With the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) less than two weeks away I thought it would be a good time to preview the competition. I’ve spent a good part of the last year at rodeos across the country and watched every single one of these contestants in action. These are solely my opinions and feel free to agree or disagree. After ten days and $8.8 million in prize money, we will all have the answers.
Bareback riding – I think the world championship is Kaycee Feild’s to lose. Four average and four world titles in this arena can’t be wrong. The key to his success will be staying healthy. He missed part of the regular season after hip surgery, but came back strong to move to the number one spot. At last year’s NFR he was competing with this injury and still won $122,596 in the Thomas and Mack Center. I’ve seen what he can do healthy or hurt – he owns this arena. The competition fuels his fire and I expect that fire to be burning hot.
THE DARK HORSE – Austin Foss finished second behind Kaycee last year and this guy doesn’t like being second. And he’s second in the world standings coming in. Last year he and Bobby Mote each won over $75,000 in Las Vegas. I expect to see him at the buckle presentations more than once and to place higher than fifth in the average. This is his third NFR qualification and he should have gained from his previous two experiences.
THE DARK DARK HORSE – Never count Steven Peebles out. This guy wants a gold buckle more than anyone and has spent more time on the injury list at the NFR than anyone. He missed seven rounds last year after a broken back in round three. In 2011, he broke his leg in round five and missed the last five. He’s not a good spectator. Steven has had other health issues this year and he is more excited than ever to be at the NFR. He enters in 14th place, but is less than $40,000 behind Kaycee, a margin that could easily be made up with the bigger payouts.
Steer Wrestling – Fans in the Thomas and Mack Center never get tired of seeing Luke Branquinho’s booty shake and as long as he’s winning he doesn’t mind shaking it. Luke is in sixth place entering the WNFR and I don’t expect that to last long. Last year he entered in eighth place, won $136,388 and his fifth gold buckle. He has won more money on this dirt than any other steer wrestler in the field and I for one would never count him out. He’ll be riding Dakota Eldridge’s horse Rusty and Sean Mulligan will be hazing. This is the same team that got him to the gold last year.
THE DARK HORSE – Hunter Cure slowly and steadily crept his way to a gold buckle in 2013. He moved from seventh to first and might have been the surprise of the 2013 season. He won a Reno (Nev.) Rodeo championship in 2013. He won it again this year. I know it’s a coincidence, but both years that Chad Ferley won a saddle bronc riding world championship, he also won Reno titles. Hunter missed the 2014 NFR after having shoulder surgery. He enters this year in second place. He is one of the guys that watches the standings, thinks about the money and knows exactly what he has to do to win.
THE DARK DARK HORSE – Kyle Irwin impressed a lot of people with his first WNFR appearance last year. He won $87,963 and moved from 10th place to second in the 2014 world standings. Irwin could be the first Alabaman to win a gold buckle. This year he comes in in fifth place and he should pull from last year’s experiences and do even better.
Team Roping – Heading – No surprise here, I’m going with the champs. Clay Tryan won $109,877 at the NFR last year to win his third gold buckle and his second consecutive roping with Jade Corkill. He won his first title with Patrick Smith. Clay is riding the PRCA/AQHA Heading Horse of the Year, Dew the Dash, and at 16-years-old “Dew” is very familiar with the Thomas and Mack Center. Clay has been riding him for six years and will be the first to tell anyone how much impact Dew has had on his past two gold buckles.
THE DARK HORSE – Chad Masters has missed the NFR, but here’s the thing, every time he’s made it he’s left with a lot of money. He’s qualified nine times and left with two gold buckles. He’s won the average twice, and holds the arena record of 3.3 seconds roping with Jade Corkill. Chad finished 18th in 2013 and 16th in 2014. I know he’s glad to be back, won’t take his qualification for granted and will be going for it with every throw.
THE DARK DARK HORSE –Aaron Tsinigine qualified for his first NFR last year in 13th place. His partner Ryan Motes didn’t make it, so Aaron got to rope with Clay O’Brien Cooper. Aaron didn’t let the bright lights or big stars (Clay) intimidate him. They won the sixth round, and placed in the next three. They were also third in the average and took home a total of $85,511. This year Ryan made it so the partnership will be intact. Aaron should have a lot of confidence roping with his regular partner and with the success he had in the Thomas and Mack Center last year.
Team Roping — Heeling – If you are going to bet on Clay, you have to bet on Jade. They have dominated here in the past and they are coming off big wins at the end of the regular season. They won the Ellensburg (Wash.) Rodeo over Labor Day. The next week they got the title at the Justin Boots Playoffs at the Washington State Fair in Puyallup. Then they were co-champions at the Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up and the New Mexico State Fair Rodeo at Albuquerque. They each won $39,597 in the month of September. I expect that momentum to carry on into the WNFR.
THE DARK HORSE – Never count Clay O’Brien Cooper out. He is having a great season roping with Derrick Begay and after his success at last year’s NFR with Aaron Tsinigine, he is loving roping with the Native Americans. If Clay wins, likely so does Derrick. However, Clay has won $1,120 more in the regular season than Derek and that could factor in.
THE DARK DARK HORSE – Kory Koontz – Who doesn’t want Kory to win a gold buckle? The guy has roped 190 steers in the Thomas and Mack Center with 11 different partners. Kory’s career started in 1991. The next year he qualified for his first NFR with Rube Woolsey. He won the average in 1997 with Bret Boatright and finished the year as reserve world champion. He was on his way to a gold buckle in 2005, roping with Jake Barnes in one of the most memorable events in WNFR history. In the fifth round, Jake’s thumb was amputated. Trevor Brazile didn’t qualify in the team roping that year, so he borrowed ropes and a horse, and stepped up to the plate for Kory. They won the very next round. Kory finished that year and the next in third place. One of the greatest heelers of all time, Kory has had to rope against the greatest. His first year at the WNFR was the first time Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper started their chase for seven world titles. Kory was competing against Rich Skelton all eight years that he and Speed Williams won their gold buckles. And now, there is that Jade Corkill guy. A lot of things need to happen for Kory to get the gold, good things for he and header Colby Lovell and hiccups for the field ahead of him. It is Vegas though, and at the WNFR all of these guys are going to let it roll.