2009 Wrangler NFR Preview

This year marks the third time Spin To Win Rodeo has made predictions on the world champion races. For perspective, of a possible 27 titles, we’ve been right 10 times. And, we have to admit, there have been some gimmies. Three of those were Trevor Brazile all-arounds and two were barrel racing predictions with the leader tens of thousands of dollars ahead of the field. Shamefully, we’ve only picked one team roping world champion. Kendra Santos picked Matt Sherwood in 2006.

So, to all the competitors we haven’t picked in the past and haven’t picked in this issue, don’t take offense, we obviously don’t know what we’re talking about. Furthermore, if you’re good enough to make the Wrangler NFR, you’re good enough to win a world title, we’re just trying to figure out the most-likely winner. And to the fans, trust us, we’re wrong. But you’ve got to admit, it’s fun to take a stab at it and-like the Cowboys’ Turtle Association- at least we’ve got the guts to stick our necks out!

Trevor Ties Ty
Brazile Makes it Seven All-Around Titles

If there’s one easy call to make, it’s Trevor’s record-tying seventh world all-around title. As the regular season ended, he had amassed $262,078 in earnings. His closest competitors are Clint Robinson and Josh Peek. He leads both by over $100,000.

Robinson will only be competing at the Wrangler NFR in the tie-down roping. Peek has qualified in both the tie-down roping and steer wrestling.

At press time, Brazile still had earnings at the National Finals Steer Roping to add to his total prior to the NFR. Last year, he won $40,192 there. Potentially, he could go in to Las Vegas with $300,000.

When Peek qualified for the NFR in two events in 2007, he made a combined $116,478. So, if Peek is able to repeat that performance this year, that still leaves him $6,601 short if Brazile doesn’t win a dime in Las Vegas.

“It’s Trevor’s,” Joe Beaver said. “I’m going to tell you right now, honestly, until someone decides to try very hard in two events, there’s not going to be another all-around champ. You’re not going to beat that guy. That guy’s like Ty Murray. I won two all-arounds because Ty was hurt. One I won because he quit. I’m telling you right now that Trevor Brazile is like Ty Murray. He’s such a master of three events like Ty was you’re not going to beat that guy. If he lags in one event, he makes up for it in the other two.”

By Brazile’s standards, he’s lagged in the steer roping this year (at least as of press time, he could still make a charge and win the world). If Beaver’s right, then the rest of the competition in the team roping and tie-down roping ought to be scared. And realistically, Brazile is among the favorites in both his events. He leads the tie-down roping by $32,123 and is in the top five of the team roping.

In 2007, Brazile had wrapped up the steer roping title prior to the NFR and the buzz about him winning the triple crown was huge. At press time, Brazile was much further out of contention for a steer roping title this year, so there’s not the triple crown buzz. Sure, the chances aren’t as good for him as they were two years ago, but Brazile could win another triple crown. That, rodeo fans, is the most compelling possibility that transcends an individual event at the NFR this year.

If nothing else, Brazile will shatter the season earnings record he set last year of $419,868.

Cannon Ball Run
Clint Cannon’s Dominance Will Continue Through the Finals

Clint Cannon dominated the regular season. The question is: Can he dominate at the Wrangler National Finals?

He hasn’t bucked off or missed a horse out all year. He set a new PRCA regular season single-event earnings record with $233,504. The guy is tough, he was a fullback at Stephen F. Austin and Texas A&M Commerce. So, he should be able to withstand the rigors of 10 rounds of the toughest bareback horses in the world-which is a consideration for a first-time Wrangler NFR qualifier. This season he won 17 different rodeos-from RodeoHouston to the Caldwell Night Rodeo. In fact, take away that $59,250 from his Houston win and he would still lead the world standings. Going into the Finals, he leads Bobby Mote by $63,165.

So, there are many reasons that Cannon is the favorite.

