Four days. Nineteen events. Eight states and one Canadian province. Thousands of miles and dollars. And one very big goal waiting at the end.
The grind of a full season of professional rodeo action comes to its climatic end this weekend as the 2014 regular season ends. At stake for cowboys and cowgirls is a trip to the pinnacle of the sport, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR), rodeo’s answer to the Super Bowl, World Series and NBA Finals. Only the top 15 money winners in each of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys’ Association (PRCA) seven events and the Women’s Pro Rodeo Association (WPRA) barrel racing will qualify for the WNFR to be held Dec. 4-13, 2014 in Las Vegas.
As the season closes out, a number of competitors are still “on the bubble,” trying to clinch their position inside the top 15. Many will race to remaining rodeos, trying to hit as many as possible and win enough to make their dreams a reality. Some races are incredibly tight; in four events, less than $1,000 separates 15th from 16th while a few others have some breathing room.
The final weekend features rodeos from Cumberland, Maine to Poway, California, near San Diego, from Brooks, Alberta Canada to New Braunfels, Texas. Eighteen rodeos and one Xtreme Bulls event remain between now and Sept. 28, Sunday, the final day of the season.
Most of the top competitors will be banking on a big showing at the Justin Boots Championships (JBC) and Wrangler Champions Challenge (WCC) Finale, both held in conjunction with Ak-sar-ben in Omaha, Nebraska. The top 24 qualified to compete in the JBC, 12 each day beginning Sept. 25. With a committee added purse over $26,000 per event and just one round of competition, it will pay very well to those who can cash in with a solid run.
Following the JBC, the WCC Finale closes out the weekend in Omaha on Sept. 27. The top seven contestants from the 2013 World standings have been competing in the WCC events all season along with the current World standings leader, current Tour standings leader and the winner of the hosting committee’s event the previous season. In Omaha, the performance winners during the two perfs of the JBC will join the regular field of ten competitors for a chance at the $10,000 purse available per event.
Between the two events in Omaha, it’s projected a single contestant could win better than $10,000 for the weekend.
Cowboys and barrel racers are hedging their bets by also making plans to attend other events, notably the American Royal in Kansas City, the Cowboy Capital of the World Rodeo in Stephenville, Texas and the Sheriff’s PRCA Rodeo in San Bernardino, California, the three most lucrative events outside of Omaha this weekend.
Bulls riders are given an extra opportunity in the form of the Division 2 Xtreme Bulls event in New Braunfels, Texas which is adding $10,000.
The final weekend push is broken down here, event by event.
There is just over $13,000 between 11th ranked Tilden Hooper and 18th ranked Luke Creasy. R.C. Landingham is 15th, holding a $1,523 lead on Steven Dent (pictured at the 2011 WNFR). Justin McDaniel is 14th, $1,060 in front of Landingham.
J.R. Verzain is the only bubble cowboy with a guaranteed spot in the Champions Challenge event. He is 13th right now, just about $1,901 ahead of Landingham.
McDaniel may have the advantage in the draw in Omaha. He has Inky from Korkow Rodeos. A 2013 WNFR horse, Inky carried Dent to 85 points back in February in Jackson (MS) and Austin Foss to the same score a few weeks ago at the Justin Boots Playoffs in Puyallup (WA).
Dent is from Nebraska and has fared well in front of the home state crowd in Omaha before. His draw for the JBC is Bartender (Dakota Rodeo), a horse that Winn Ratliff was 85 on earlier this year. The combination might be big for Dent, enough to move him back into the WNFR for the seventh time in his career.
We’re also cheering on Landingham. The Oregon cowboy finished in the crying hole at 16th a year ago; it would be good to see him get over the bubble and make his first trip to Vegas.
There is a bit of a gap from Curtis Cassidy (13th) to Ty Erickson (14th)–the amount is $7,374, certainly not insurmountable but a little more comfortable than the guys further down the standings. Blake Knowles is 15th with two agonizingly small gaps ahead and behind him.
Knowles is trailing Erickson by $549 and leading 16th ranked Tom Lewis by $957, a swing of just over $1,500 between the three men.
Only $4,559 separates Erickson from 18th ranked Tyler Waguespack.
Josh Peek has been to Vegas before in this event and is a solid long shot ranked 19th. He has been bulldogging pretty well as the season closes and is $4,198 out of the top 15 right now.
Both Knowles and Lewis have been to Vegas so experience-wise, they are pretty well matched up while Erickson is searching for his first WNFR. Lewis has been hot, moving up from outside the top 20 just a couple weeks ago. Lewis is sharing the lead in Kansas City thus far.
Ironically, Knowles and Lewis will be the last two competitors in the JBC on Friday night, Sept. 26.
