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
Re-ride – It’s a given for every rough-stock rider at a rodeo — at some point, they are going to have the option of a second competition or a re-ride.
With the best bucking stock here from nearly 60 different stock contractors, re-rides happen, but not very often. Any animal can have an off day and when it happens the judges are in charge of deciding whether the cowboy deserves another chance to get on.
Judges did just that in Round 6 for two saddle bronc riders, Heith DeMoss and Ryder Wright. Heith was the first one to get a re-ride when the horse he was riding turned around in the bucking chute as the gate was being opened and came out backward. He traded a 53.5-point score for an 84.5 to finish sixth in the round and get a check.
Four horses later the second re-ride of the night was awarded when Hell Boy of Bar T Rodeo stumbled on the third jump out of the bucking chutes. Ryder had the option of taking his score of 78.5 points or getting on another horse.
He chose the other horse and had to wait until the beginning of the bull riding to get on. Seven-time world champion all-around agrees with that decision. Always riding for first got him his gold buckles and even if he didn’t like the re-ride animal, he can’t remember a time when he didn’t take the re-ride.
The second horse that Ryder got on, 2 Cookies, from The Cervi Brothers Rodeo company had made one appearance in the Thomas and Mack Center this year. Jacobs Crawley had him in the first round and the horse didn’t have a stellar trip. An 81-point ride saw the seven-year-old gelding making his next trip as a re-ride option.
Ryder knew the horse could be good. Coburn Bradshaw, who is married to his aunt, Rebecca, won Round 9 on 2 Cookies last year with an 88. Ryder bested that with an 89-point effort. It was Ryder’s second time to win a round here this year and put his NFR earnings at $100,962, the most of any of the bronc riders.
“That’s a horse that seems to get better each time he is out,” Chuck Kite, flankman for the Cervis. “But, I didn’t expect this tonight. We drew really well.”
For the second time this year, there was a tie at the top for the bareback riding. I was surprised that it took both Clayton Biglow and J.R. Vezain six rounds to get a buckle but they each did it with style. Clayton rode Frontier Rodeo’s Night fist and J.R. got on Pickett Pro Rodeo’s Scarlet Belle.
J.R. has been here five times and has only won one round in all of those years. To top it off, when he did win, it was Round 10 and there was no victory lap or buckle presentation. I’ve watched both of these men ride since college. J.R. was the 2011 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association champion in 2011. Clayton finished second behind his traveling partner, Wyatt Denny, in 2016.
Clayton came into the NFR in third place and J.R. was right behind him in fourth. Last year, Clayton won over $94,000 here and expected this year to do even better.
“I can’t get frustrated because you are here riding with the best in the world,” Clayton said. “The locker room is so much fun, we all get along and you have to be really happy to be here competing with your friends. I’ve gotten on some great horses, but things just hadn’t gone the way I’d planned or hoped. There is so much money here and with four rounds to go, I’m not done.”
J.R. may not have won a round last year, but he also pocketed a good amount of money. He finished in a tie for second in the average with Jake Vold and earned a total of $85,308. Jake is in command of the average now with 515 points on six head. World standings leader dropped to third after an 81.5-point effort in the sixth round. It was the second night at this year’s NFR that he finished out of the money.
O’Connell still has the lead in the world standings with $271,570. He was $100,000 ahead of the rest of the field, but Jake Vold and Richmond Champion have narrowed that gap a little bit. They each have season earnings of over $178,000.
We saw Trey Benton come to the press room after winning Round 6 for the third time. He rode Rocky Mountain Rodeo’s, Bomb Pop, for 92.5 points, the highest marked ride at this year’s NFR so far. There is not a contestant in the Thomas and Mack Center that is more focused or determined than Trey.
Trey made three consecutive trips here starting in 2012. Then injuries and just not riding up to his potential saw him miss two years. In fact, he finished the 2016 season in 70th place. He came to Las Vegas for his friend and former world champion Cody Teele’s wedding last year and being a spectator at rodeo’s championships didn’t set well.
Trey is a rodeo fan. He also ropes calves and would really like to become completive in steer wrestling. If we’ve learned anything about this 26-year-old cowboy, it’s that if he says he’s going to do something, he’ll do it.
