What to look for at the WNFR
With a record $10 million to be distributed at this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Polaris RANGER, there figure to be earnings records in several – if not all – events contested at the Thomas & Mack Center Dec. 3-12.
In truth, the spate of record breaking actually began with the Clem McSpadden National Finals Steer Roping earlier this month in Mulvane, Kan., where Trevor Brazile won the gold buckle and broke his own single-season earnings record for that event with $121,112.
The $62,390 Brazile banked from the NFSR plus the $20,000 in bonus money he will receive on the eve of the WNFR for qualifying in two events will bring his all-around total to $301,242 and give him a shot at breaking his own single-season earnings record of $507,921 (2010) while also helping him become the first cowboy in PRCA history to reach $6 million in career earnings.
The huge bump in total prize money – up from $6.375 million a year ago – that resulted from last year’s new contract with Las Vegas Events may also produce the first season in history in which all 15 contestants in a single event leave Las Vegas with at least $100,000 in season earnings. It almost happened last year in team roping when the top 12 (both headers and heelers) surpassed six figures and none of the 30 team ropers who qualified for the WNFR left town with less than $89,065 in season earnings.
Following the money will be just one of the intriguing storylines worth following at the 57th annual edition of the WNFR:
Bareback rider Evan Jayne of Marseille, France, is the first European-born athlete to qualify for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in its 57-year history. He is the son of a French trick rider who was inspired to try rodeo by a photo book produced by the late Louise Serpa. Evan (born Yvan Pierre) came to Texas as an exchange student to try his hand at rodeo, stayed on to get his college degree at Sam Houston State University (Huntsville, Texas) and teach at the high school level while competing in PRCA rodeos (he doesn’t teach these days, but his wife, Kristin, is a teacher in Texas). Before this year, Jayne came closest to making the WNFR in 2007 when he finished 19th in the world; he finished 80th a year ago. He enters Las Vegas fourth in the world standings.
Apart from Jayne, there will be two Brazilians in the field – team roper Junior Nogueira returns for a second straight year and Marcos Costa is the first Brazilian tie-down roper to qualify – along with six Canadians (steer wrestler Tanner Milan, bareback riders Orin Larsen and Clint Laye, saddle bronc riders Zeke Thurston and Tyrel Larsen (Orin’s older brother) and barrel racer Deb Guelly. Both of the Brazilians have had their paths to the top made easier by noted American cowboys. Nogueira has been mentored by partner Jake Barnes, a seven-time world champion, and has lived with Barnes’ family in Arizona for the last couple of years. Costa’s mentor is 2008 World Champion Stran Smith and he’s been living on the Smith’s property in Childress, Texas, for more than a year. The six Canadians is the most to make the field since 2008 (also six that year).
Kaycee Feild has won four consecutive bareback riding titles and four consecutive WNFR average titles, an achievement unmatched in any event. If he continues the record streak this year, Feild will not only tie Joe Alexander’s record for consecutive world championships in bareback riding, but he will also equal the overall event record shared by Alexander and Bruce Ford. It will also match the career total amassed by his dad, Lewis, who won three all-around and two bareback riding world titles in the mid-80s. Kaycee enters the rodeo with a lead of nearly $20,000 over Austin Foss despite missing two months after hip surgery last spring.
Closest race? With this much money available in Vegas ($26,231 to the winner of each round in each event and $67,269 to the winner of the 10-head average), nobody truly has a safe lead in any event, but the steer wrestling is extremely close with a difference between the first qualifier (Clayton Hass) and the 15th (Blake Knowles) of just over $30,000. It’s been six years (Lee Graves in 2009) since the guy who entered the WNFR with the most money left town with a bulldogging gold buckle. That’s the longest such streak in any event. There are three WNFR first timers in the field – Tyler Waguespack, Baylor Roche and Canada’s Tanner Milan – who have just as much of a shot at the title as Luke Branquinho, who has five gold buckles, one shy of the event record held by Homer Pettigrew (1940, 1942-45, 1948).
The only two PRCA rookies to make the field are both saddle bronc riders – Zeke Thurston and CoBurn Bradshaw – so they will be battling it out for the PRCA Resistol Rookie of the Year Award as a secondary challenge to winning a gold buckle. Bradshaw won the 2014 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association championship in Casper, Wyo., by a half-point over Thurston (311 points on four head to 310.5), so they are no strangers. Thurston was part of a family trick riding troupe as a kid before switching to working the arena as a contestant. His father, Skeeter, is a six-time WNFR saddle bronc rider (1986-87, 1989, 1991, 1994-95).