NFR Insider Insights: Round 10

Bulls, Bares and Saddle Broncs – by Susan Kanode

When Cody Wright won his first saddle bronc riding title in 2008, his son, Ryder, was just 10-years-old.

Nine years later, Ryder has one of his own. It came by the narrowest of margins, $2,651 over Brody Cress, the spoiler at this year’s NFR. Ryder came into Round 10 with a healthy lead over Jacobs Crawley, the 2015 world champion. But the ever-important average hadn’t been paid and Cress was the leader there.

It was a dramatic finish that came own to the wire. Ryder was the last saddle bronc rider to nod his head in the Thomas and Mack Center this year. He had a great horse named Prom Night from South Dakota’s Sutton Rodeos.

After the horse’s first jump out of the chute, Ryder saw a yellow flag fly in the arena. He knew that he hadn’t held his feet long enough and had missed the horse out. The world title was now in jeopardy because of a very small margin of error. That no-score translated into no-check in the round and moved him down to seventh in the average.

It was enough. That seventh-place check was $11,423 and that was enough. Ryder finished the year with $284,938. Wyoming’s Brody Cress, in his debut at the NFR finished the season with $282,287.

It is the fifth gold buckle for the Wright family. Ryder’s dad, Cody, has two. His uncles, Jesse and Spencer, each have one. And, while getting his own was part of Ryder’s life-long dream, his 10th round ride gave him an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach that will be hard to forget.

“I wanted to seal the deal with another round win tonight – finish the season with a bang,” Ryder said. “I guess it was nerves, because I knew exactly what I needed to do. I was pretty nervous all day. It’s still unreal.”

New Mexico’s Taos Muncy who has two gold buckles of his own won the round with an 87.5-point ride on Bar T Rodeo’s Son of Sadie. It was just the second check for Muncy during the 10 nights of competition.

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Taos Muncy – PRCA photo by Dan Hubbell

There was nothing unreal about Tim O’Connell’s second gold buckle. He has had command of the world standings since he entered this year’s NFR and sealed the deal by winning both the average and the gold buckle.

He earned a total of $371,416 for the championship with $169,500 of that coming from the NFR. He beat Richmond Champion by six point for the average saddle and fed off of the energy in the bareback rider’s locker room throughout the competition.

“Those guys are my friends and they are the best set of guys top to bottom,” he said. “They pushed me to be better. There was so much positive energy every single night. It was a fun NFR.”

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Tim O’Connell – PRCA photo by Dan Hubbell

Tim and his wife, Sami, are expecting their first child next March. As Tim says, they are “beyond blessed,” and he takes none of it for granted. After winning the gold buckle last year and accomplishing a life-long goal, Tim re-evaluated and did some mental preparation for what was next. Part of that was a rest away from rodeo. He and Sami have started a tradition of taking a trip to Cabo San Lucas each December. It’s the perfect way to get away from rodeo, have a real vacation in the sunshine and prepare for the next year.

The tenth-round win was a tie by two guys that needed to cap off their finals in a big way. Steven Dent won a check in the first round, then came up short until Saturday night. He rode Scarlett’s Web from Pet Carr’s Classic Pro Rodeo. Mason Clements won Round 5 and when he got that buckle, it went from the trophy case to his belt in a hurry.

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Steven Dent – PRCA photo by Dan Hubbell

Mason rode Pickett Pro Rodeo’s Top Flight in the final round. He and Steven each won $23,481 for their 88-point efforts.

And then there was Sage. Sage Kimzey is an odds-on favorite every time he rides a bull and he rides them most of the time he nods his head. He is determined, focused, athletic and confident.

Those qualities have served him well in the Thomas and Mack Center. He came here as a rookie in 2014 and won his first world championship. After winning number four last night, he’s never left Las Vegas in second place.

He finished the season off with a Round 10 win on 4L & Diamond S Rodeo’s Girl Money. That 88-point effort gave him a first-place average check and put his NFR earnings at nearly $200,000. Joe Frost and Sage each rode seven out of 10 bulls. Sage had 601.5 points with Joe finishing in second place with 585.

Trey Benton finished second in the world standings after having a very successful NFR. He rode six bulls and made the trip to the South Point three of those times to get a go-round buckle.

Sage has made it no secret that he has big goals and each gold buckle is a “step up the mountain” to achieving them. Don Gay has a record eight world titles and Sage intends to surpass that.

His heart and soul are in the rodeo arena and he is using every opportunity he gets to use that as an opportunity to inspire others. ‘I don’t just want to be a world champion,” he said. “I want to be a great world champion. I work to be better at every aspect of my life. It’s important to me.”

So important that after some much needed rest, Sage will get back on his journey by reading.

