The NFR is HERE!!!
This year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is stacking up to be one of the most exciting ever! The 120 qualifiers have accumulated $12,824,579 in earnings. The PRCA reported $43,191,565 in rodeo payout during the regular season. Doing the math, the NFR qualifiers have won nearly 30 percent of that. I’ve watched the rodeo competition unfold throughout the year and have a few observations. I’m sure that when I watch that first grand entry on Thursday night, I’ll have arms covered with goosebumps and my heart will be pumping a little harder than normal. I hope that you all enjoy it just as much as I am going to.
The Champs –
Reigning saddle bronc riding champion Wade Sundell had life-threatening injuries last August at the rodeo in San Juan Capistrano, California. He is the only 2018 world champion who won’t be back in the Thomas and Mack Center this year and he will be missed.
The field of 120 contestants includes 47 world titles already won. Sage Kimzey comes in at the top of that list with five gold buckles in the bull riding. He is the only bull rider in this year’s top 15 that has earned that buckle and will be working hard to keep it that way.
Seven of the last eight years, the bareback riding has gone to Kaycee Feild or Tim O’Connell. Kaycee is poised to get his fifth starting in second place. Tim has entered the NFR in the top spot and left in that position the past three years. This year, he’s recovered from injuries sustained in the tenth round of last year’s NFR. He didn’t start competing until the end of June and still finished the regular season in sixth place. Kaycee also missed a good part of the year with injuries. Clayton Biglow, who leads the world standings and every other bareback rider will be doing their best to add their names to that world championship list.
Three steer wrestlers have already won five gold buckles. Hunter Cure and Tyler Waguespack each have won two. Tyler Pearson has one to his credit. Waguespack and Pearson are expected to ride “Scooter” the horse that has taken them to world championships the past two years. Scooter loves the Thomas and Mack arena and it is so much fun to watch this sorrel rocket pin his ears, take off and put his riders in position to win. Hunter will start in second behind Ty Erickson. Tyler Waguespack will begin in fourth and Pearson has ground to make up at ninth.
The team roping heading has five gold buckles represented. Reigning world champion Clay Smith leads the standings and would love to get back-to-back titles. Clay Tryan has done that and more. He has three world titles and starts the event in fourth place. Chad Masters is in ninth and has been at the top twice as has Matt Sherwood who is 11th. The final header to enter the Thomas and Mack with a gold buckle is Erich Rogers who is 13th.
There are five world champions in the team roping heeling with four titles in that discipline. Junior Nogueira won the all-around title in 2016 with most of his money coming from the heeling. He is the first native of Brazil to earn a PRCA world title and finished the regular season in first place. Jade Corkill has three gold buckles and begins in third place. Paul Eaves left Las Vegas with the gold last year and starts this year’s NFR in ninth place.
Three of the five saddle bronc riding titles have been won by the Wright family who has dominated their event for over a decade. The gold buckles belong to Ryder who is in first place, Spencer in fourth and Jesse in 13th. When they start on Thursday night, the top four money earners from the regular season have already won world titles. Zeke Thurston is in second and Jacobs Crawley is third sandwiched between Ryder and Spencer.
There are eight gold buckles represented in the tie-down roping including one all-around. The four men that have earned those will start this year’s rodeo in the top five positions. Caleb Smidt who won his second world title last year leads the field. Tyson Durfey and Shane Hanchey each have one gold buckle and start in third and fifth place respectively. Tuf Cooper, who has three tie-down roping and one all-around world title begins in fourth.
There is one two-time world champion in the barrel racing, Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi who enters in fourth. Starting in first is Nellie Miller who won the world in 2017. Right behind her is last year’s champ, Hailey Kinsel.
A Season of Firsts –
When the Wright family goes to the Welcome Reception and the five members that have qualified get their back numbers, Ryder Wright will do something none of them have done before. Collectively, their family has 40 NFR qualifications to their credit. Ryder is the high-money earner among all contestants during this year’s regular season and will get the prestigious number one back number. And, the contestant that gets number two is none other than his younger brother Stetson who has qualified for his first NFR in the bull riding.
