Nov 12, 2021
NFR Preview – Rough Stock Events
By Susan Kanode
It’s been a stellar year for rodeos across the country. For many of them it was a comeback after the pandemic and that has offered contestants more opportunities as they pursue a Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualification. I’ve been to several events and watched them live. I’ve also tuned into the Cowboy Channel and seen rodeos that I couldn’t attend. I’ve followed the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Women’s Professional Rodeo Association and what an exciting year it has been. I can’t wait to walk into the Thomas & Mack Center, — and The Orleans Arena for breakaway roping — feel the energy of the Wrangler NFR and see who emerges as our 2021 world champions. With an increase in prize money in Las Vegas, there is a lot at stake and it’s more than gold buckles. On that note, I have some thoughts that I will share in a series of blogs.
The favorites — There has been a battle for the number one spot in the bareback riding for most of the season. Tilden Hooper is on top now with $161,952. Tim O’Connell is close behind him at $156,056. Less than $6,000 separates them now and with rounds paying $26,977 I expect this lead to change frequently, especially considering the talent in the field and the spread. You can never count any of these guys out. Tilden won The American Rodeo and is riding extremely well. It’s always fun to watch him win. Tim is one of the most focused competitors I know.
The top six guys have all won more than $100,000 during the regular season and there are 8 world championships amongst them. Tim has three, Clayton Biglow who won the gold buckle in 2019, is in third. Our reigning and five-time world champion Kaycee Feild is in fifth place. Also in that mix is last year’s NFR champion, Jess Pope (sixth) and Caleb Bennett (fourth). Caleb has had the best season of his career and is as healthy as he has ever been coming into his ninth NFR.
The rookies — There are three NFR rookies this year and one of them is the contestant I am most excited to watch. Cole Franks won the bareback riding and all-around titles at the College National Finals Rodeo last June in Casper, Wyoming. He was competing for Clarendon (Texas) College where his dad Bret is the rodeo coach. Bret competed in the Thomas & Mack in saddle bronc riding before Cole was born. He’s starting the competition in 10th place and has sewn up the Resistol Rookie of the Year, I expect him to come out guns blazing. He has been traveling with Tim O’Connell and Jess Pope and is now going to school at their alma mater, Missouri Valley College in Marshall. Tim has been helping coach there and Jess has spent time in the arena as a pickup man. This buddy group knows how to win, and I’m confident they will all get great paydays in Las Vegas.
Garrett Shadbolt, a ranching chemist, will start in 10th place. He wrestled in high school, got a scholarship to Doane University and got his chemistry degree. The final spot in this year’s field is Zach Hibler who can only move up. He edged out Wyatt Denny by $683. Zach finished in 17th in 2019. It’s going to be awesome to watch him nod his head in the famed yellow bucking chutes this year.
Saddle Bronc Riding
The favorites – It’s a safe bet that if this year’s saddle bronc riding gold buckle doesn’t go home to Utah, it will go to Canada. This year one-third of the saddle bronc riders hail from Alberta, Canada, including two-time world champion Zeke Thurston who is sixth and loves competing in the Thomas & Mack Center. The fight for the top spot has primarily been between brothers Stetson and Ryder Wright. This will be Stetson’s first time to compete inside the Thomas & Mack in the bronc riding. He was there in 2019 in the bull riding when he won his first gold buckle for the all-around.
Last year he competed in both events at Globe Life Field where he won the all-around and bull riding, and watched older brother Ryder win his second world title in the broncs. Stetson became the first of his famed bronc riding family to win their signature event in 2021. In 2019, he won the bull riding and both times he’s competed at Frontier Park, he’s won the all-around. Been there twice and won four saddles.
Stetson and Ryder have a significant lead on the rest of the field. Stetson has won almost $200,000 in the bronc riding. Ryder is just over $11,000 behind him. Brody Cress is third with $142,225. Dawson Hay is fourth and Layton Green rounds out the top five. Three veteran riders kept their names son the roster that have nothing to lose in Vegas and everything to gain. Wade Sundell, the 2018 world champion, is in 13th place. Right behind him is 14-time NFR qualifier Cody DeMoss. The 2014 world champion and Uncle to Stetson and Ryder, Spencer Wright, edged out Canadian K’s Thomson, who won the rookie of the year, by less than $100.
The rookies – Kolby Wanchuk’s rise to greatness has been steady. He finished 21st in 2019 and was 19th last year. Not only did he qualify this year, he made it in eighth place and will be competing with his traveling partners. One of those is another NFR rookie, Sage Newman who is 11th. Both Kolby and Sage come from rodeo families and their grit and determination will go far this year. And, they’ll be getting advice from the third member of the group, Chase Brooks who enters his fourth NFR in 7th place.
The third NFR rookie on this year’s roster is rancher Ben Andersen from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Ben started riding broncs with help and encouragement from his dad who also rode bucking horses. He is Dawson Hay’s cousin and has been influenced by a lot of Canadian bronc riders. He enters the competition in 12th place with $82,234, more than double his total earnings the past two years.
The favorites – If you’re not excited about this year’s field of bull riders, you’re not breathing. This is one of the most exciting groups of bull riders since the 80s and 90s when we had Tuff Hedeman, Jim Sharp, Cody Custer, Jerome Davis, Cody Lambert, Charlie Sampson, Ted Nuce and others in the field.
For the seventh year in a row, Sage Kimzey enters the NFR in the number one spot and he owns it by a significant margin. Kimzey, who has six world titles, has $264,739, $60,000 ahead of the man in second place. That would be the 2020 world champion, Stetson Wright. Then there is Clayton Sellars who probably has as much fun riding bulls as anyone in third with $147,021. Another veteran in the field is the 2011 world champion Shane Proctor. The last time he qualified in 15th place he won the average and finished the year in third – that was 2016. Like almost every other year, it’s going to come down to who rides the most bulls. Sage rodeo five last year and Stetson rode six. Gutting it out against the animal athletes in this event determines champions.
The rookies – It’s hard to call J.B. Mauney a rookie, but this is his first NFR and it is something he has wanted to do since he was a child. The two-time PBR world champion missed the last three weeks of competition after having his kidney lacerated at Fort Madison, Iowa in September. Thankfully, he had enough money won prior to that to secure his position. He’ll start in sixth place with $112,300. This year has been all about having fun for him. He’s all healed up and I look for him to make some big moves early. Resistol Rookie of the Year, Creek Young, has had an outstanding year and enters in fourth place. The final two rookies are Braden Richardson in 11th and Ruger Piva in 12th.
Iron sharpens iron — That saying about iron sharpening iron could be used with every event at this year’s NFR. To be the best, compete against the best and that is exactly how this competition is shaping up.