His career started out riding junior bulls at Mack Altizer’s Bad Company Rodeo Who’s Your Daddy Junior Bull Riding series. That gave him the confidence and foundation for his future.
“Mack had great bulls for kids starting out,” Trey said. “They were the kind you needed to learn on and he always encouraged all of us. That’s when I started believing I could have a career doing this.”
Trey has had to get back to those basics this year to be successful. After injuries and finishing low in the standings, he started a new workout regime with the help of Richmond Champion’s older brother, Doug, who competes in Ironman Triathlons. He has also gotten help from Shawn Scott, a chiropractor that works with the Justin Sportsmedicine Program, from Kingsland, Texas.
“I’ve changed everything,” Trey said. “I’ve worked so hard and come from the bottom up. It’s been a real personal learning experience. Adversity makes a man and no matter how hard it’s been I know I’m better because of it.”
That attitude has seen Trey add $115,346 to his season earnings. He leads the overall standings with 442.5 points on five bulls. Reigning champion and world standings leader, Sage Kimzey, is 10 points behind him.
They are making it a race to the finish.
Roping, Wrestling and Running – By Kendra Santos
It’s obvious that rodeo’s timed events rely pretty heavily on horsepower. Technically speaking, it’s the horses that deliver their cowboy and cowgirl counterparts to their desired destination in the winner’s circle. But you’ll never hear one of this sport’s elite refer to his or her four-footed partner as mere transportation.
Texas A&M grad Hailey Kinsel has won more than any man thus far at the 2017 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and she’s the first to point out that she literally could not have done it without a four-footed blonde bomber by the name of Sister.
“This horse is like my sister, if not my kid,” said Hailey, 23, of Sister, 6. “We have a very close connection. We’re joined at the hip, and I care about her more than I care about me.”
Kinsel is clearly having a blast, having already taken two victory laps, the first in an NFR-record 13.11 seconds in Round 3, and the second after a 13.49-second run in Round 6. It’s tough to tell which one of them loves it more, so let’s just call it a tie.
“At 7:20 every night I get her out and saddle her, and she starts fidgeting,” Hailey said. “Right before I get on her at 7:40, I take her halter off and put her bridle on. The moment I put that bit in her mouth, she’s instantly calm, happy and ready to go. That’s how I know this horse loves her job.
“I’m thrilled. I can’t say I’m surprised that she’s shown up and done her job here this week. Every time I give her the opportunity, she floors it. I knew if we made the runs we’ve been making all year we would clock. It’s so exciting that that’s been the case.”
I was sitting with ProRodeo Hall of Fame steer wrestler Ote Berry—who kicked off the five-day run of the inaugural Ote Berry’s Junior Steer Wrestling World Championship over at the Convention Center’s Junior NFR on Tuesday—during the big man’s event. It’s been such a great big blast getting the commentary of living legends like four-time Champ of the World Ote and his great friend, three-time world titlist and fellow hall of famer Steve Duhon here this week.
“Great horse change,” were Ote’s exact words when the flag dropped on Utah’s Baylor Roche’s 3.6-second run in Round 6.
Baylor rode 2013 and 2015 World Champion Steer Wrestler Hunter Cure’s trusty sorrel steed Charlie in the first five rounds, but just hadn’t gotten his NFR party started. So with Cure’s blessing, he made a move to 2012 NFR qualifier Tom Lewis’ horse Maverick, the same horse that helped Canadian Tanner Milan win Rounds 2 and 5. NFR steer wrestler Matt Reeves continued handling the hazing chores in the transition.
“Hunter won both of his world titles on Charlie, and he’s great in this building,” Baylor said. “I won a bunch on Charlie when I was traveling with Hunter this fall, and they’ve had so much success on him here at the Thomas & Mack. But I’d had five chances, and it was just time to try something else to try and salvage the rest of the week. I’d ridden Tom’s horse before, too, and he’s really good in the corner, which let me focus on what I need to do—and that’s win.”
It would be easy to assume that Hunter may have been mad about Baylor’s decision, in part because the owner of a borrowed horse gets a cut of what’s won on his back. But Cure was actually in this particular prescription for success.
