Vegas turns out winners

First time WNFR competitor Cassidy Kruse, Gillette, Wyoming, ended up third in the average and fifth in the world after winning the first round of competition. Photo by Dan Hubbell

Steven Peebles nearly died just five months ago. Tonight, he left the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Polaris RANGER with a haul that he only could’ve imagined in his wildest dreams.

The 26-year-old from Redmond, Ore., captured the bareback riding world title, the WNFR average championship and the RAM Top Gun award.

Peebles rode for 83.5 points on Pete Carr’s Classic Pro Rodeo’s Good Time Charlie to split the Round-10 win and move ahead of four-time World Champion Kaycee Feild by $10,523 after Feild failed to earn a check aboard Frontier Rodeo’s Times Up.

“I tried not to get any butterflies before I got on my horse, and I wanted to have a lot of energy and fight,” Peebles said. “I stared at the horse and just kept saying to myself, ‘He isn’t faster than me. He isn’t faster than me.’”

“In the back of that ambulance that day, I begged God for another chance at life, and I told him that if He gave me that chance I would represent him as best I could and go after a world title as hard as I could. That’s what’s pushed me this whole time – to not let God down. I look at life completely different now, and I kept fighting for what I wanted. It’s incredible everything worked out as well as it did.” Steven Peebles, bareback riding world title holder, WNFR average champion and RAM Top Gun Award recipient

The horse was just the right speed for Peebles, who was simply thankful to be alive and competing in Las Vegas. He almost lost his life in July after suffering a broken rib that nicked an artery and filled his lungs with blood at the Livingston (Mont.) Roundup. He was rushed to the hospital and made it without a moment to spare as doctors were able to drain his lungs and save his life.

“In the back of that ambulance that day, I begged God for another chance at life, and I told him that if He gave me that chance I would represent him as best I could and go after a world title as hard as I could,” Peebles said. “That’s what’s pushed me this whole time – to not let God down. I look at life completely different now, and I kept fighting for what I wanted. It’s incredible everything worked out as well as it did.”

Peebles won the WNFR average with a score of 832.5 points on 10 head, which was 30 points more than second-place Seth Hardwick. Feild, who was aiming for a bareback riding record-tying fifth consecutive world championship and a fifth straight average title, finished second in the world and third in the average.

Heading into the final round, tie-down roper Caleb Smidt knew there was a tall task ahead of him if he was going to claim his first world championship. He trailed 23-time World Champion Trevor Brazile in the world standings, and would need one of the best ropers of all time to falter, while making a solid run of his own.

“I was just planning on winning second,” Smidt said of his mindset entering Round 10. “Trevor’s the King of the Cowboys, the best there ever was, and crazy things happen in Round 10 at the NFR. This a blessing to win this gold buckle, and a dream come true.”

Smidt split sixth with a time of 7.9 seconds, and finished first in the WNFR average race with a time of 80.7 seconds on 10 head. When Brazile figure-eighted the tail of his calf tonight and clocked a time of 13.9 seconds, he fell to fourth in the average, which allowed Smidt to win the world title by $14,299.

“I was glad I went before (Trevor),” Smidt said. “He was roping outstanding this week – probably the best I’ve seen him rope. He’s my hero. I look up to him and copy a lot of the stuff he does because he does it so well. I just tried to put the pressure on him. I can’t explain how much (Brazile) has done for me. I look up to him and he’s been a great role model of mine.”

The steer wrestling lead changed hands almost nightly during the 10 rounds of the WNFR, but when the dust settled tonight, Hunter Cure had captured his second gold buckle in three years. Cure – who also won the world title in 2013 – split second place in Round 10 with K.C. Jones with a 3.9-second run to win $18,192. He also moved up to second in the WNFR average with a 52.1-second time on 10 head to capture the gold buckle with $241,515. Dakota Eldridge won the average with 45.6 seconds on 10 head, but finished second in the world with $211,669.

“This was anybody’s ballgame, and it was there for whoever was going to step up and take it,” the 32-year-old Cure, from Holliday, Texas, said. “I felt like my horse (Charlie) had worked great all week long and my hazer (Matt Reeves) did an outstanding job, so I just needed to stay the course and work on my craft and see how it worked out in the end.”

In the end, it was a second gold buckle for Cure, who has become a veteran at the Thomas & Mack Center in his third WNFR appearance.

“I let the bright lights get the best of me the first time I came here (in 2009) and I swore that mistake would never happen again,” said Cure, who showed ice-cold nerves tonight. “The last two times (at the WNFR, 2013 and 2015) was just about keeping my head down and going to work. My heart has been beating for three days.”

An unlikely pair took home the world team roping championships tonight – unlikely because they aren’t partners. There was a split with the gold buckles, as header Aaron Tsinigine – who partners with Ryan Motes – and heeler Kollin VonAhn – who ropes with Luke Brown – won the world titles, while their partners both finished second.

Tsinigine and Motes won the 10th round with a time of 4.1 seconds, while Brown and VonAhn placed sixth with a 9.6. Tsinigine and Motes finished fourth in the WNFR average, which was enough for Tsinigine’s first gold buckle.

