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
Some amazing things happened at this year’s NFR and round 4 was no exception. A three-year-old bull was the best of the night while a seasoned bucking horse took the youngest NFR competitor to the win. And, then in the bareback riding we saw a veteran get his first buckle here and celebrate his grandfather’s birthday.
Trey Benton rode his fourth bull in the Thomas and Mack Center and took the round win all by himself. He had tied for the win in round 2.
Trey is four for four and is the lone contestant who could potentially ride all 10. Last night’s bulls were supposedly the semi-rank pen but with just three riders making the buzzer that could be argued.
An Andrews bull that is just three years old took Trey to the pay window for $33,564. Since there were only three bull riders with qualified rides, the remaining prize money was divided between them. In the rodeo world we call that Ground Money and this year for the first time, it counts in the world standings.
Each round here pays six places. Since there were only three rides, each of those riders got an extra $6,769. Before the PRCA Board of Directors made the decision to have this money count, they went back in history to see how it would affect the end results. Places were still the same, but money earnings were definitely different. It is a definite reward for those that last the eight seconds and it is making this year’s world title race very interesting.
The first time Trey won a round (in 2013) it was aboard another bull from the famed Sammy Andrews rodeo string. Randy Corley and Flint Rasmussen joked with Sammy during the buckle ceremony at the South Point Hotel and Casino Dance Hall that all of his livestock including horses go back to Bodacious, who is quite possibly the most notorious bull in the history of bull riding.
While that obviously isn’t true, Mo Money, that Trey won the round on is part of the Bodacious lineage and it is because of bulls like him that Sammy and his company got the Remuda Award this year from the bull riders as having the best herd.
“We try really hard to have bulls that aren’t necessarily easy to ride, but that can get a guy in the money if he does,” Sammy said. They have six bulls at this year’s NFR.
Trey has moved from sixth to third in the world standings and after Sage Kimzey bucked off in Round 4, has a solid lead in the average. Garrett Smith, who is in second place suffered a knee injury in the third round. He is toughing it out and while he can still ride, it’s painful to watch his get off and see him limp out of the arena.
Last year, Ryder Wright won the first four rounds. This year, Round 4, was his first win. He got on a horse that the family is very familiar with, Pony Man, from Stace Smith Pro Rodeo. Three weeks ago, Stace had surgery for a broken pelvis, so he is home watching on television with his crew in charge here.
Terry Autrey, stock manager and flankman for Stace was excited when he found out that Ryder would be getting on their gelding that they purchased after they watched him perform at the Stace Smith World Bronc Futurity in Las Vegas several years ago.
In 2009, Spencer Wright, Ryder’s uncle, rode Pony Man for a fourth-place finish on the way to the world title. In 2014, Cody Wright, Ryder’s dad, rode the horse for 81 points at Cheyenne Frontier Days. That ride has been the wallpaper on Terry’s phone up until yesterday. He now plans to have a picture of Ryder come up every time he looks at his phone.
Previous experience from family members probably helped Ryder on Sunday night.
“I told him to be sure and pull his back cinch as far back as he could and make sure it was tight,” Cody said. “That horse has some moves that make it feel like your saddle is moving out ahead of you, and it’s not a good feeling when your saddle gets ahead and you get behind.”
Ryder moved up to fourth in the world standings and with the $26,231 he won last night has already earned over $72,000 here. The average is in the hands of CoBurn Bradshaw, who is married to his aunt, Rebecca.
It only took Ty Breuer 34 horses to get a round win in the Thomas and Mack Center and for this ranch-raised cowboy it couldn’t have come at a better time. His grandfather, Ed Breuer, was on hand to witness his 90.5-point ride on Brookman Rodeo’s Risky Business.
Ty’s wife Kelli was in the stands and their babysitter was watching on television. When she saw Ty’s ride, she sent a quick text to Kelli that she was getting their new baby ready for the buckle ceremony. Kelli had their daughter, Kayd, on Nov. 9th so four generations were represented on stage. And it was really special for Ty’s grandpa because yesterday was his birthday.
