent a huge helping hand to fellow NFR tie-down roper and friend Hunter Herrin here in 2016. Timber let Hunter ride Colonel, and he had a super successful, $112,575 week to finish third in the world behind Tyson Durfey and Marcos Costa.
Luke Brown and Jake Long were pretty proud of their horse herd—Luke’s flashy palomino ride Rockstar and Jake’s two-time and reigning AQHA/PRCA Heel Horse of the Year Colonel—as they lapped the arena in celebratory style after their Round 3-winning, 3.9-second run.
“Horsepower is huge, and knowing your horse is even more important than having the best horse here,” is Luke’s strong opinion. “He doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as you know what he’s going to do.”
Jake agrees, though he sure doesn’t hold Colonel’s dominance against him. “It might not be mandatory, but if you can have the best horse, that’s obviously a big advantage,” he said. “If you know every step your horse is going to take it gives you a lot more confidence. It’s a whole lot easier to execute when you know what’s coming.”
Then there’s the art of the comeback—a vital component to every professional rodeo contestant’s repertoire. As the winningest cowboy of all time and 2017 world championship all-around race front-runner Trevor Brazile always tells me, “You have to have a very short memory to make it in this business.”
Like Timber, this was Luke and Jake’s first check of the week. And the no-time they took on opening night when Jake’s heel loop failed to connect was a low blow, especially for Jake after missing their last steer here last year cost them both their first gold buckles.
“I left here last December with a mix of emotions—disappointed that I didn’t come through in the clutch, which is something I’ve always been good at—and on the other hand happy that we won a lot of money ($123,596 apiece),” Jake said. “Needless to say, there were some negative emotions flowing when I missed our first steer here this week. But you have to figure out how to pull it back together. There’s just too much money to win at a $10 million rodeo not to.”
Bulls, Bares and Saddle Broncs – by Susan Kanode
There are few times in the rough-stock riding when a stock contractor is admittedly more nervous than the competitors. Round 3 at the 2017 NFR was one of those times.
When the random draw put the reigning world champion bareback rider against the world champion horse, Vern McDonald was excited, but nervous. Vern owns C5 Rodeo and they have the pleasure of bucking their great horse, Virgil, at rodeo’s across the country.
Virgil, a nine-year-old gray gelding, was voted as the best bareback horse of 2017 in the PRCA and the Canadian Pro Rodeo Association. Last night he showed rodeo fans around the world what got him there.
They draw the animals for the next round each night after the rodeo. Tim O’Connell was at dinner when he found out he was going to get on Virgil. It was an answer to prayer for both parties. Last night’s bareback riders and bull riders faced the “rank” pen. Virgil fits in that pen as a bucker trying to get a cowboy off his back, but the powerful animal doesn’t have any dirty tricks, he just bucks.
“I was so nervous last night,” Vern said. “You pray for matchups like that one as contractors. But then I get really nervous just hoping that he didn’t have a misstep. I don’t know why I get so nervous because he has never had a bad trip, and I mean never.”
Meanwhile, Tim was anxiously awaiting the eight-second ride with a peace knowing that he’d done everything he could to prepare for moments like this. When the judges in the Thomas and Mack Center added up the scores, Tim had a 91.5 by his name and was headed to the South Point.
“When I was getting ready to get on, I just knew something really special was about to happen,” Tim said. “It was a fight the whole way and I knew at any given moment he could buck me off. I think it was the best ride of my entire career.”
Earlier in the day, Vern got a special phone call that predicted the night’s success. His phone rang and he thought it was his daughter. It was actually his three-year-old grandson who is learning to talk. When Vern answered he heard that precious voice say, “Virgil win.”
That was the fifth time that a 91.5 score has come up on the scoreboard in the history of the NFR. The last time a score that high was recorded was in 2008 when Bobby Mote did it twice.
“A world champion on a world champion at the NFR,” Tim commented. “That’s hard to top, especially when it works out the way it did.”
Tim remains in the lead for a second-consecutive gold buckle. With the round win last night, his season earnings are $264,800. He has nearly a $100,000 lead over the rest of the field.
Two nights ago, we saw a disappointed Jacobs Crawley make his way back to the bucking chutes after missing his horse out. He quickly put that behind him and started preparing for the third round.
Jacobs’ days are filled with phone calls and meetings along with sponsor obligations. And there is that new baby boy that is just a month old that he can’t get enough time with. He is the saddle bronc riding director for the PRCA, so his obligations at this year’s NFR outside of the arena are different than they have been in his past six trips to Las Vegas.
He came into the Thomas and Mack Center as the world standings leader, but after two missed opportunities, that position is in jeopardy. He helped his quest for a second gold buckle significantly with a Round 2 win on Sutton Rodeos’ horse named South Point. Jacobs went over $200,000 for the season thanks to an 87.5-point ride.
So, he rode a horse named South Point and got to take his family including wife, Lauren, and son, Coley Deane, to the ballroom at the South Point Hotel and Casino for the buckle presentations after the rodeo.
The Suttons named the horse after the South Point because owner, Michael Gaughan, has done so much for rodeo. They would know. The Suttons received the Donita Barnes Contract Personnel Lifetime Achievement Award for their involvement in rodeo last week.
Their livestock has been selected to perform at 56 out of 58 times the NFR has been held. It has been going on for six generations and five of them were on hand for the buckle presentation.
“That horse is pretty interesting,” Jacobs said. “I saw him in the bareback riding at the Champions Challenge in Sioux Falls (South Dakota) one night and in the saddle bronc riding the next.”
Jacobs encouraged the Suttons to put him on the list for potential saddle bronc horses at this year’s NFR. It was a good decision for all of them.
We’ve been waiting for three nights to see Sage Kimzey in the press room as the round winner. He made that trip after round 3, but it wasn’t alone. Once again, it was the rank pen that put 10 of the fifteen riders in the dirt.
Sage split the win with NFR rookie Cole Melancon. They each had 91.5-point rides to earn $26,231. Sage’s success came aboard Rafter H Rodeo Livestock’s Nose Bender. Cole rode Smith, Harper& Morgan’s Hot And Ready.
I was especially pleased to see Cole getting a buckle. I watched him win a lot last winter, then he split time between college rodeo, the PRCA and Championship Bull Riding events. He finished the 2016/2017 National Collegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) season as their champion for Hill College in Hillsboro, Texas.
What made the win even more fun for fans of college rodeo, the reigning barrel racing champion, Hailey Kinsel also won the third round. Hailey and Cole both competed in the Southern Region of the NIRA and were both excited for their wins here.
There hasn’t been a bull rider successful on all 10 of their bulls at the NFR since Adriano Moraes did that in 1994 and it has only happened a total of three times. Jim Sharp was the first in 1988, then Norman Curry did it again in 1990.
Two bull riders are on track to ride for 80 seconds this year. Kimzey has ridden all three as well as Trey Benton who leads the overall standings by 5.5 points. I think another bull rider could add his name to the list of 80-second riders this week.