Girlfriend, Alexis Bloomer got him started reading books by John Maxwell and has a new one waiting for Sage – 5 Levels of Leadership – Proven steps to Maximize Your Potential.

Sage came into this year’s competition in first place, finished strong and is excited for next year.

“When I think about what I’ve accomplished, it’s unreal,” he said. “Every buckle comes with its own trials and triumphs. I’m blessed and thankful for each one. When you get here and you have the toughest stock and men, anything can happen. I’m in a good place in my life and was as prepared as good as I could be. I think I can win nine or 10 in a row.”

There are some other bull riders that might have something to say about that.

Roping, Wrestling and Running – By Kendra Santos

There is no brighter, hotter spotlight in rodeo than center stage at the Thomas & Mack Center at curtain call on closing night of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Tuf Cooper used that platform for a purpose more meaningful than even rodeo’s ultimate cowboy crown as he was presented for the first time to the capacity crowd as the 2017 World Champion All-Around Cowboy.

Cooper took a knee and popped the question to his longtime girlfriend, Tiffany McGhan, who was one of 168,952 fans in the Cowboy Town stands for the 10-day run of the 2017 NFR. Tuf had been plotting and planning the proposal all year long.

“Not winning so I could do this was not an option,” he beamed, right after hurdling the arena fence for a hug and a kiss confirming that she said yes.

The NFR Press Room has come to feel like a second home to 23-time World Champion Cowboy Trevor Brazile, and in a show of classic cowboy class, Trevor made his way down to the reporters’ room for the family photo. Tuf edged brother-in-law Trevor, who’s married to Tuf’s sister and NFR barrel racer Shada, by $22,223 to take his first all-around title.

“I left it in good hands—for a year anyway,” grinned Trevor, the $6 million winningest cowboy of all time, who will no doubt be back.

Also in the family photo with Tuf and Trevor was eight-time World Champion Cowboy Roy “Super Looper” Cooper, who revolutionized the tie-down roping event when he won his first gold buckle as a rookie back in 1976, and was the World Champion All-Around Cowboy in 1983.

“What can I say? He’s my baby!” said the proud patriarch they all call Pops.

In Roy and Trevor, who basically helped raise Tuf, the newly crowned Cowboy King has a dad, a brother and two of the best coaches a cowboy could ever hope for. “They are the two biggest inspirations behind this buckle,” Tuf said gratefully.

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Tyler Pearson – PRCA photo by Dan Hubbell

A bulldogging buddy group that won four of the top five holes in the world steer wrestling race, including Tyler Pearson’s 2017 gold buckle, earned nearly half a million dollars on the back of one horse. Coincidence? I think not. There’s good reason why Scooter got the cowboys’ vote for this year’s American Quarter Horse Association Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year. Pearson’s gray hazing horse, Metallica, was equally valuable.

“For our team of horses to run into those yellow chutes 40 times (with Pearson; reserve world champ Ty Erickson; 2016 World Champion Steer Wrestler Tyler Waguespack, who finished fourth in the world; and Scooter’s co-owner, Kyle Irwin, who was fifth in the world this year) and give us a chance at money every time is unbelievable,” said Pearson, who proudly did the math on Scooter’s $498,121 week. “We thought Scooter would do good here, but we couldn’t have imagined that he’d do this good. He was flawless.”

Bulldoggers are renowned for their camaraderie. Irwin hazing here for Pearson, and Pearson hazing for Irwin, Waguespack and Erickson supported that fact. Timed-event cowboys are also allowed to pick one person to be in that box with them when they nod their heads, and while Irwin was over on the hazing side for champ Pearson, Waguespack was in the box with him and Erickson was on his other side, right over the fence.

“We are a tight-knit group,” said Pearson, who got his first congratulatory hug from Erickson, who finished just one check of any kind behind by $2,000. “We’re more like brothers than anything.”

A couple of Sisters stole the barrel racing show at the 2017 NFR. California’s Nellie Williams Miller rode her blue-roan AQHA/Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Barrel Horse of the Year Sister to a $308,498 gold-buckle season, including $177,962 at the Finals. Miller was one of only three cowgirls to navigate the cloverleaf pattern 10 runs without penalty for tipped barrels, and also took the average crown.

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NellieMiller – PRCA photo by Dan Hubbell

“Sister’s such an honest horse,” said Miller, who’s mom to two little girls, Payton, 5, and Hadley, 2. “She just does the work for you every time. She makes my job easy, because I can trust her. It’s a grueling 10 days. Even the best horses hit barrels here in this little building.”

Nellie could not thank her dad, Golden State timed-event hand Sam Williams, enough for breaking and training her horses all her life, also including her 2010 NFR horse and Sister’s half brother, Blue Duck. There are countless family fun facts here, including Nellie winning the barrel race at the St. Paul (Oregon) Rodeo this year, 40 years after Sam won the team roping title there in 1977.