On the heading side of the team roping, the race is crystallizing down to a handful of guys who legitimately still have a chance, barring a miracle final weekend from someone else. Two-time World Champ Chad Masters (pictured in Pendleton, Oregon with Clay O’Brien Cooper) is in the hot seat at 15th, trailing 14th ranked Turtle Powell by $6,546 and holding a lead of $1,964 over Tyler Wade in 16th. Tom Richards is 17th but is further back, $5,864 behind Masters.
About $11,500 separates 13th from 20th in the heeling with Masters’ partner Clay O’Brien Cooper in the heart of the race at 15th right now. Cooper is a veteran of the road, a seven-time World Champ, who is not rattled by pressure situations. He has faced the bubble in the past couple of seasons and come out with another trip to Vegas each time.
Roping with Aaron Tsinigine, Ryan Motes is just $730 behind Cooper with Cole Davison ($1,495), Jett Hillman ($3,214) and Tommy Zuniga ($3,762) following. Davison is roping with 19th ranked Ty Blasingame, Hillman with 20th ranked Chace Thompson and Zuniga with 18th ranked Brady Tryan. Interestingly, in each pairing, the header is much less likely to get over the bubble than his heeler.
On the flip side, Cooper trails 14th ranked Kinney Harrell by just $1,183. Harrell ropes with Wade so both partners in these two teams have a big chance to go to Vegas together.
In the team roping, the best long shot is Cesar de la Cruz. The heeler is ranked 20th, trailing Cooper by $6,902 but, unlike those closest to him in the standings, de la Cruz is definitely roping in the Champions Challenge. As the winner in Omaha a year ago, de la Cruz punched his ticket and will rope with his long-time partner Derrick Begay for the first time in 2014. In the JBC he will rope with Richards.
Cooper is one of the most likable guys in pro rodeo and an institution in Vegas. The WNFR just wouldn’t be the same without him.
Saddle Bronc Riding
Sibling rivalry may be the theme for the saddle bronc riders. Between the top 17 bronc riders are four Wrights and two Crawleys; three of that bunch are battling for the final spots at the 2014 WNFR. Spencer and Jake Wright (pictured at the 2011 WNFR) are 13th and 14th, respectively while Sterling Crawley is on the outside looking in at 17th.
The bronc riding is the closest race at this point with just $165 separating Troy Crowser (15th) from Dustin Flundra (16th) and just under $9,000 between 13th and 18th. Jake Wright is just $1,664 ahead of Crowser and Spencer Wright has a little more room to breath, but not much, at $2,758 ahead of Crowser.
The advantage probably goes to Flundra. He is the only member of the group to have a guaranteed seat into the Champions Challenge event, although any of the others could punch theirs during the JBC.
In terms of draw at the JBC, Sam Spreadborough may have the edge with Korkow Rodeos Rhubarb. They won three rodeos this year on this horse including an 87 point ride by Wade Sundell in Garden City, Kansas in June.
Crowser’s road through Omaha goes through a familiar foe. For the JBC, he has drawn Korkow’s Vanilla Twist, a 2012 WNFR horse. Crowser was 83 on the horse in Pendleton, Oregon in 2013 and has drawn her in each of his last two trips to the Badlands Circuit Finals Rodeo in Minot, North Dakota.
The long shots in the broncs are also probably a couple of sentimental favorites. Like Cooper in the team roping, Chet Johnson is a favorite among his fellow competitors. Ranked 19th, he still has a shot but needs some big wins to make up ground; in Omaha, he has Julia from J Bar J, a horse that Heith DeMoss scored 85 points en route to victory in Fort Smith, Arkansas earlier this summer.
Another long shot is 20th ranked Isaac Diaz. Diaz got married last fall and his wife, Britany, will be in Vegas competing in the WPRA barrel race. It would be fun for them, and for fans, to see a husband-wife team competing together again at the WNFR.
Tie Down Roping
The gap between 15th and 16th in the tie down roping is the largest of any event. Cody Ohl has sprinted through the last ten days to land in 15th with a cushion of $5,555 over Cory Solomon. Though not an insurmountable number, chasing the six-time World Champ is not an enviable position; in fact, Ohl won Omaha a year ago as well and is currently leading the rodeo is Kansas City.
Tyson Durfey is 14th, about $857 ahead of Ohl. Clint Cooper is 13th with a small cushion of $1,370 ahead of the champion.
Durfey has a spot in the Champions Challenge locked up and he has fared well at these events all year. He is the leading money winner among the tie down ropers; he has won over $17,000 at 2014 Champions Challenge events.
Ranked 17th Randall Carlisle is a good choice for a long shot. Carlisle’s calm approach keeps him from suffering from the pressure that other competitors might feel in his situation. He is just over $7,000 from the 15th spot, a big task but one that he could certainly pull off.
