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
When a talented cowboy gets on a great bucking horse mare and rides her right—magic happens. At least it did on Thursday night at the NFR in the saddle bronc riding.
Ryder Wright rode her right and collected his third go-round win of the week. The horse, Show Me Again, came from Wyoming’s Powder River Rodeo and not only took Ryder to a 92-point score, she got the Wrangler Bucking Stock Award for the night, which goes to the animal that receives the highest score.
At 19-years-old, Ryder is the youngest competitor at this year’s NFR. And, this is the second year he has had that distinction. Last year, he had the crowd on the edge of their seats after he won the first four rounds. There was a collective sigh when the unthinkable happened and he bucked off in round five.
He has admitted that after a great beginning, he struggled to finish the 2016 NFR. This year has been entirely different. In Round 2, he came off early, but other than that his performance has been outstanding. Not only has he won three rounds this year, that Round 2 mishap is the only time he didn’t get a check.
He is in first place for the RAM Truck Top Gun Award and nothing would make the family happier than for him to have a new truck for his brother, dad, and uncles to load up in to start the 2018 season. Well, except perhaps a gold buckle.
With his win last night, Ryder took over the number one spot in the world standings. But, having the highest total score on 10 means winning the NFR average. That pays eight places and Ryder is currently sixth. CoBurn Bradshaw, who is married to Ryder’s aunt, Rebecca, leads the average race and is sitting third in the world standings. The odds are pretty good that this year’s gold buckle will go to Utah.
Ryder’s 92 on Show Me Again was a record for the eighth round and just one-point shy of the arena record set by Billy Etbauer twice, in 2003 and 2004. Ryder told the PRCA that he lit up like a Christmas tree when he looked up and saw the score. It was the first time in his career that he had a 90-point ride.
It takes a horse too. Show Me Again is a blaze-faced sorrel mare that is a product of Hank and Lori Franzen’s breeding program. Her legacy goes back to a mare named Showgirl that is now 24-years-old and has produced seven NFR horses.
“I stood up and was jumping around,” Lori said. “I’m sure all the people around me thought I was crazy, but I was so excited. This is her first time here and she was just phenomenal.”
While Lori was in the stands watching, Hank was behind the bucking chutes and was equally happy. It was the second time that one of their horses took Ryder to the South Point for a buckle. Lipstick N Whiskey took Ryder and his dad, Cody, to round wins last year.
“It just means so much,” Hank said of the win. “These animals are close to our hearts. They are our family members – four-legged ones, but still members of the family. We knew that Ryder would handle her and get a big score. It’s very exciting.”
Thursday at the NFR is traditionally Canada night, honoring our neighbors to the north, the contestants and stock contractors that are such an important part of the sport. It started with Wayne Vold singing their National Anthem.
Canadian flags flew in the Thomas and Mack Center for their contestants despite disappointing results. Manitoba’s Orin Larsen had a 75.5-point score and failed to get a check. Jake Vold, from Ponoka, Alberta, had been leading the average, but an injury during his ride kept him from getting on a re-ride horse and fall to 10th. Now, they are waiting to see if he will be able to finish out the last two rounds.
Steer wrestling went a little better for the Canadians, but the team roping was disastrous for Jeremy Buhler, the reigning world champion heeler from Arrowood, Alberta. Saddle bronc riding saw Clay Elliott from Nanton, Alberta, get his first check here this year with a third-place finish. Zeke Thurston and Layton Green both came down early.
When it was time for the bull riding, Canadians had one more opportunity and this one didn’t disappoint. Jordan Hansen grew up dreaming of riding bulls in the famed yellow bucking chutes at the NFR. Those dreams came true this year and even though it has taken him a little time to find his groove, he capped off Canada Night with a round win that had fans near and far cheering.
Jordan rode a bull named Tequila owned by Corey and Lange Rodeo. He was one of four men to make it to the whistle and finished at the top of the leaderboard with an 86-point ride. He added $28,981 to his earnings bringing his NFR total up to nearly $70,000.
He is riding with a patch on his vest for friend and fellow bull rider, Ty Pozzobon, who took his own life last January. For Jordan, it’s a way to have his friend riding with him and a constant reminder of how difficult the sport is and of the affects of concussions.
At 5’9” and 170 pounds, Jordan is one of the bigger bull riders in this year’s field. That size was an advantage riding a bull like Tequila.