“It was fairly obvious that I had to change something, and Hunter’s a businessman,” Baylor said. “I traveled with him all fall, and plan to travel with him again next year. We talked about it, and he blessed me making a move. After what happened tonight, how could I not be happy with this decision?”
Tie-down roper Marty Yates was fired up with frustration after breaking the barrier on opening night. But being behind the eight-ball straight out of the blocks fueled the go-for-broke in the gut of young Yates, 23, who struck for a second straight trip to the South Point go-round buckle presentations in Round 6.
Ironically, Marty won Round 5 with two full wraps and a hooey, and thought the couple of extra tenths it took to take that second insurance wrap was well worth it. The renowned gambler then turned his back on caution in Round 6, going just “one time,” a move reflected in the fastest time of the rodeo at 6.9.
“I knew that calf tonight was awesome on the ground,” said Yates, who’s riding a bay horse he calls Buster. “She was the doozie. Cade (Swor) had her in the third round, and figure-eighted her tail (not a clean catch, which causes delays down the line in the run) and was still 7.9. I knew she wasn’t going to go anywhere (to try and kick free in the six seconds that must pass after the flag drops to get a qualified time), and it was all coming together so fast that I decided to go on with it.
“After pow wowing with Cade, I planned on taking that gamble when I was making my game plan for the night. We both felt like it was a risk worth taking, and that it really wasn’t that big a risk on that calf. I’m still only eighth in the average (which will be paid for the fastest total time on 10 runs on Saturday night, and has a huge impact on the final gold-buckle outcomes), and that’s not enough for what I want.”
Like every other contestant here in Cowboy Town, Yates has his sights set on the ultimate cowboy crown—the gold buckle that comes with the world title.
For the second night in a row, Round 6 turned out two teams as co-champs in the team roping event. This time, it was Washington brothers Riley and Brady Minor, and 2015 Resistol Rookie Header of the Year Cody Snow and two-time and defending National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association team roping titlist Wesley Thorp.
We’ve seen brother teams in years past, and they often ended up feeling like the pressure was just too great. A lot of them ended up preferring to put their bond as brothers ahead of their team roping partnership. But Brothers Minor believe their brotherhood is an advantage in their particular case.
“I like roping with my brother, because we can tell each other how it is and hold nothing back,” Riley said. “We don’t have anything to hide from each other. We can cuss each other like all brothers do, then two minutes later it’s all good and we’re an even stronger team because we’ve got it all out there on the table. We’ve practiced together and lived right there by each other all our lives, and that makes it practical to practice together all the time, too.”
Big brother Brady agrees.
“I think we have a big advantage, because we don’t see any pressure there,” he said. “Riley and I know each other better than typical partners. I actually feel less pressure roping with my little brother than anyone else. When we don’t do good we don’t dwell on it. Win, lose or draw, we’re still brothers. And that matters more than what we do out there in that arena.”
Snow, 21, and Thorp, 22, had been uncharacteristically snakebit in the early going, blanked in the first five rounds and failing to stop the clock four straight nights before breaking through in Round 6 with a smoking 3.7-second blitz.
Cody leaned on some of his heading elders, including two-time World Champion Header Matt Sherwood, 2015 World Champ Aaron Tsinigine and longtime NFR header Daniel Green.
“I’ve been talking to those guys, and they all told me to quit making such a big deal about it, stop worrying about breaking the barrier and just go rope,” Snow said. “We make that run all the time at the house, so we just went out there and had fun tonight. We’ve just been making it harder than it is. You have to show up every night here thinking you’re going to win, no matter what’s gone on before.”
What a relief to them, their family, friends and fans to see the tide turn in their favor.
“We had a few bad breaks and some bad luck the first five nights,” Wesley said. “We were both very frustrated, but we also realized that some fluke things had been happening. Bert (Cody’s head horse; he actually made the move to his buckskin mare Annie in Round 5) stumbled one night, Cody got his horse’s mane caught in the dally one night, and one steer jumped straight up in the air right out of the chute in another round. Freak things just kept throwing our timing off.
“Cody and I both know if we make our run it’s fast enough to win money. I’ll admit I was freaking out. But we knew we still had a legit chance at good money, and that there’s no place we’d rather be than right here in Las Vegas this week.”