But these aren’t uncharted waters in the event. In 2007, Bobby Mote set a new regular season earnings record (the one Cannon just broke) and led by $45,982 coming into the Finals. Despite a hard-charging Justin McDaniel, Mote held on for the title. If the 2007 NFR would have been 11 rounds, however, McDaniel might have surpassed Mote.

A huge lead-at least in this case-is not an insurmountable lead. Who’s going to push Cannon this year in Las Vegas like McDaniel did to Mote two years ago? Interestingly, it could be Mote himself. His age would be the first and most obvious knock on his chances. But as a veteran of the sport, he’s got it figured out. He’s healthy, understands the strategy at the NFR and will be all-business in the Thomas & Mack.

That’s not to say that Cannon won’t be prepared, though. He spent four years playing football at a high level-which is all about preparation. Some cowboys who make their first-ever Finals get caught up in the bright lights of Las Vegas, but Cannon, though a first-timer, has been rodeoing since 2002.

“I won’t be getting wrapped up in no scene,” he said. “I’m 100 percent focused on what I want to do. I just focus on riding everything. I don’t drink or anything like that, so that’s not going to be an issue. I’ve learned that you have to prepare yourself and you have to be focused.”

One distraction he will face, unique to the other cowboys, is a French film crew following him for a documentary to be released next year.

Another cowboy who could give him a run for the gold buckle is McDaniel. He’s played the hunter before in Las Vegas, and is the defending champion. Plus, he had a great showing at the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha. The other is Ryan Gray, who has had an outstanding year himself, winning Omaha and tying the PRCA record for highest-marked bareback ride ever with a 94 in Eagle, Colo.

“Everybody can give me a run for my money out there, but the guy with the closest striking range is Bobby,” Cannon said. “All the guys are riding unbelievable, there are seven guys that have made over $100,000 this year. That’s unheard of.”

He’s right, no other event has more than four of it’s contestants cracking the $100,000 mark.

There are so many ways this race could play out, but if anyone’s got a shot at Cannon, they’ll have to win rounds and win the average. That means staying on. Last year, the top six finishers in the average rode all 10 horses. That could bode well for Cannon if his streak of not bucking off or missing a horse out continues.

“Nothing changes for me,” he said. “My whole focus is going and riding all 10 horses the best I can and be the best athlete out there and let it prove in the arena that all my dedication and hard work I’ve done will pay off and guide me to a world championship.”

While Cannon’s chances aren’t a “lock,” behind the all-around and bull riding races, this is the closest thing. A $50,000 lead is just too much. So long as Cannon stays healthy and rides reasonably well, it should be his.

“I’m going to come out there and compete hard and ride hard and they’ve got to chase me,” he said.

The Closest Call
Can Graves Edge Branquinho to Win His Second Gold Buckle?

Annually, the toughest race to get a handle on is the steer wrestling. Usually, there’s no breakaway leader and almost every year it comes down to the 10th round in Las Vegas. The top competitors often use the same horse so it’s difficult to find separation in horses. This year is no different except for instead of four or five guys with an equal chance, there are only two.

The two men atop the leader board-Lee Graves and Luke Branquinho-have nearly identical stats. Branquinho has two world titles to his name and Graves has one. Both set regular season earnings records in their world title years. Graves has been to 10 NFRs and Branquinho to eight (counting this year). Both missed an entire year of competition due to major injury and both are riding PRCA/AQHA Horses of the Year.

Branquinho will ride Willy, Greg Cassidy’s 2008 winner. Not only did Willy carry Branquinho to the title last year, Jason Miller rode him to the gold buckle in 2007, Lee Graves in 2005 and Rope Myers in 2001.

“I think he and Curtis (Cassidy) will be the only two guys on Willy this year and I think he’ll be stronger,” Joe Beaver said. “Lee Graves’s black horse is awesome in there and I don’t know who all will be riding him, I imagine there will be two of them, but I don’t know for sure.”

During the regular season, both Lee Graves and Trevor Knowles rode Graves’s horse Jessie, who won the top horse award in 2007 and again this year.