“Two or three things needed to go our way for me to be here right now,” the 29-year-old Tsinigine said. “We needed to win the round, for starters. If I could have picked anyone to be here with me it’d be Ryan Motes, my partner and best friend. Congrats to Kollin. He and Luke roped good all week, too. This has been my dream since I was a kid. When I was growing up on the (Navajo) reservation I would have never dreamed of winning a world championship. Everything’s coming true for me tonight.”

While the experience was brand new for Tsinigine, it was the second world title for VonAhn, who won the 2009 championship with Nick Sartain. The 32-year-old from Durant, Okla., entered the WNFR ranked sixth in the world heeling standings. He not only won the gold buckle, but also his third WNFR average title (2009 and 2013).

It was a bittersweet win for him since his partner finished second in the world.

“I never thought I’d win a world title and have such a weird feeling,” VonAhn said. “Luke has done such a great job all week, he should be sitting here, too. I never could have planned on this happening. Going into tonight I was just going to be happy with second in the average. As much money as the Finals paid this year I was just going to be tickled to be here and enjoy it. Then everything started to fall apart, and this is just the way the cookie crumbled.”

Saddle bronc rider Jacobs Crawley had already proved in 2013 that he was capable of winning the WNFR average title. Tonight, he grabbed another average buckle, and added his first gold buckle to his trophy case. The 27-year-old from Stephenville, Texas, won the average with a score of 810.5 points on 10 head, even though he didn’t take a single victory lap over the 10 nights of the WNFR. Crawley says his double-buckle win parallels the happiness in his personal and professional lives.

“The beautiful things is, I didn’t feel any pressure,” Crawley said. “My personal life is so great and that’s where my happiness comes from. Bronc riding is my job, and that’s how I treat it. It’s great to see it pay off. The pressure comes from not wanting to miss the opportunity.”

He earned checks in seven of the 10 rounds, and was one of only two men to ride all 10 horses – CoBurn Bradshaw was 803.5 points on 10 head.

Crawley’s earnings of $276,247 were enough to hold off Wade Sundell by just $3,182.

“This has been an amazing week,” Crawley said. “To be able to share it with my family and my new wife (Lauren) is great. I just wanted to stay the course, and treat it like the same rodeo for 10 days, one at a time.”

While it may look like Crawley has everything carefully planned out, he says that’s far from the case when he gets aboard a bucking horse.

“I’ve got a game plan for about one-and-a-half seconds; after that it’s muscle memory,” he said.

Barrel racer Callie duPerier was competing at her first WNFR, but rode like she’d been here plenty of times. The 22-year-old from Boerne, Texas, entered Las Vegas first in the world, and that’s where she finished – in both the world standings and the WNFR average.

“I thought I was taking the lap just for the winning the average, then when they told me I had won the world I just started crying,” she said. “It is just so awesome. I have to thank God first, my dad and (horse) Dillon, and just everybody that has been behind me all year long.”

While duPerier had never competed on the Thomas & Mack dirt, her horse had. The pair started off a bit slow, but eventually won the average title with a time of 140.41 seconds on 10 runs. duPerier held off Lisa Lockhart by $18,787.

“The first of the week I was having trouble getting the first barrel down, but we finally got it and now I’m the world champion,” duPerier said. “I can’t believe it.”

The lone world championship that was settled before Round 10 was the bull riding, with Sage Kimzey’s dominant 2015 season ending with his second straight gold buckle after nine rounds.

The 21-year-old from Strong City, Okla., became the first bull rider in history to win the gold buckle in each of his first two seasons as a PRCA card holder.

“This year was a lot different,” he said of his second world title campaign. “I knew what to expect, and how everything worked. Last year, everything was new, but it was a magical year, one I’ll never forget.”

Kimzey finished second in the WNFR average with 578.5 points on seven head – topped only by 2012 World Champion Cody Teel’s 656.5 points on eight head.

“A few things this week didn’t go exactly my way,” Kimzey said. “I got bucked off the first two rounds, and just didn’t ride as good as I needed to early in the week. I was feeling a lot of pressure to repeat, and then I was feeling Cody on my heels. I did what I needed to late in the week, and everything worked out for me.”

So at a young age, and with two gold buckles, what motivates Kimzey to keep reaching for more rodeo glory?

“I want to be remembered as the best ever,” he said. “To do that, I’ve got to win nine.”

Frontier Rodeo had an awfully good December. Not only was the company voted 2015 PRCA Stock Contractor of the year, its horses won honors as Top Stock of the Wrangler NFR.

Full Baggage was named Top Bareback Horse of the NFR for the third time (and has placed in the top five another two times), while Medicine Woman won for the second time (and has also placed in the top five another two times). Steven Peebles scored 89.5 points to win Round 8 on Full Baggage; Jacobs Crawley scored 88.5 to place second in Round 5 on Medicine Woman.

Two more Frontier horses placed in the top five this year: Showstomper was a first-timer on the list, while Maple Leaf also made the top five in 2013. The top bull was Bruiser from D&H Cattle, also a first-timer on the top-five list; he bucked off Kody DeShon in Round 2 and Joe Frost in Round 9.