“He’s a bigger bull,” Mike Corey said. “Jordan has seen him a lot and I think that they fit each other. I’m really tickled.”
Sage Kimzey bucked off his second bull of the week. He still leads the world standings and the average. He and Joe Frost each have ridden six bulls and while Sage is nearly uncatchable for the world title, the average buckle and saddle are still up for grabs.
Richmond Champion and Hi Lo Pro Rodeo both got their second NFR go-round buckles on Thursday. Richmond tied for the win in Round 2 with Tanner Aus. He is second in the average. Just a half-point behind world standings leader and reigning gold buckle owner Tim O’Connell.
Richie is having the time of his life. He has won $103,853 so far, compared to just $60,000 last year. It is his third trip to Las Vegas to compete at rodeo’s championships and last night’s win was icing on the cake for his season.
The horse he rode, Pretty Woman is a half sister to the horse that took Hardy Braden to the saddle bronc riding win in round 7. This one also came from Garden City, Kansas, rodeo coach Jim Boy Hash and is reportedly named after his wife.
“That horse is sassy,” Richie said. “She bucked so hard, my vest came open. She’s smaller than the other horses in that pen, but she makes up for that. She is a bucking little dude. She kept changing leads and kept bringing it. She is one of those horses that gets stronger as she goes.”
Dustin Murray, general manager for Hi Lo Pro Rodeo is a former bareback rider and has had high hopes for the mare since they got her. They had her at Cheyenne Frontier Days two years ago. She was in the bronc riding and he got Richie to come watch her then.
“Having Dustin behind the chutes was huge,” Richie added. “I kept hearing him in my ear saying, ‘You’re good, you’re good,’ and that helped me settle down and do my job.”
The win was even more special for the champion family as Richie’s paternal grandparents just got to Las Vegas Thursday. It is their first time for them to come to the NFR, and for them to get here and see him take that victory lap and go to the buckle ceremony at the South Point made for special memories.
Roping, Wrestling and Running – By Kendra Santos
The color purple has a special spot in rodeo’s heart. It was the passionate signature shade of the legendary nine-time World Champion Cowboy Casey Tibbs, who lit up rodeo arenas worldwide and was the only cowboy ever featured on the cover of Life Magazine.
The iconic, colorful Casey, who swore by the color purple, was so dynamic in the 1940s and ’50s that he was one of the rare few in rodeo to catch the eye of mainstream America. Casey came from rural South Dakota, as does Round 8 steer wrestling winner Chason Floyd, who by no coincidence sported a purple shirt when he took the victory lap on his 3.7-second run.
“We live in really desolate country, where you either ranch or work in the oil field,” said the Buffalo, South Dakota, cowboy. “The wind blows every day, and people are still real-deal cowboys. Agriculture is big, and we’re 80 miles from the closest Wal-Mart.
“A lot of great bulldoggers have come out of our country, and after watching them when I was growing up, I’m proud to follow their lead. (NFR steer wrestler) Ivan (Teigen) was my hero when I was a kid, Birch (Negaard) made it here 10 times, and Frank (Thompson) won the world (in 2000). When you grow up in a small town, like I did—the population in Buffalo, South Dakota, is 300—those are your heroes. (NFR saddle bronc rider and bull rider) Jesse Bail grew up 20 miles away in Camp Crook.”
Chason’s mom and dad, Ron and Cindy, had never left the ranch for 10 days in their married life. They twice bought both plane tickets and NFR tickets in the 1980s, only to decide they better forego the bright lights of Las Vegas to hold down the fort at home. As it turned out, being here in Cowboy Town for the first time ever to watch their son work has made it even more special. The 2017 NFR has been a Floyd Family Reunion, with 54 family members from all over the country here to cheer on Chason.
The cowboy connections in this crew don’t end with Casey Tibbs, who ties back to Chason on wife Jessica’s side. Jessica’s mom, Johnilyn Holloway Garrett, is Casey Tibbs’s great niece. She’s also married to Juan Garrett, who makes her ProRodeo Hall of Fame bareback riders Marvin and Mark Garrett’s sister-in-law. Johnilyn is the sister of late, great, purple-wearing NFR saddle bronc rider T.C. Holloway, too.