The separation between these two competitors is minimal. Consider momentum: Branquinho won the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha and $31,731, but Graves won $17,424 there and took over the lead in the world standings. In fact, on June 1st, Graves’s world standings total stood at $27,422. He’s won nearly $100,000 since then.

What’s more, they come in to Las Vegas 1 and 2 in the PRCA World Standings, with Branquinho trailing by $8,021. Last year, Branquinho trailed standings leader Wade Sumpter by $3,000 before winning the title. To be fair, Sumpter did go out of competition with an injury.

“Lee and Luke are like Cody Ohl, and me and Trevor (Brazile) and Fred (Whitfield), they’re mentally tough,” said Joe Beaver. “If you’re mentally tough out there, you’re hard to beat. The important thing there is the guys in the lead cannot miss a steer. The double jump is the devil’s triangle down there.”

More than likely, this race will come down to broken barriers and missed steers. When Branquinho won his first title in 2004, he broke the barrier twice and didn’t miss a steer. Last year, he was completely clean. In 2005, when Lee Graves won his title, he was completely clean. Interestingly, Branquinho was absent from the NFR in 2005 and Graves was in 2008. Since 2004, Branquinho has missed two steers and broken out three times. In that same time frame (four NFRs apiece), Graves has missed four steers and broken out three times. Even the statistics don’t create any discernable difference between these two.

Another interesting steer wrestling statistic is that no one has repeated as a back-to-back champion since Ote Berry in 1990-91. Does that give Graves an edge? Not in this case.

These two are as evenly matched at this point in their careers as any other competitors in any other event. This should be the most exciting, edge-of-your-seat race in Las Vegas this year.

The one thing Beaver sees that has the potential to set these two apart is the hazer.

“I tell you what’s going to be real important for me to see, who’s going to be on the other side. I don’t think Curtis will haze,” said Beaver. Curtis Cassidy is competing on the horse there, too, but allowing Branquinho to borrow him. “He might, but it’s hard to know. That’s a hard place to haze, because you cannot be late on your side. If you are and they hit the start they may miss one. If you shove one under them, you take them from being 3 or 4 to 5 or 6. If it’s one of those Milan brothers, they know Willy back and forth. On the black horse of Lee’s, I don’t know who will do that.”

At press time, Branquinho and Cassidy hadn’t decided who would haze.

So if it comes down to the hazer, viewers can bank on it being the most competitive steer wrestling race in recent history. Equal portions of mental toughness, horses, veteran savvy and athletic prowess colliding in the big man’s event will make for great watching. In the end, these two titans of the sport will battle it out and Graves will continue the trend of no back-to-back champ and equal Branquinho’s world title total.

Another Split Title
In a Topsy-Turvy Finals, Masters and Smith Will Win It All

Since 2003, no roper ranked lower than fourth in the regular season standings coming in to the Wrangler NFR has walked out of the Thomas & Mack with the gold buckle. In 2004, Speed Williams and Rich Skelton were fourth and narrowly won their eighth world title. When Allen Bach won his latest buckle, he came in fourth and Walt Woodard was third the year he won his second world title. Last year, Randon Adams was second coming in. Every other world titlist since 2003 was first when the regular season ended.

So, is it safe to say that only the top five teams should be considered for the title? Probably not, anyone could come out of the blue if the leaders falter, but it would be a pretty secure limb to step out on to say the 2009 champs will come from the top 5 teams.

The earnings totals are vastly different between headers and heelers, so it’s also a safe bet to think the title will be split again.

So, let’s start on the heading side. Chad Masters boasts a $22,307 lead coming in. He’s a world champion and NFR champion. Logically, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be the favorite. He’s riding the same horses he won the title on, and he has a very solid partner who last year roped 20 legs and placed third in the average in Jade Corkill.

“You’re not going to beat Chad Masters this year in that building with that lead,” said Joe Beaver, who’s headed in Las Vegas four times. “He’s got two horses that fit that building. He’s roped good and he’s roped bad in the building and he knows why he roped bad. They ain’t going to beat him this year. Trevor will give that sucker a run for it this year. Him and Patrick are going to win a lot. Chad and Jade better not go out of the average, if they do, Trevor and Patrick, they’re going to gain on them.”

