Time for the Finals: Local timed event qualifiers look to Vegas
The eyes of the pro rodeo world will be on Las Vegas next week, when the 61st annual Wrangler National Finals Rodeo stampedes into town.
One-hundred twenty cowboys and cowgirls, the top fifteen in each of their events, will vie for the title of world champions.
Several of those contenders call the northern plains home.
Lisa Lockhart and Jessica Routier, both barrel racers and South Dakotans, will make the trek to Vegas.
It’s the thirteenth qualification for Lockhart. Fans know her for her much-loved horse, Louie, a sixteen-year-old buckskin, but there will be three horses in the trailer when she turns the truck to the southwest.
Along with Louie will be her nine-year old mare Rosa, also a buckskin, and a young horse, Cutter, who is an eight-year-old brown. (Fans can tell Louie and Rosa apart because Louie always turns right on the first barrel while Rosa goes left.)
Lockhart has hauled all three horses this year, with each doing their part. After Louie sustained an injury in early March, he sat out till July, and Cutter had a chance to shine. Lockhart has hauled him the last two years. “He was always the sidekick,” she said, until his first big career win, at the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo in March, where Lockhart was champion.
As the summer season ramped up, Louie and Rosa were both back to action and both instrumental in Lockhart winning the Calgary Stampede. Louie ran the first three rounds, with Rosa making the run in the short round.
Louie has made eighty consecutive runs at the Thomas and Mack Arena, home of the WNFR, with Lockhart riding him last year in rounds six, seven, and eight. Rosa was her mount for the other seven rounds last year. She has the speed but she had a tendency to hit barrels last year. “It was hit and miss. We did win a go-round. She’s so fast, that if we kept (the barrels) standing, we’d win money. We were definitely plagued with hit barrels.”
Lockhart isn’t sure which horse she’ll ride yet, and may not make the decision till the day of the first round. “Maybe they’ll all take turns, and maybe they won’t,” she said. “We’ll get started and see how it rolls.” There are reasons for the horse she chooses. “There are usually methods to the madness as to why you choose the horse. They all have their likes and dislikes, and sometimes I feel one could excel more than another, given the circumstances.”
The other day, Lockhart mentioned to her husband Grady that she might watch a few runs from previous WNFRs. “My husband said surely you know what you need to do after being there twelve times. I said, well, you’d think so,” she chuckled. The couple has three children: daughter Alyssa, who is a senior at Black Hills State University, a son, Thane, who is a freshman at Weatherford (Texas) College, and a son, Cade, who is a sophomore in high school. Alyssa and Thane both compete in college rodeo and Cade in high school rodeo.
Lockhart enters this year’s WNFR in third place with $146,352 in the year’s earnings.
For Jessica Routier, this will be trip number two, to the WNFR.
After finishing as reserve world champion last year, she was able to compete at the big winter shows, which gave her a jump to the season earnings. She won second (to Lockhart) at the RAM National Circuit Finals in March which added more than $18,000 to her winnings and allowed her to stay home more. “I actually took most of April and May and September off this year,” she said. “So June through August were the three months I went hard.”
She won Belle Fourche, S.D. and Mandan, N.D. over the July Fourth run, placed at Cody, Wyo., and made the semifinals at the Calgary Stampede, among other rodeos she placed at. “I kind of chipped away at it all summer.”
At the WNFR, she’ll ride the horse she rode last year: Missy. The eight-year-old palomino has only gotten better, she said. “She definitely has more confidence than this time last year. I feel like maybe she’ll settle into the Thomas and Mack a little more quickly. Not that she did bad last year. If it goes as good as it did last year, I’ll be thrilled.”
Missy has a competitive spirit, Routier said. “It seems like situations that might be more of a challenge just bring out more of a burning desire in her to try harder.” The duo ran in some muddy arenas this summer and Missy didn’t mind. “We ran in a lot of adverse conditions, and she would fire so hard when other horses may not have wanted to try as hard.”
Routier will take two more horses with her, Smoothie, her college horse, and Smoothie’s daughter, Margie. Margie, a six-year-old brown mare and Missy’s buddy horse, has been doing well at jackpots.
The barrel racers are allowed to practice in the Thomas and Mack Arena each day for an hour, which Routier did not do last year, to allow Missy to rest. This year, she’ll take advantage of the practices. “My plan is to take my young horse to all the practices. If something happened and I needed to run somebody else, she’d be comfortable there, and she’d be an option.”
