Dec 26, 2022
Catch All The Champions
By Patrick Everson
A tremendous 10 days of competition wrapped up Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, as the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo’s annual run came to a close.
The final night was full of hotly contested championship races, exactly how any fan – and honestly, any cowboy or cowgirl competing here – would like it. Following is a wrap-up on saddle broncs, bareback broncs, steer wrestling, team roping and tie-down roping.
Entering a monster final Saturday night of the 2022 Wrangler NFR, saddle bronc riding was among the tightest competitions to determine who would walk out with the coveted gold buckle.
Would Stetson Wright finally get his trifecta – world championships in saddle broncs/bull riding/all-around, all in one season? Would Canadian Logan Hay or Lefty Holman land a first world championship?
Or would Zeke Thurston, another Canadian bronc rider, nab his third gold buckle?
With every dollar counting in both go-round and average money, Thurston stepped up with an 89.5-point ride to split first with Kolby Wanchuk and Chase Brooks. And Thurston supplemented that $23,007 go-round check with the massive payday for winning the NFR average: $74,150, as he rode all 10 broncs and totaled 876.5 points.
For the year, Thurston tallied $399,916, fending off Holman ($341,390), Hay ($339,401) and Wright ($335,797).
“Just coming into the [the NFR], I knew I was in the world title hunt. There’s so much money to be won,” said Thurston, who began the NFR sixth in the world, but paid no attention to those standings. “I don’t look at nothing. My job is to ride broncs. I knew if I rode every horse I got on, at the end of the week, I’d give myself a chance.”
Pretty much all Jess Pope needed to do in the 10th go-round was stay aboard Southern Star. He did that, with an 81.5-point ride. That didn’t get a check for the night, but it did give Pope a 10-for-10 mark in the Wrangler NFR, as he scored on all 10 head.
Pope cashed a check in eight of 10 go-rounds, including two first-place checks. More important, his weeklong total of 860 points netted first place in the NFR average to pocket $74,150.
For the 10 days, Pope racked up $221,361, giving him season-long winnings up $390,620 as he nabbed his first bareback world championship, to go along with three straight NFR average titles. He was teary-eyed emotional afterward.
“To get here, it’s a long, long year. Injuries, struggles, downs and ups,” Pope said. “There’s no feeling like it, I swear.”
Pope shared a story of when he first went to a bareback camp, before he was even 10 years old, and three-time world champion Will Lowe was the instructor. Pope thought Lowe was one of the students – until Lowe stood up, revealing his world championship gold buckle.
“I saw that and thought, ‘I want that.’ Now, I’ve got it,” Pope said. “It’s been my dream since I was a little kid.”
Kaycee Feild won the 10th go-round and finished second in the world standings at $316,490.
Tyler Waguespack claimed his second straight world championship and fourth overall, but he wished he could’ve done it any other way. Will Lummus had the inside track going into Round 10, but broke the barrier, turning a 4.6-second effort into 14.6 with the 10-second penalty. And Stetson Jorgensen, also in the running for the gold buckle, missed his steer.
Up stepped Waguespack with a 4.0-second clocking to split fourth/fifth for $9,793. But more important, it allowed Waguespack – fourth in the average before the 10th go – to move to third, while Lummus went to fourth and Jorgensen dropped to 10th. Waguespack got a $47,568 average check, while Lummus earned $34,976.
When all the math was done, Waguespack had $268,881 on the season, edging Lummus ($266,188) by less than $2,700 for the gold buckle. Flip those two average checks, and Lummus is the champion.
“My buddy is supposed to wear this buckle,” Waguespack said of Lummus, while also acknowledging Jorgensen’s tough luck. “I feel like them guys should be standing in this place instead of me. I hate it for those guys. The ball was in their court.”
But all Waguespack could control is what he did, which was just enough.
“Everything fell into place,” he said, pointing out he now has as many gold buckles as his idol Ote Berry. “I grew up watching my heroes and dreaming of having a gold buckle. Now, I’ve got as many as Ote does, and I’m still going!”
Kyle Irwin had the steadiest hand over the course of the 10-day Wrangler NFR to nab the steer wrestling average title. Irwin had a total time of 46.1 seconds on 10 head to pocket the $74,150 first-place average check and finish third in the world standings at $249,892.
For the second straight year, header Kaleb Driggers and heeler Junior Nogueira snared the team roping world championship. Asked about going back-to-back, Nogueira had the response of the night.
“That’s awesome. Now we’re looking for the third one. This one’s over, right?” Nogueira said with a laugh.
Seriously, though, Driggers and Nogueira came into the 2022 Wrangler NFR with a hefty lead in the world standings and made it stand up. The tandem only cashed in four go-rounds, but they caught nine of 10 steers and finished second in the average, netting each roper $60,159.
For the season, each earned $340,708. The difference between Driggers/Nogueira and Tanner Tomlinson/Patrick Smith wasn’t much more than a go-round win. Tomlinson and Smith finished second in the world standings, both at $307,095, boosted by the first-place average check of $74,150.
Driggers and Nogueira had to endure a wait Saturday night, as the last of the 15 teams to compete. It was nerve-wracking for Nogueira.
“Kaleb watched ‘em all. I don’t even watch anymore,” said Nogueira, who now has three gold buckles, as he also owns the 2016 all-around title.
Like Nogueira, Driggers was over the moon at winning a second straight world title.
“That’s what I’ve been thinking about all year, wanting to follow it up and show we’re meant to be here,” Driggers said.
It was going to take an interesting confluence of events in the 10th go-round of the Wrangler NFR for Caleb Smidt to not win his second straight tie-down roping world championship.
Smidt was thankful such a confluence didn’t come to pass.
The Bellville, Texas cowboy made it a perfect 10-for-10 at the 2022 Wrangler NFR, successfully roping all his calves to complete a huge week. When the NFR began, Smidt was fourth in the world standings at $159,516, about $54,000 behind first-place Shad Mayfield ($213,508).
But Smidt made up ground in a hurry, winning the first two go-rounds on the Thomas & Mack dirt. In fact, Smidt cashed a check in each of the first eight go-rounds, piling up $140,000 en route to taking the lead in the world standings. His 10th and final run didn’t cash, but was a safe-and-sound 8.8 seconds.
Oh, and with all those clean runs, Smidt won the NFR average for another $74,150, totaling 82.5 seconds on 10 head. It’s the third time he’s won the NFR average (2015, 2018). In total, Smidt racked up $374,737 for the season, snagging his fourth tie-down gold buckle in eight years and third in the last five years.
“I started off really good. Winning the first two rounds makes the rest of the week a whole lot smoother,” Smidt said. “You can come out here, rope calves and have fun, and see where it ends up.”
He’s looking forward to a little break before going after that fifth gold buckle.
“I’ll take a two-week vacation,” Smidt said. “Family time and Christmas time.”