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
It happened so fast that a lot of people didn’t even notice. Reigning World Champion All-Around Cowboy Junior Nogueira had a dangerous brush with disaster in Round 8 that resulted in a severe burn at the base of the thumb on his roping hand.
The hearts of anyone who remembers Junior’s ProRodeo Hall of Fame mentor Jake Barnes losing his thumb here in the heat of Wrangler National Finals Rodeo battle in 2005 skipped more than a few beats between the time you could see things going south and when Junior looked down, relieved to see all five digits remaining on his right hand.
The real champs know no excuses and refuse to say die. So it surprised no one when Junior and his header, Kaleb Driggers, rallied to take the Round 9 victory lap in a world-record-tying 3.3 seconds. The magical mark was originally set right here in Las Vegas by Chad Masters and Jade Corkill at the 2009 NFR. It was matched by Brock Hansen and Ryan Motes at the rodeo in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 2012.
“We’d been 3.3 one time at a jackpot in Texas on slow steers, but it wasn’t worth $26,000,” Kaleb said with a great big grin. “We hadn’t drawn the best here this week, but we had our eyes on this steer. My friend Jackson Tucker texts me what we draw every night, and tonight I texted him back, ‘I’m in love.’ We were pretty pumped to have a steer we knew we could capitalize on.
“This definitely ranks right up there among my best career moments. But one steer will never set me apart from the rest. I have one goal in mind, and everyone knows what that is.”
Yes, the gold buckle is every cowboy’s ultimate dream. And Kaleb, who’s been battling illness all week, is no exception. He didn’t have much voice left, but he did manage to muster a crack on Junior’s unintended, post-run dismount in the middle of the arena when his horse Green Card whirled while Junior was celebrating a little too tall in the saddle.
“Junior fell off the merry-go-round,” Kaleb said with a belly laugh.
“Seeing that 3.3 on the scoreboard was the best moment of my life,” Junior said. “A couple seconds later was the most embarrassing moment of my life. I fell off at the Finals.”
It was all in fun, of course, and once the flag drops nothing else much matters anyway.
Rodeo’s ultra-competitive climate today translates into more single-event cowboy specialists than ever before. If you go all the way back to rodeo’s ranching roots, multi-event cowboys were common. But as hard as it is to win now narrows most contestants’ focus by necessity.
The same can be said on the equine side of our sport, which answers a lot of people’s questions about why 2013 World Champion Tie-Down Roper Shane Hanchey isn’t riding his 2017 American Quarter Horse Association/Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Tie-Down Roping Horse of the Year Si at the richest rodeo of the year.
“The Thomas & Mack isn’t Si’s setup,” said Hanchey, who instead opted onto his other trusty sorrel steed, Bam. “Si’s an outdoor, summertime type of horse. Bottom line, I think I can tie calves faster on Bam here in this little building. There are a lot of places all season long where I’d ride Si over Bam—and did. This just doesn’t happen to be one of them.”
Like Round 8 tie-down roping winner Cory Solomon, Hanchey’s quite slightly built at 5’ 10” and 142 pounds. Hanchey set the 10-head NFR tie-down roping record of 80.1 seconds here in 2013, the same year he strapped on his gold buckle. As always, he did it with the help of a horse.
In that particular case, it was his horse-of-a-lifetime Reata. Top-flight horsepower is vital to every timed-event contestant’s success, but even more so when you have a size deficit to overcome.
“I’m little, so if my horse doesn’t work awesome, it’s not going to work,” Hanchey said simply.
Texas barrel racer Hailey Kinsel struck again in Round 9, this time in 13.43 seconds. Kinsel and her blonde-bomber-sidekick, Sister, who’s 6, have now won three rounds and placed in four others, blanked only in Rounds 7 and 8 when they hit barrels. Despite the pair of five-second speeding tickets, Hailey and Sister sit sixth in the 10-run NFR average.
With only three cowgirls—average leader Nellie Miller, Ivy Conrado and Lisa Lockhart—clean around the cloverleaf pattern in the first nine rounds, it would be reasonable for Hailey to have the rich average payoff in the back of her mind. But the Texas A&M grad is much more offensively minded than that.