The horse had plenty of moves and as a home raised youngster, the Brookman family members have a lot to be proud of. Their breeding program goes back through four family generations. LaTasha Wieiferich, great-grandaughter of the late Marvin Brookman is in charge of young horses at their Montana Ranch. She is a student at Sheridan (Wyoming) College and took a little time away from school to come to the NFR.
“I’m leaving tomorrow, so this couldn’t have happened at a better time,” she said. “Those are my babies out there and I get so excited to see them perform. I was screaming and crying at the same time.”
I’m confident those were happy happy tears.
Roping, Wrestling and Running – By Kendra Santos
Rodeo is typically a family tradition, handed down from one generation to the next. A couple of young guns who took victory laps in Round 4 are starting traditions of their own, as first-generation rodeo cowboys. Both have banked on the friendly, welcoming spirit at the heart of the cowboy sport, which is inclusive instead of exclusive. Everyone is welcome, and when the elders see kids coming up with extra work ethic and try, they take them in and treat them as one of their own.
Tie-down roper Cooper Martin, 20, is from the tiny town of Alma, Kansas. The closest his kin before him came to being cowboys was Grandpa Gary on his mom’s side, who ranch-rodeoed a little in his younger years. Cooper caught the cowboy bug early—at 8—when family friend Monty Dyer, who was a left-handed calf roper, let him tag along to a roping.
From there, renowned tie-down roping horse trainer Junior Lewis took young Cooper under his tutelage. After Lewis died of cancer, have-piggin’-string-will-travel Cooper moved on to Missouri, where Roy Durfey groomed him during his high school years. Roy’s the dad of defending World Champion Tie-Down Roper Tyson Durfey.
“I asked for a roping arena for my 10th birthday,” said Cooper, who took the Round-4 victory lap right after his smoking 7.6-second run. “My wish came true, and we got a portable arena.”
Martin’s most recent game changer is a sorrel horse he bought from two-time NFR qualifying Texan Reese Riemer last May. Payday’s a little long in the tooth at 17, but that extra experience on the equine side is something a lot of NFR veterans have leaned on over the years.
“I placed at three rodeos when I was trying him,” Cooper said. “I only had $12,000 won in May when I bought him, but after Cheyenne (Wyoming) in July I had $70,000 won. Once I knew he was working good here at the Thomas & Mack, it made it simple. All I have to do is rope ’em and go tie ’em down. When you’re comfortable, you’re confident. And when you’re confident, it’s easy.”
Steer wrestler J.D. Struxness, 23, isn’t exactly from the heart of rodeo country in Appleton, Minn. J.D.’s dad, Dan, rodeoed a little back when he was in high school. It was J.D.’s big sisters he followed into the rodeo arena.
“I’m a first-generation rodeo cowboy, but I probably won’t be the last,” said J.D., who worked his way up the rodeo ranks by taking advantage of all the opportunities available in youth rodeo today, which now includes the Junior NFR over at Cowboy Christmas at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
J.D. was a four-time qualifier for the National High School Rodeo Association Finals, and in 2015 won the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association steer wrestling championship while rodeoing for Northwestern Oklahoma State in Alva. He’s six hours away from graduating with a degree agriculture, with a minor in animal science.
All the way back in junior high, J.D. was quite the all-around hand, competing in chute dogging, ribbon roping, boys goat tying, tie-down roping and team roping. By high school, he narrowed his field of focus down to the three standard timed events in professional rodeo—steer wrestling, team roping and tie-down roping. J.D. now concentrates exclusively on the big man’s event, though he uses so many lessons learned along the way in the others to his competitive advantage.
“Rodeo’s stepping stones helped me a lot,” he said. “You learn as you go, and by the time you’re in college you’ve learned to be independent and take care of your own business.”
J.D.’s rodeo coach in Alva is seven-time NFR steer wrestler Stockton Graves. J.D. bought that sorrel horse he’s riding here—Peso, 14—from Coach Graves and 2017 NFR bulldogger Jon Ragatz a year ago. Naturally, Stockton’s expertise in J.D.’s main event was a draw when deciding which college to attend.