If South Dakota has been renowned saddle bronc riding and steer wrestling country, Texas is known for its huge population of tie-down ropers. Nine of this year’s 15-man field are from the Lone Star State, though Round 7 winner Randall Carlisle now calls Louisiana home. Caleb Smidt and Cory Solomon, who hang their hats in Bellville and Prairie View, respectively, struck for their first firsts in Round 8 in 7.6 seconds.
“There are a lot of contestants here in every event from Texas,” said Smidt, who won the world in 2015. “Rodeo’s a big sport in Texas. It’s just a rodeo state, and the competition is so great that you really have to step up your game to win something. You have to be good to win in Texas. The caliber of calf ropers is second to none.
“Texas sets the gold standard in our event. I like it being tough. It makes you rope better. There’s never an easy way out. That makes you better. If you can win in Texas, you can win anywhere.”
Solomon is a slight 5’ 7”, 155 pounds. He uses hustle and heart to overcome the size deficit between him and most of his beefier peers.
“I’d love to be bigger,” Solomon said. “But if I had to pick between size and technique, I’d pick technique every time. Your technique and how hard you try matters more than anything else. The size of your heart decides whether or not you can get it done.”
Unlike the judged, roughstock events at the other end of the arena, there are no style points in rodeo’s timed events. The clock makes the call, and there are no deductions for slight variations from perfection and executing exactly as planned. There are three legal head catches in the team roping—two horns, “half a head” with one horn and the rest of the head, and around the neck. A slick, two-horn catch is considered preferential because of the smoother “handle” it typically allows the header to give his heeler, which makes his job a whole lot easier.
Luke Brown and Jake Long took their third victory lap around the Thomas & Mack Center in Round 8, when they shared the 4.1-second spotlight with Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill, who also won Round 5. Luke roped their steer around the neck. But he nor his partner were about to whine or complain.
“There are three legal head catches, and I was happy to have any one of them,” Luke laughed.
“Very seldom are things going to be perfect when you’re going this fast,” Jake added.
Clay noted a fundamental difference he sees between their signature event and the others.
“We’re the one event where you only have a chance to win the round if that’s your intention,” he said. “If you aren’t going at ’em and taking chances, you can’t beat ’em in the round here. Guys who are in the average (and looking down the line for the big pot of gold awaiting teams with the fastest total time on 10 head) are not going to take the same chances as a guy like me is taking right now. Ultimately, we’re all after the same shiny buckle at the end. It’s always fun to win a round, but the ultimate goal for every guy here is the gold buckle.”
The Corkill family had the most memorable day leading up to Thursday night’s Round 8, when son Colby was crowned the 6-and-Under World Champion Dummy Roper over at the Sands Expo and Convention Center. It was tough to tell which of the three generations there—ranging from Jade’s dad and Colby’s grandpa Bruce, to Jade and Colby—was more thrilled.
“I didn’t schedule anything today, so I could go to the dummy roping with Colby,” Jade said. “I had to leave before he was done last year to go rope at the Cinch Shoot Out. I told him I wouldn’t do that to him again, and that I’d be his driver this time.”
Colby was the reserve world champion dummy roper in 2016, and he worked hard year-round to clear that one last hurdle to the top.
“He told me last year, ‘I want to win that saddle,’” Jade remembers well. “He’s been talking about winning that thing for a year. What’s cool is that he showed himself what it’s all about and how hard work pays off. He fueled his own fire.”
Barrel racer Amberleigh Moore has been hot, hot, hot when she leaves all three barrels standing. Moore and her dream pony, Paige, won Rounds 2, 4 and 8, cashing check after check when they got through the cloverleaf pattern clean. Fact is, only three NFR barrel racers have made it through eight rounds without a single five-second penalty, which is why Colorado’s Ivy Conrado, California’s Nellie Miller and South Dakota’s Lisa Lockhart lead the NFR average with two rounds to go. For the record, keeping them standing is no small feat in the tight quarters of the Thomas & Mack Center Arena.
“These horses get to the point where they’re counting their steps and start anticipating that first turn,” explained Amberleigh, who hit barrels in Rounds 1, 5 and 6. “Tonight was Paige’s 18th run in this little building, so she knows the drill. After we hit that barrel in the sixth round, I made her stand up and be very correct last night. She was getting a little cocky, so I made her walk up that alley and listen to me instead of calling her own shots. Tonight I turned her loose again, and said, ‘Fine, go at it. Have it your way. Get it done.’ And she did.”