December 5-14, 2024


The Way I See It

Nov 9, 2023

The Way I See It

By Susan Kanode

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. I went to a performance as a ticketed fan the final year it was held in Oklahoma City. And I was there the second year it was held in Las Vegas. 

            That was in 1986. I’ve missed a few and haven’t actually kept track of all of them, but it’s safe to say that I’m closing in on 35 years of being at the event. Most of those I’ve been at all 10 performances. I could say I’m blessed to have witnessed rodeo’s greatness 350 times. Some might think I’m a little crazy or obsessed. I think all three might be true. 

            I’ve seen a lot of memories made in the Thomas & Mack Center and I can most definitely say that I’m looking forward to the 2023 NFR as much as I was looking forward to the first one in 1985. The atmosphere, drama and excitement are unparalleled. With the increased prize money this year, it promises to be second to none. So, I’m going to delve in and share some thoughts on 10 nights in Vegas. 

            And each of those 10 rounds is going to pay $30,706 for a first-place finish. Then there’s the average which I like to refer to as the overall leaders or overall winner which is worth a record $78,747. What this really means is that there is more potential for upsets and that records for earnings are going to fall. For me, that means more stories to share, and I do have some ideas on how this might unfold. 

The iconic Grand Entry of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. | Photo by Steve Spatafore

Bareback Riding 

            This year a lot of people have been asking who Keenan Hayes is. He’s answered back with flying feet and determination. I expect that to continue in Las Vegas and I don’t think that it being his first time to compete for rodeo’s championships will phase him. At $265,896 in regular season earnings, he’s in command of the leaderboard by more than $100,000. He also has a target on his back. I don’t think any of it bothers him and I expect him to leave with his first gold buckle.

            Honestly, the bareback riding is so packed with talent that the best of this year’s predictions will probably go awry. Clayton Biglow is in second. His wife just gave birth to their first child, a boy, Callahan Jenkins Biglow. If becoming a new dad isn’t motivating, I don’t know what is. 

Clayton Biglow during Round 2 of the 2022 Wrangler NFR. | PRCA Photo by Hailey Rae

            Second through seventh place is separated by less than what a round pays. There are going to be a lot of changes early in the 10 days there. Kade Sonnier is third. He was impressive at the College National Finals Rodeo last June where he finished as the reserve champion. Then he tied for the win at Cheyenne Frontier Days with Clayton Biglow and Cole Reiner. Kade’s father, Joey Sonnier, competed at the Thomas & Mack in saddle bronc riding when Joey was 39. That was five years ago when Kade was just 19. Being at the NFR, watching the opening ceremonies and hearing the National Anthem put tears in Kade’s eyes and a lump in his throat. He knew he wanted to be in that spot one day. But he was playing baseball and was very successful. Then he had elbow issues and when baseball was put on hold, getting on bucking horses became a new passion. 

            Kade and Keenan will be joined by other NFR Rookies Dean Thompson (8), Jayco Roper (9), and Jacob Lees (14). We can never count three-time world champion Tim O’Connell out who has qualified for his tenth NFR. He’s starting in fourth place, has more NFR qualifications than any other bareback rider at 10 and more world championships with three. He’s healthy, hungry and determined to get that fourth gold buckle. 

            Last year, Jess Pope won his first gold buckle in the bareback riding. Four days later he was back home in Kansas on horseback, working at the local livestock auction. Jess loves four-legged animals and has the utmost respect for the individual talents of all of them, especially bucking horses. 

Jess Pope during his victory lap on Round 3 of the 2023 Wrangler NFR. | PRCA Photo by Click Thompson

            Mason Clements finished 17th the past two years. He’s not one to give up and proved that with an 11th place qualification that came with a win at the Governor’s Cup in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on the final day of the season. 

            I’m rooting for Richmond Champion too. He competed at the NFR in 2021. Then he missed most of the 2022 season. He had a herniated disc in his neck that required surgery. That was in March. He had plenty of time to get ready for 2023. He did that with rehab and help from his wife, Paige. This year, they welcomed a baby boy, Forrest, into the world on September 7th. That gave the family two reasons to celebrate. 

Saddle Bronc Riding

            There’s not much to say about Stetson Wright that hasn’t already been said. The last time he started the NFR in first place in saddle bronc riding, that is where he finished. His lead over Sage Newman is narrow at only $4,000. 

            Sage led the world standings a year ago, then dropped to fifth. He won $67,283 in Las Vegas, far less than the talented cowboy is capable of. This year, he’s got nothing to lose, and I expect it to go better for him.  He’s been busy at the family ranch in Montana, getting back to his roots and spending time outdoors. It’s an awesome way to prepare to compete on rodeo’s biggest stage. 