Routier, who moved to Buffalo from Wisconsin when she married Riley in 2007, is one of five current or former WNFR qualifiers from Harding County, population 1,242. Jesse Bail qualified in the saddle bronc riding and bull riding (twelve times); and Chason Floyd (once) and Ivan Tiegen (seven times) and Birch Negaard (10 times) in the steer wrestling. “It’s such a small community but there’s been a lot of success that’s come from there.”
Jessica and Riley have five children: son Braden, who is thirteen, and daughters Payton, age eleven, twins Rayna and Rose, four, and Charlie, who is three.
She enters the WNFR in eighth place with $96,507 won.
In his inaugural year at the WNFR, Bridger Chambers, like Routier, finished as reserve world champion.
This year, the steer wrestler from Stevensville, Montana, didn’t win much during the lucrative winter rodeos, so “it felt like I was behind the eight ball from the scratch, clawing the whole time.”
Qualifying for the WNFR isn’t easy, he said. “People don’t see the highs and lows that go through the middle of the season. Everybody who made it deserves to be there.”
During the regular season, Chambers rode Rooster, the thirteen-year-old sorrel he has owned for four years. Scott Guenther and Tanner Milan also rode him this summer, and Guenther qualified for the WNFR on the sorrel, but Rooster will not be Chamber’s mount in Las Vegas. It’s not a good arena for him, he said. “It’s a different type of setup and it takes a very special horse to be there. We’ve had a lot of success on my horse. I just don’t think it’s the right setup for him.” Chambers will ride Dakota Eldridge’s horse Rusty, the same horse he rode last year.
Chambers is more comfortable going into this year’s Finals. “I guess I feel pretty relaxed, and maybe that’s knowing what to expect. But I also don’t want to downplay it. It’s part of our job, and it’s the one (rodeo) we’re trying to make it to.” Last year’s WNFR was a big event for him. “I think last year, the experience (at the WNFR) was overwhelming at times, and this year, trying to make it again, I felt like I had a lot more peaks and valleys, and sometimes it felt like the valleys outweighed the peaks.”
But he loved the challenge. “That’s why we love it so much. It takes everything you have, at all times. You might not be ready, the animals might not be ready, but it doesn’t matter. You have to try to make it work as best as you can.”
Chambers is married to Kristen; their children are daughter Maddie (age fourteen); and sons Hudson (twelve), Crewe (five), and Case, who is four.
Team roper Clay Tryan, Billings, Montana, enters this year’s Finals in fourth place and will head for Jake Long. No one else at this year’s Finals has more qualifications than Clay, who has been to the “big show” sixteen previous times. Going to the Finals is never “ho-hum,” he said. “It’s exciting to make it. That’s why we do what we do. I won’t be nervous roping, because that’s what we do, but it’s something to look forward to. It’s how you make your money.” Clay is a three-time world champion (2004, 2013-2014).
Ty Erickson, Helena, Mont., will compete at his sixth WNFR, coming into the Finals in first place in the steer wrestling.
Chase Tryan makes his third trip to the WNFR his year, heeling for Brentan Hall, a first-timer. Chase, a cousin to Clay, enters the WNFR in eleventh place.
Nebraska’s Riley Pruitt is making his second trip to the WNFR, after having won the average at the 2016 WNFR. He enters in eighth place.
The son of Bart and Misty Meged, calf roper Haven Meged of Miles City, Montana, grew up roping around the family ranch and began tie-down roping in eighth grade. He competed in junior high and high school rodeo, in more than just tie-down: the cutting, reined cow horse, steer wrestling and team roping, and winning eleven high school state titles (three all-arounds, three cutting, two tie-down roping, one team roping as a heeler, one in the reined cow horse, and one rookie all-around.)
Meged is a senior at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, and he’s scheduled as many online classes as he can, so he is able to pro rodeo. After two years at Western Oklahoma State University in Altus, he’s in his second year at Tarleton and will graduate next May with a degree in ag industries and agencies.
The WNFR takes place Dec. 5-14 in Las Vegas at the Thomas and Mack Arena, on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Performances begin at 7 pm PT. The rodeo is aired live each night on CBS Sports Network, beginning at 8 pm MT, with a pre-show starting a half-hour earlier.
At the end of the WNFR, two champions are crowned in each event: the average winner, the cowboy (or barrel racer) who had the best cumulative time or score for that event over ten rounds, and the world champion, who finished the year with the most money won, including money earned at the WNFR.
For more information on the WNFR, visit http://www.prorodeo.com.