Dec 7, 2021
By Susan Kanode
Wow – there is so much that could be said about this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. We are half-way through the ten rounds of competition and I’ve been surprised about some of the things that have happened in the Thomas & Mack Center so far. I’ve taken a look at each event and have a few observations to share. Mind you, these are only my thoughts and after years of covering rodeos and the NFR, I’d like to think I know something, but the truth is the more I think I know, the less I really do. It’s the NFR, big paychecks are at stake, world championships are on the line and there are surprises around every corner.
The number one and two men coming into the NFR haven’t been at the top of the rounds yet. Tilden Hooper has had the best year of his career and there was a lot of hope that it would continue here. He’s cashed in twice but has seen his lead slipping away. And that lead is now held by his traveling partner Kaycee Feild who is first overall, has earned $104,271 here and is having the time of his life. Tilden is in second. And it’s been a surprise that Tim O’Connell hasn’t had a round win yet. He started the competition in second place and has battled for that first place spot all year. The battle isn’t over yet. Kaycee has gotten a check in all five rounds so far and made three trips to the South Point, he is right where he wants to be, but he is the one with a target on his back. He set a new record in round five for round wins in the bareback riding at 26 and is likely to break that again during the rest of the competition.
The steer wrestling is one of the most interesting races of all. Jacob Talley who started in first still leads, but by less than $30,000. Unless the men in front of him in the overall standings all have bad luck, he’s not likely to get an average check after a no time in round four. Dirk Tavenner has moved up eight places to second with $74,880 won so far. Dirk had a 10-second penalty in round 3, so he also is down in the average. That leader is NFR rookie Tristan Martin. He placed third in the first round, won the fourth and placed in round five. He started in 14th place and has moved up to seventh. If he would win the gold buckle, he’d be the first steer wrestler in rodeo’s history to win the top title at high school, collegiate and professional levels.
I would never have believed that Dustin Egusquiza and Travis Graves would be shut out of the first three rounds. They got the monkey off their back in round four and got a check for second and third. Then in round five, penalties got them. Dustin was number one coming in and Travis started in second place. After five rounds, Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira are in the driver’s seat and they are third in the average. Leading the average is Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins II who have been consistent but haven’t gotten a round win yet. In fact, through five rounds, we’ve had five different winners.
We’ve also had five different winners in the saddle bronc riding. With one third of the competitors being from Canada, three more being Wrights, it would be easy to assume that there would be some domination in this event. Two-time world champion Zeke Thurston, from Big Valley, Alberta shared round one with Montana’s Chase Brooks. Brody Cress won round two and is looking to take his first gold buckle and second NFR championship back to Wyoming. He leads overall and is third in the world standings. We saw the first Wright of the 2021 NFR make a victory lap in round five after Ryder scored 91 points and beat younger brother Stetson by one-half of a point. Stetson still leads the world standings, but Ryder is less than $5,000 behind him.
Reigning world champion tie-down roper Shad Mayfield has had disappointing NFRs the past two years. The first time he qualified he was just out of high school. Last year, he was so successful during the regular season that he earned the gold buckle by a very narrow margin over Marty Yates. This year’s NFR started off better for the New Mexico native. He had a solid run in round one, then won round two. Then a no-time in three took him out of the average and he came back and won round four. He’s third in the world behind regular season leader Shane Hanchey. Caleb Smidt is the one to watch in this race. He won the third round, is first in the average and has been in this place before – twice in fact. Smidt won world championships in 2015 and 2018. Hanchey is tied with Cory Solomon for second place in the average and this race is getting tighter every night. And, we can never count out Marty Yates.
Hailey Kinsel has yet to get a round win but remains at the top of the world standings. Through the first five rounds, we’ve had six round winners in the barrel racing. Round one saw a tie between Amanda Welsh and Cheyenne Wimberley. Two-time world champion Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi leads the average. Stevi Hillman who won round four is in second and Jordon Briggs and her horse of the year, Rollo, are in third.
Stetson Wright made a huge leap in his quest for a second bull riding gold buckle during round five. After scoring 90.5 points in the saddle bronc riding, he was pumped up for the bull riding and his match against the two-time world champion bucking bull, Chiseled from Powder River Rodeo owned by D&H Cattle Company. It was just the second bull that Stetson has ridden in the Thomas & Mack Center this year, but oh boy was it worth it. He finished the night with a 94.5-point score giving him a total of 185 points during the round. Sage Kimzey still leads the world standings even though he was only successful in rounds one and two. The spoiler here is Montana’s Parker Breding who bucked off of his first bull in round four and is looking really good for the average. Shane Proctor who qualified for his first NFR appearance since 2016. The 2011 world champ had some issues with bulls so round five won’t be complete until he has a fair opportunity to ride. If all goes as planned, he will get on two bulls during day 6 and his first ride will complete round 5.
It’s been an NFR full of surprises. The only previous prediction that I made that looks like will come true is that it will be edge of your seat, come down to the 10th round excitement in the world champions races in every event.