“My dad is responsible for this,” Nellie said, looking down at her first gold buckle in disbelief. “He trained this horse and got me going. He’s been there every step of the way coaching me and making great horses for me to ride.”

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Nellie Miller – PRCA photo by Dan Hubbell

Nellie, who high school rodeoed on Sister and Blue Buck’s mom, Reba, says she’ll rodeo around Payton’s kindergarten schedule in 2018. “We’ll just have to play it by ear,” she said. “We’ll have to rodeo the way we can—as a family—and see how it works out.”

Texas A&M grad Hailey Kinsel partnered with her palomino pony, also Sister, for the reserve world title. Kinsel was actually the winningest barrel racer at the NFR, despite a sixth-place finish in the average. In addition to setting the new 13.11-second NFR record in Round 3, Kinsel also won Rounds 6, 9 and 10, and placed deep in four others for a $189,385 week and $288,092 year.

Brazilian cowboy Marcos Costa became the first world champion tie-down roper ever from his country, and only the second Brazilian to win a gold buckle after countryman Junior Nogueira won the world all-around crown in 2016. Costa finished right behind last year’s tie-down roping champ Tyson Durfey after an excruciatingly close call in Round 9 stripped Costa of his edge in the world-title race.

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MarcosCosta – PRCA photo by Dan Hubbell

“I’m so blessed to have a great God, a great family and a great mentor (in 2008 World Champion Tie-Down Roper Stran Smith),” said Marcos, who leaned on his sorrel mare Paraguaia all week long in Las Vegas, both this year and last. “My heart was broken when I left here last year. But I’m lucky. God puts angels in my life to help me out. I don’t have words to explain to you how happy I am right now.”

Costa could have given up on his gold-buckle dreams after last year’s devastating disappointment. Instead, he worked harder and kept the faith. Costa left nothing to chance in Round 10 this year, winning the round in a decisive 7.8 seconds to also claim the 10-run NFR average crown. The $195,519 of Costa’s $317,421 2017 total made him the winningest contestant at NFR ’17, which resulted in the Top Gun Award of a Ram Truck.

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MarcosCosta – PRCA photo by Dan Hubbell

“I learned a lot from last year,” Costa said. “It was very hard. It made me better. This time was more special than last year. This is how it was supposed to go for me. God’s timing is better than ours.”

This year’s two world team roping titlists left the short list rodeo insiders keep on “best ever never to win a world title.” Erich Rogers, who roped at his seventh-straight NFR in 2017, and Cory Petska, a veteran of 14 NFRs, struck for their first gold buckles after cashing seven go-round checks and finishing second in the average only to 10-steer champs Chad Masters and Travis Graves.

“I’ve had a great career and have made a great living doing what I love,” said 14-time NFR veteran Petska, an Oklahoma native who now lives in Marana, Ariz. “If it wasn’t meant to be, it wasn’t meant to be. I guess you could say I’d made peace with it (not winning a gold buckle before now after so many close calls), but this is awesome.”

Rodeo has a huge following of Native Americans, and Rogers of Round Rock, Arizona, is the second cowboy from the Navajo Nation in three years to win the heading gold. Aaron Tsinigine was the world champion header in 2015.

“I take great pride in taking another world title back to the reservation,” Rogers said. “My Native American people were all around me through it all, and it’s a privilege for us professional cowboys to be role models for so many kids. Our success means so much to so many people.”

Nine-time World Champion Cowboy Ty Murray always said that earnings records should be broken every year, as a sure sign of progress in any sport. Rogers and Petska’s $265,417 a man erased the money milestones set in 2016 by Canadian world champs Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler at $249,133 and $258,311, respectively.

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Rogers and Petska – PRCA photo by Dan Hubbell

If you want to talk about rodeo roots, check out the Petska family tree. Cory’s dad, Paul, is a four-time NFR team roper. Cory’s mom, Gail, won world barrel racing titles on the back of a quick-footed little sorrel horse she called Dobie back in 1972 and ’73, and holds the record for most straight NFR rounds won at nine and most combined NFR round wins in two years at 13 during her championship seasons.

Cory’s sister, Tye, is an NFR barrel racer, and his wife, Sherry Cervi, is a four-time world champion barrel racer, 19-time NFR qualifier and the winningest barrel racer of all time with nearly $3.5 million in arena earnings. Sherry finished in the heartbreak hole of 16th in 2017, but like Trevor for Tuf was there with bells on to congratulate her husband—even happier than he is about this gold-buckle breakthrough, if that’s possible.

“This has been a long time coming,” she said. “Well-deserved. I could not be happier for both of them, and I know I’m not alone.”

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