Texas in the rearview mirror
Regional NFR contestants make Tri-State land proud
The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo had a different look this year, but contestants and fans enjoyed it just as much.
Held at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, Dec. 3-12, the Texas venue was a temporary location, as the Wrangler NFR couldn’t be held in Las Vegas, due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The facility was different, the arena set-up was different, the city and state were different, but champions were still crowned, and cowboys, cowgirls and fans enjoyed it.
For first-timer and team roper Levi Lord, he and header Nelson Wyatt finished fourth in the world standings, winning over $100,000, placing in five of ten rounds and finishing third in the average.
The experience “was awesome,” he said. “It was everything you could have dreamed of.”
The arena set-up was much larger than the Thomas and Mack arena, the home of the rodeo when it’s in Las Vegas, and in Vegas, the left fence line plays a huge role in the team roping. With a larger arena in Texas, it was assumed team ropers wouldn’t be close to the left when roping. But the chutes were angled to where they served as a fence line, closer than what was imagined. “The left fence came into play quite a bit,” Lord said. “The way the arena angled, if the heeler went two or three hops and didn’t throw (the rope), you were actually getting into the fence. That was kind of a shocker.”
Saddle bronc rider Shorty Garrett didn’t have the luck he’d have liked at his first Wrangler NFR.
In the first round, his leg got bruised when the horse left the chute, and in round two, his saddle broke.
But he’d brought another saddle, so he was able to use the new one.
He finished tenth in the world standing, having placed in two rounds and winning eighth in the average.
Garrett, of Eagle Butte, S.D., loved the Major League Baseball field and its amenities. “It was outstanding,” he said. “They dang sure made you feel appreciative of having us there. The food, the locker rooms, there was plenty of room.” Contestant and contract personnel were required to wear masks at all times, except during competition, “which was a bummer,” Garrett said, “but if that’s what it took to have the Finals, we were glad to do it.”
The Finals is “old-hat” for veteran qualifier Jessica Routier, Buffalo, S.D., but with a new arena set-up, things were different.
“It was good,” she said of the venue. “It was definitely way different, but it was good.” She placed in three rounds and finished third in the average, with NFR earnings of over $72,000.
Globe Life Field boasted a warm-up arena, which allowed Routier to experience more of the show. “As a barrel racer at the Thomas and Mack, you don’t get to experience the inside, other than for the grand entry. You run in and run out. In Arlington, with the huge warm-up area, you got to take it all in and experience the whole effect. So that part was really fun.”
The logistics for transportation worked out well, too. The contestant parking lot was across the street, with stalls a bit less than a mile away. Routier and her husband Riley and children had planned on staying with family in Decatur, about an hour away, but when a Decatur family member tested positive for the virus, they ended up staying in Arlington. Routier prefers her horses to not be in stalls, but the stalls in Arlington were roomier and on grass, so her horses stayed there. And with nearly no autograph signings, the ten days in Texas were more relaxing.
“We sat out at the stalls and hung out with the horses all day. That part was nice, too.”
Riley and Jessica have a son who is a high school freshman, a seventh grade daughter, twin daughters, who are five, and another daughter, who is four. The little girls loved the rodeo. Contestants’ families were seated in the dugout areas, isolated from fans due to COVID-19, with access to food and beverages. The Routier girls could “run around the dugout suite, drink Shirley Temples all night, and play with the other kids,” Routier said. “They really enjoyed that part of it.”
Because of the larger arena, the barrel pattern was a standard size, instead of the small pattern that’s used in Las Vegas. Missy, Routier’s horse, excels on smaller patterns, and it took her a bit to get used to it. “She didn’t thrive with the setup as much as she did (in Las Vegas.) She loves the Las Vegas setup.” Missy, whose registered name is Fiery Miss West, was sore, Routier said, but able to run. She sprung a horseshoe in round four, as well. “It just wasn’t as easy this year as others,” she said. “And I don’t think it had anything to do with the venue. It was just one of those years.”
And with so many indoor rodeos (with smaller arenas) canceled this year due to COVID and more of the outdoor rodeos with big arenas, the horses at the Finals were more adept at running standard patterns, Routier thought. “To qualify this year, it took a horse that was really good at running a standard pattern. When you got here, you have fifteen horses that qualified for the NFR, running on standard patterns. A lot of years, horses can’t handle the smaller pattern in Vegas. It didn’t affect a lot of people, but there’s always a few that would prefer one over the other. But that made it a really good horse race this year, because everyone who got there, got there on the same sized pattern.”
The contestants expressed gratitude that the Finals were held. “We’re so thankful for Texas and the PRCA,” Lord said, “because they gave us something that no other sport did (a championship with fans). It would have been so easy for them to cancel, and our year’s worth of rodeo would be for nothing. In that respect, we’re thankful for that.”
Routier said it was difficult to compare between the Las Vegas NFR experience and the Texas NFR experience. “They are completely different,” she said. “I don’t think you can compare the two. This one just felt different, but not in a bad or good way. They were both awesome. Anybody who has competed at either place should be thankful and grateful, because they were both awesome.”
The NFR will go back to Las Vegas for six more years, as the contract runs through 2026, and contestants were pleased with that. “I definitely want to go to Vegas and experience it there, the atmosphere, the history of the Finals being there,” Lord said.
There’s a little time off in the rodeo world before chutes start cracking open again. Lord and Routier will turn out horses and let them rest, and there are Christmas preparations, too. Routier got most of her shopping done before the family left for Vegas. But there’s still more to do. “Apparently there’s a big stack of boxes in the bedroom that needs to be gone through,” she said.
For Garrett, there are chores to be done. He’s bucket feeding replacement heifers and will build fence, if the weather holds. “I’ll do some ranch stuff, hang around the house, and keep going with some horses I’ve started,” he said. “Then we’ll enter Odessa (Texas), and we’ll start it over.”
Lisa Lockhart became the top money-winner among all barrel racers at the National Finals Rodeo overall. Through her fourteen years of qualifications, she’s earned over $1.2 million at the Finals alone, and has won the average at the Finals twice (2014, 2016).
Here’s a look at how other area cowboys and cowgirls finished the 2020 rodeo season. In the bareback riding, Orin Larsen, originally of Manitoba but now living in Nebraska finished third; Cole Reiner, Buffalo, Wyo. fifth; Richie Champion, Stevensville, Mont. eighth; and Jamie Howlett, Rapid City, S.D. twelfth.
Saddle bronc rider Brody Cress, Hillsdale, Wyo., completed his year in third place in the world standings. Chase Brooks, Deer Lodge, Mont. finished eighth; and Cole Elshere, Faith, S.D., finished thirteenth in the world.
Bridger Anderson, Carrington, N.D., is the ninth best man in the world standings in the steer wrestling, and Jace Melvin, Ft. Pierre, S.D. is a spot behind him, in tenth place.
Last year’s world champion tie-down roper Haven Meged, Miles City, Mont., finished seventh, and fan-favorite barrel racer Lisa Lockhart, Oelrichs, S.D., concluded her year in eighth place.
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