“Being careful and conservative doesn’t work for Sister and I,” said Hailey, who’s already banked $146,653 here this week, making her the second-winningest contestant behind only saddle bronc rider Ryder Wright at $174,154. “We don’t go at it like that all year long, so why do it here, at the biggest rodeo of the year?
“They pay every day, so I try to get a check every day. I know my horse is going to give it 110 percent, so if I don’t step up and do the same I’m going to be behind her and we’re either going to hit a barrel or be slow. Either way, they don’t pay us for that. We’re here to get paid. And it’s a lot more fun when you’re winning.”
When Canadian steer wrestler Scott Guenthner rode into Round 9, he hadn’t cashed a check since splitting the third-place cash five ways on opening night. His 3.3 in the ninth round matched Dakota Eldridge’s run in Round 7 for the fastest we’ve seen. Guenthner started the week on his horse Itsy, before making a move to Tom Lewis’s Maverick for Rounds 8 and 9.
“I just wasn’t having any luck, so I figured I might as well get on the horse that’s been winning everything,” Guenthner smiled. “I’d never been on Maverick’s back before I got on him here, but I’ve been watching my traveling partner win on him and he looked easy and solid.”
Guenthner borrowed more than the same horse as traveling partner Tanner Milan, who won Rounds 2 and 5. He also borrowed Tanner’s big brother, Baillie, to help line his steers from over on the hazing side. Each contestant is allowed one “box buddy” to be in the box with him, and Guenthner enlisted Tanner for that task, too.
“Without Tanner I probably wouldn’t be here, and vice-versa,” Guenthner said. “We motivate each other all year long, and we’re always in each other’s corners. So it only makes sense to be there for each other here, too.”
Bulls, Bares and Saddle Broncs – by Susan Kanode
Oh what a night! Round 9 at this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo was full of surprises, upsets and triumphs.
In a Brown versus Brown bareback riding matchup, we saw Jake Brown win his first round of this year’s competition. It is his third qualification. Last year, he missed rounds 8 and 9 because of a concussion. This year he started the competition healthy and after getting on nine head of the world’s best bareback horses, would be ready to get on five or six more.
Jake got a share of the Round 2’s prize money with an 86.5-point score. He finished fifth. Then had a few hiccups. That lit a fire in him to finish this year’s NFR with a bang. He got a third-place check in Round 8 setting him up for Round 9. He got on Beutler and Son Rodeo’s horse, Nutrena’s Molly Brown.
Molly Brown is a 15-year-old bay mare that Benny Beutler describes as being very docile. She was very patient in the bucking chute waiting for Jake to nod his head, saving her energy for the arena. The Brown duo racked up 87.5 points and Jake got to take another victory lap around the Thomas and Mack Center.
After the eight-second buzzer, Jake saw an opportunity and baled off Molly Brown, landing on his feet. Normally bareback riders wait for the pickup men to come to their rescue, but getting off on his own is becoming almost a trademark for Jake.
“It started when I was pretty young and from riding bulls,” he said. “We had some practice horses, but never had pickup men to help us. We wanted to get on bucking horses and we had to learn to get off.”
Pickup men know that he has the habit of not waiting for them, so they will often wait a few seconds to ride in, giving him plenty of room. He doesn’t always land on his feet, but it’s good watching when he does.
“It’s because I’m catty like a catfish,” he joked. “But, it’s a whole lot better to make the decision to come off than to have it happen early.”
Jake’s father Paul Brown is the rodeo coach at Hill College in Hillsboro, Texas. They have a full set of alumni here including Jake and last night’s tie-down roping champ, Shane Hanchey.
“It’s been great,” Paul said. “Of course, we want Jake to do well, but I’ve worked with all of them while they were in college and watching them succeed here is very rewarding.”
Tim O’Connell crossed $300,000 in season earnings thanks to a tie for fifth place Friday night. He has a seven-point advantage in the average. Tanner Aus is in second place in the world standings and is fifth overall. For Tanner to catch Tim, he would have to move up to first in the average, win Round 10. And, Tim would have to have a big zero by his name.