“I knew he knew what I needed to do to make it,” said J.D., who won four of 10 rounds here in Las Vegas last year. “Because he’s been where I want to be. What Stockton’s helped me the most with is the mental side, where to go and who to go with. There’s a lot more to being a professional bulldogger than just wrestling steers.”
Amberleigh Moore and her best friend and brown bomber Paige struck again in Round 4 for their second win of the week. They are now batting .500—which might be even more meaningful than the same number on the baseball diamond, given this year’s phenomenal barrel horse herd.
Barrel racing aficionados always find it extra impressive when the victory lap is taken by a horse and rider running “on the bottom of the ground,” as they say. It’s almost always an advantage to go first and “on the top of the ground,” when the track is typically fastest. You’ll notice that most barrel racers here this week head to the right barrel first. Amberleigh and Paige found fresher tracks on their trail less traveled to the left.
“Being a lefty is an advantage,” said Amberleigh, who was 13th of 15 to run in the round. “I just thank Paige for taking care of us tonight. She has so much heart and loves it so much that she always just seems to find a way to win.”
After going out of the average dance on opening night, Luke Brown and Jake Long came back swinging and struck for the second straight night with the 4.1-second team roping win in Round 4, this time sharing center stage at the South Point buckle ceremony with the kid and the veteran, 2016 Resistol Rookie Header of the Year Dustin Egusquiza, 22, and 21-time National Finalist Kory Koontz.
On paper, Dustin and Kory would have to be about the oddest cowboy couple here. By the time Dustin was born in 1995, Kory had already roped at four Finals in a row. But there’s no glimpse of a generation gap here.
“Dustin likes old, classic country, and that’s my favorite music, too,” grins Kory—who’s best known to his cowboy friends as Dawg—a guy everyone puts on the short list of best-evers never to win a gold buckle (yet).
At 22 and 46, respectively, Kory’s more than twice Dustin’s age. But Dustin sees Kory as wise, not old.
“I’d rather have a veteran roping behind me than another young guy,” said Dustin, the team’s heading quarterback. “Kory’s been in every situation there is—most more than once. It’s nice to have a guy you can count on back there, and I know if I do my job Kory will do his.”
“Realistically, I guess there is literally a generation gap,” Kory added. “But age is just a number, and I still feel young at heart. We’re good friends. I think Dustin kind of looks up to me as a father figure in some ways, but as partners we’re equals. I don’t try to father him or talk down to him. I respect him, and that’s a good start in any relationship. We share a common goal, and that’s the business of roping for a living.”
Dustin’s earned his renowned reputation as a risk-taking, gun-slinging reacher. That makes a strong, consistent closer like Koontz very valuable on his home team.
“If I really reach at one and don’t set him up just right, Kory’s smart enough to get him caught—whatever it takes—without panicking,” Dustin said. “And when things go bad, there’s never any feeling of him being angry. He gives me advice, but the main thing is he always has a positive attitude. We aren’t the same age, but me and Kory both have calm minds. We can do bad—like we did for two months straight this summer—and neither of us freaks out.”
Kory’s advice to Dustin when Dustin took them out of the average with a swing and a miss on opening night was similar to what Luke said to Jake when the same thing happened to them in Round 1: Don’t back down.
“You have to stay aggressive roping in this little building, because if you back off and get out late at the barrier the wheels fall off pretty fast,” Kory said. “When you start off behind the eight-ball by being late out of the box at this one, the dominos fall and you’re done.”
Kory’s lost track of his number of NFR round wins, and he’s given most of his go-round buckles away to family, friends and fans. He knows by now just how easy it is to make someone’s day, and that means more to him than any material possession, trophy buckles included.
“I can’t say how many rounds I’ve won here over the years, but I do know I have one NFR average buckle,” he said. “I won the average here 20 years ago with Bret Boatright in 1997. It was the last year I rode Iceman (Kory’s renowned for his legendary rides).”
Back to Dustin and Kory’s differences, they basically borrow each other’s best, because it makes them stronger as a team.
“He brings an attitude of enthusiasm,” Kory said. “He’s a go-getter with a ton of talent and big dreams to try to win a world championship. He makes me want to work harder to make sure I can keep up with him.”