Stetson finished in 21st in the saddle bronc riding and is the first member of the family to qualify in anything other than their signature event. It means that none of the family will be sneaking out after the saddle bronc riding trying to avoid NFR traffic. Stetson is in the lead for the all-around race and is second in the bull riding. He was first in the world standings in August when a wreck at the Dodge City (Kansas) Round-Up put him on the injured list.
The last time a rough stock rider won the all-around world title, Stetson wasn’t born yet. Ty Murray got his seventh all-around championship in 1998. Stetson arrived eight months later.
There are 27 NFR rookies among this year’s contestants and the largest group of those comes in the tie-down roping. Haven Meged got his 2019 season off to a good start last winter, then topped the field at the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo. When he rides in his first grand entry representing his home state of Montana, he will be the second-best tie-down roper in the world.
Haven is a college student at Tarleton State University in Stephenville who also won the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association championship last June. The sixth-place man, Taylor Santos also won that title as a freshman in 2014. Ty Harris won the college title in 2018, was Rookie of the Year last year as well and will start this year’s NFR in 10th place. Michael Otero is oldest of this year’s tie-down ropers. The veteran competitor will start his first NFR in ninth place.
Tyler Milligan will be riding his two-time AQHA/PRCA tie-down roping horse of the year at his first NFR. He and “Big Time” will start in 11th place. Rounding out the first-time qualifiers is Shad Mayfield who is also the youngest competitor at this year’s NFR.
Shad is making this a year of firsts. He graduated from high school last May, won the National High School Rodeo Finals in July and with his NFR-qualifying father, Sylvester Mayfield, as his mentor is competing at rodeo’s championships in December. This will be the first year in the NFR’s history that the reigning world champion, the college champion and high school champion will all be competing.
Shad is also the first (and only so far) competitor to qualify that was born in this century. His birthday, on the 11th of November saw him turning 19 years old. Stetson Wright and Daylon Swearingen both celebrated their 20th birthdays last August.
He’s not the first two qualify for the NFR and the PBR World Finals in the same year, but he’s the first in a while – Daylon Swearingen. He finished the regular rodeo season in 14th place qualifying for his third national championship event. Swearingen won the bull riding at the College National Finals Rodeo last June. The only other man in history to qualify for the CNFR, the NFR and PBR World Finals in the same year was Corey Navarre and he did that twice. Daylon, who is a student at Panola Junior College in Carthage, Texas could beat that record. He also qualified for the PBR Canada Finals and left there as the champion. Trey Kimzey, Sage’s younger brother got to his first NFR in 15th. Other bull riders making their first appearance are Clayton Sellars and Josh Frost.
There are five first-timers in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association barrel race, two in the bareback riding, steer wrestling and heading. The heeling, and saddle bronc riding have three NFR rookies on the roster.
And Returning —
J.J. Elshere is just one of this year’s contestants returning to the Thomas and Mack after a significant absence. The saddle bronc rider was consistently among the best from 2006-2010. He continued competing but on a limited schedule until the past two years. This year he finished the regular season in 15th and when he nods his head at the first performance it will be on his 40th birthday.
Ty Blasingame was competing in the team roping as a header in 2010 and thanks in part to a big win with Kyle Lockett last March in Houston, nine years later he is back again. Kyle Lockett’s return has come after a 15-year absence. Their families won’t be at home watching on television, they will be in the stands experiencing the electricity of the NFR first-hand.
The anticipation and expectations are high. It’s such an accomplishment just to get to Las Vegas and for us rodeo fans to watch as the drama unfolds, it really is a privilege. I don’t ever want to take any of it for granted and appreciate every bit of effort that the contestants, stock contractors and rodeo personnel have made to have such a dynamic regular season. Let the NFR begin!