We got to watch Ryder Wright take his fourth victory lap around the arena and his second consecutive on Friday. This ranch and rodeo raised kid has been nearly as dynamic throughout this year’s competition as he was during the first four rounds last year.
Ryder’s Round 9 win came aboard a four-year-old gelding, Kitty Whistle, owned by South Dakota’s Korkow Rodeos.
“I watched the bronc riding, and thought we might have a chance with Ryder,” T.J. Korkow said. “He was the last one out and the horses were getting pretty strong. After the ride, I looked around the arena and I see those scores come up and he wins the round. We’ll take it when we can get it and be grateful.”
Ryder won a total of five rounds at the 2016 NFR. He has garnered four this year and could add a fifth. He is leading the world standings and is the odds-on favorite for a gold buckle, one that he would proudly wear.
Cody Wright, Ryder’s dad, suggested Ryder save those round buckles and make a clock out of them using each one as a different number. Ryder plans on hanging them on the wall.
Prior to coming to Las Vegas, he wore a buckle that he won in high school rodeo. After all, he graduated in May of 2016. He won the saddle bronc riding at the National High School Rodeo Finals the year before. When he got to this year’s NFR, he decided he should put high school behind him and started wearing the Rookie of the Year buckle he won last year.
“I don’t care what he or any of my kids do, as long as they set goals and commit to them,” Cody said. “Otherwise you’re like a ship sailing at sea ready to sink. For Ryder, it just depends on how serious he wants to take it and how important it is to him. I think the sky is the limit.”
Cody has traveled across the country competing with his two oldest boys, Rusty and Ryder. If it wasn’t for injuries, Cody and Rusty would likely have been competing here this year too. Cody, the 2008 and 2010 world champion had shoulder surgery on Oct. 13th and is hoping to return at the San Antonio Stock Show Rodeo.
“In this sport, you have to be all in and 100 percent. I can’t beat Ryder if I’m not all in,” he added with a smile on his face.
If Ryder is all in, he’s going to leave Las Vegas with a gold buckle. He leads the world standings by $46,588 over Jacobs Crawley. The spoiler in the bunch became Brody Cress last night when yellow flags fell on the arena floor because CoBurn Bradshaw failed to mark his horse out. CoBurn, who married into the Wright family still made the trip to the South Point for the Montana Silversmith’s Buckle Presentations in support of Ryder.
Brody is currently fifth in the world, but sits first in the NFR average race. The Wyoming native tied for third in the ninth round. To overtake Ryder, he would need to win the average, shut Ryder out and place in the round.
Boudreaux Campbell has not had the NFR that he or his fans have expected. After riding his first bull here for 82.5 points and a sixth-place finish, he was shut out until Round 7. Last night, he was one of two riders to split the $84,616 up for grabs in the round. The other one was Trey Benton, who has had an incredible NFR. They each won $42,308 for their 88-points ride.
While Boudreaux made his first trip to the South Point, it was Trey’s fourth. It was the rank pen of bulls that included all of this year’s Pendleton Whisky “Let ‘er Buck” Stock of the Year winners.
Boudreaux rode Stace Smith Pro Rodeo’s Rebelution, who has a buck-off percentage of 85%. In fact, he hasn’t been ridden all year. The five-year-old brindle came from Steve and Julie Ravenscroft who are known for their breeding program.
“We were so happy to see Boudreaux get on him,” said Terry Autrey, livestock manager for Smith. “He comes to all of our rodeos and he has a bright future ahead of him. He’ll be back here next year.”
It was Rafter H Rodeo Livestock’s Nose Bender that Trey was successful on. The bull stumbled a little and Trey was offered the option of a re-ride which he was happy to decline. And, he wasn’t in very good shape to get on another one.
Trey had a little trouble getting up after he came off Nose Bender. Then he, and the bullfighters got the full effect of Nose Bender’s wrath at being ridden. The Justin Sportsmedicine Team took care of Trey while Boudreaux was celebrating in front of the fans.
A mild concussion won’t keep Trey down. He came to the South Point for the buckle presentations and is looking forward to Round 10. He should be, he has moved into second place in the world and is first in the average. He and Sage Kimzey, who still leads the world, have each ridden six bulls. It all comes down to eight seconds.