Another possibility to keep an eye on is World Champion All Around Cowboy Ryan Jarrett. Jarrett has some ground to make-up, $14,000 out of 15th right now, but he has also done well at the Champions Challenge events and will definitely compete on Saturday night in Omaha. He has won $16,000 in these events in 2014.
One choice in this category is Cooper. Not only is he part of a three-brother team to make history by qualifying to the WNFR in the tie down roping in a single year, he is also just a nice guy. Plus, he rides fan favorite horse, Sweetness (pictured in San Juan Capistrano).
WPRA Barrel Racing
Jana Bean is squarely in the heart of the race in the WPRA barrel racing. Bean started the year off on Heza Bug Leo, Bugs, a horse who has been to Vegas under the saddle of a different rider. Bugs got hurt in the summer and has just returned to competition in the nick of time. The duo has been hot in the last couple of weeks, just when Bean’s name had begun to drop out of the top 15.
She is leading Shelly Morgan and Radar, registered Will Merada, by $3,269 and trailing 14th ranked Samantha Lyne by only $369. There is a bit of a gap up to 13th ranked Trula Churchill, shown riding Worm (A Streak of Rita) in Red Bluff. Churchill has $4,290 on Bean.
Brenda Mays is ranked 17th but not competing in Omaha, opting instead to try the California run of rodeos. She has four chances to make up the $4,064 gap on Bean with her mare, Dora (Judge My Fame). Californian Ann Scott is also in the conversation at 18th, just $4,478 back.
Rookie Kimmie Wall is competing in Omaha for a couple of year long goals. First, she is attempting to hold off a late season charge for the Rookie of the Year title by Georgia’s Sarah McDonald who will also be in Omaha. Just about $4,500 separates the two cowgirls. Wall is also hoping to climb the ladder into her first WNFR; she is $14,000 behind but a sweep in Omaha could net around $12,000 and she’s currently second in Kansas City.
Mays has had an incredible season. After six straight WNFR’s, which included an average win the last time around in 2012, Mays lost her great partner Jethro (Judge Buy Cash) in the spring. Going to only 25 rodeos, Mays landed among the top 15 with her former back-up horse, and Jethro’s neice, Dora. Closing out the roller coaster ride in Vegas would be a great ending to a tumultuous story.
Churchill is also on this list. She has battled her way into the WNFR in the last two season with incredible heroics in the final weeks. This season she has traveled from Canada to North Carolina in September to seal up her third trip to Vegas. As she and Worm fared well in Omaha back in 2011 before they were household names, and she’s a homestate cowgirl in Nebraska, here’s hoping she seals the deal while in Omaha.
The bull riding is always tough to predict. Essentially, it’ll come down to who rides the most bulls this weekend. Only $6,779 separates 12th ranked Aaron Pass from 17th ranked Cody Campbell. Brett Stall is 15th with Beau Hill only $654 behind him. Also in the mix are Ty Wallace (13th, $2,760 behind Stall) and Elliott Jacoby (14th, $1,268 behind).
In Omaha, both Stall and Hill appear to have good draws, at least on paper. Stall has Cervi Championship Rodeo’s Live Action, a bull that has been ridden twice in six outs this year. Cody Teel was 88 on him two weeks ago in Fort Madison and his other ride this year was marked 86 points.
Hill has another Cervi bull, Beer Gut. His 2014 record is 5-9 which includes a 90 point ride at a rodeo in Minnesota earlier this year as well as a couple of 85’s.
Other riders didn’t fare as well in the draw at Omaha. Jacoby has 2013 WNFR bull Never Been Kissed from Rafter H. The good news? J.W. Harris scored 88 to win Hill City back in early August on the bull. The bad news? That’s the only time a rider made eight aboard the bull this year in ten outs.
The Utah veterans, Steve Woolsey and Wesley Silcox, are the long shots to watch in the bull riding. Both have been riding well recently with Silcox getting hot at the end of August and Woolsey taking the win at the Pendleton Round-Up a couple weeks ago.
In Omaha Silcox will get on Now N Then from Summit Pro Rodeo, a bull that is unridden in eight outs in 2014. Woolsey’s draw might be a bit better; The Bomb Rooskee (Cervi Championship) has been ridden three times in eight outs this year including an 80 point ride by Campbell back in Denver.
In addition to Woolsey and Silcox, Dustin Bowen (18th, about $7,617) is another rider we’d like to see make the WNFR this year. The young rider from Pennsylvania tries his guts out every time he nods and that effort is not only refreshing to watch but would be great to see ten nights in a row in Vegas.
If Cody Campbell can get by Lost Wages (Korkow Rodeos) in Omaha and win some money, it would give his story a great ending. Campbell (pictured in Salinas in 2013) missed much of the summer in his bid to return to the WNFR in 2014 after breaking his ankle in Reno (NV) in June. He’s been on a hot streak lately, winning the Xtreme Bulls Finale in Ellensburg over Labor Day weekend.