Sage Newman on Dry Creek during Round 7 of the 2022 Wrangler NFR. | PRCA Photo by Phil Doyle

            There is only $126,238 separating the top 15 saddle bronc riders and the one in the final hole secured his spot with a win at the Washington State Fair in Puyallup. I’m excited to watch Ryder Sanford from Sulphur, Louisiana, nod his head in the famed yellow bucking chutes of Las Vegas. He set a new arena record last July at Cheyenne Frontier Days. The crowd was on their feet before the score was even announced. It was awesome. His 92.5-point ride was a half point above the previous record set by another Louisiana bronc rider, Cody DeMoss. I think that Ryder is going to thrive in the atmosphere of the Thomas & Mack Center. 

Damian Brennan, who tied for the championship at the College National Finals Rodeo in June for Western Texas College is the other NFR Rookie to watch. Damian is from Injune, Queensland and is the first saddle bronc rider from Australia to compete at the NFR since Sam Spreadborough made his last qualification in 2011. 

            There is a whole lot of star power between Stetson and Ryder Sanford, including Stetson’s older brother Ryder. He qualified in seventh place. He could come riding into the NFR like he did his very first one winning four consecutive rounds in a row. Ryder has been working on his horsemanship, riding and training young horses. He and his wife, Cheyenne, also added a baby boy, Rebel Ryder, to the family. He’s got ground to make up and I think he’s going to do that. 

            Ryder Wright has eight saddle bronc riding qualifications, So does Zeke Thuston. The two of them are at the top of the qualification board. Zeke has Ryder beat by one in the gold buckle category with three, the last one earned just one year ago. 

            Not only did Zeke win the world last year, he also won more money in a single event than any other contestant and got the Top Gun Award. And, he just won the Canadian championship for the fourth consecutive time. Also, like Ryder, he added a new baby to his family. Zeke’s wife Jayne gave birth to Maggie Mae in October who joins big sister Lucy and brother Hardy. 

Zeke Thurston during Round 7 of the 2022 Wrangle NFR. | PRCA Photo by Hailey Rae

            I think Zeke brings a lot to the Las Vegas table. Experience, momentum, and confidence are just three of the tools in his toolbox. He may be a bit behind, but it’s marginal. He’s coming in hot at fourth place and all four of this year’s top bronc busters have earned over $200,000 during the regular season. 

Bull Riding

            Just one more – That’s all Sage Kimzey needs to tie with Donnie Gay for gold buckles in the bull riding. I would never bet against Sage and the good news for all the Pro Fantasy Rodeo players, he’s going to be one of the best buys for a team. 

Sage Kimzey first ride of the 2021 Wrangler NFR. | Photo by Tom Donoghue

            Bull riding has the biggest gap from first to 15th as any event. Stetson leads with $368,630. NFR rookie Cullen Telfer is in 15th with $128,245. The man in second place, Stetson’s rodeo buddy, best friend and business partner, Ky Hamilton is $114,465 behind him. 

            Stetson wants to win a triple crown in rodeo, the saddle bronc riding, bull riding and the all-around. He’s definitely on track to do that this year and break more records along the way. With the lead that he has going in, the bull riding buckle is his to lose. A year ago, he left Las Vegas with a bull riding buckle after earning the NFR average. He rode eight bulls. 

Stetson Wright on Belly Dump during Round 4 of the 2022 Wrangler NFR. | PRCA Photo by Phil Doyle

            Sage has earned that title in the Thomas & Mack three of the seven times he has been the world champion. He rode eight bulls in 2014, seven in 2017 and eight in 2019. His last world title was in 2021. He missed most of the 2022 season after having surgery for a nagging shoulder injury. It had been bothering him since high school and when it popped out while he was riding at the rodeo in Weatherford, Oklahoma, he knew it was time to get it taken care of. 

            What is amazing to me is that he finished 17th in the world and didn’t get to compete all summer. I believe Sage could win enough to overtake Stetson in Las Vegas this year, but I think for that to happen Stetson doesn’t add much to his earnings and that’s not likely. 

            And then there is the 2021 NFR champion Josh Frost to consider. Josh, who starts in third, has been on a roll in Las Vegas since he qualified the first time in 2019. He didn’t ride a bull and that was not what was supposed to happen. Josh did a big regroup and reset. He didn’t qualify in 2020. Came back in 2021, rode eight bulls and finished as the reserve world champion. He did that again last year. 

Tristen Hutchings on Caddyshack for Round 6 of the 2022 Wrangler NFR. | PRCA Photo by Phil Doyle

            Ky Hamilton and Tristen Hutchings are definitely spoilers. Ky and Stetson have been fighting for the number one spot all season. Tristen is fourth behind Josh Frost. Hayes Weight (7), T Parker (8) and Cullen Telfer (15) all qualified for the first time. It will be interesting to see how they fare through 10 consecutive nights getting on rodeo’s best bulls. 

            I think this year somebody is going to ride nine out of the ten bulls. There is that much talent and even though the bulls are super athletic, so are these men. And I’m really hoping for 10 out of 10.