Kelsey Parchman is an unknown entity to a degree. This will be his first Finals and he’ll be roping with Richard Durham, who he won RodeoHouston with, so he’ll have a solid heeler. Like every year, the team roping will be up and down. There will be fast rounds where a 5-second run doesn’t place and rounds where everything falls apart. Will Parchman’s inexperience allow him to fall into that rollercoaster? We won’t know until the game is played, so it’s hard to consider him a frontrunner.

Luke Brown, on the other hand, is a solid sleeper pick. He roped with Corkill at the Finals last year and never broke out but had to use two loops twice. Other than that he placed in seven rounds and was third in the average in his debut appearance. He’s roping with a solid, fast veteran in Martin Lucero. Don’t be surprised if Brown’s in the mix at the end. Plus, he’s coming off a $14,000 win at Waco.

Trevor Brazile also has to be in the conversation. He’s checking goals off his list at a methodical pace and a team roping buckle is high on that list. Count him out at your own risk.

Rounding out the top five is David Key. His horse might be a question, but as the feel-good story there’s no one better. He wants to win the buckle in honor of his late son, Riley. He’s roping with Skelton, who’s obviously been there before, so he’s got to be considered.

On the heeling side, the picture is much more muddled. Corkill’s lead is $6,679-the smallest in any event. That’s a third-place finish in a round at the NFR. Obviously he’s got a great header who will give him 10 great chances.

Richard Durham’s chances are harder to predict. He’s been to the Finals, but that was in 2005 and he’s never been a frontrunner. Roping with a first-time qualifier to the NFR makes it a serious wild card. Parchman could have a great first NFR like Luke Brown did last year and keep both he and Durham in the race, but plenty of NFR rookies have faltered.

Patrick Smith, however, is very likely to be in the mix for the world title come rounds eight, nine and 10. Brazile will keep this team in the hunt, and with the regular season earnings differences, Brazile might not catch Masters, but Smith would have a better chance of catching Corkill.

“Patrick is liable to get him a gold buckle,” Beaver said. “I don’t think they’ll catch Chad.”

Martin Lucero is in the same situation as Smith. He and Brown will be a serious threat. That leaves Rich Skelton rounding out the top five. With he and Key’s recent absence from the Finals, they’ll have more fire and inspiration than anyone.

Leaving defending champion Randon Adams and his new partner JoJo LeMond and Travis Tryan and Michael Jones off the list feels wrong. These kind of ropers always insert themselves into the world title race somehow. They’ll have to defy recent historical precedent, and catch a few breaks, so it’s not impossible. Their road to a world title will be much more difficult than any of the other frontrunners’.

To win a gold buckle, it will take speed and consistency. Speed Williams was the king of that and everyone who has succeeded him as a world titlist has followed suit.

Kruse Control
Look for Jesse Kruse to Hold the Lead

Jesse Kruse has nearly a $30,000 lead on the rest of the field going in to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Trailing him, however, are the two DeMoss brothers, Cody (third) and Heith (second).

For three straight years, from 2004 to 2006, Cody entered the NFR as a favorite only to finish second in the world standings. In 2007, he was third. Last year, he was 16th.

This year, there’s no pressure on him and that will make him dangerous. Heith, on the other hand, is younger and more carefree. He probably won’t feel any pressure, either. Together, they’re going to present a one-two punch with which Kruse will have to contend. More than likely, Heith will challenge in the rounds and Cody will challenge in the average.

But the competition won’t end with the brothers
DeMoss. The fourth- through ninth-ranked bronc riders are all bunched between $88,901 and $81,831. If Kruse falters, it quickly becomes anyone’s game.

“It’s tough this year where everyone is stacked in so tight, it really is everyone’s shot,” said three-time NFR bronc rider Chet Johnson, who finished the year 17th. “Naturally, Jesse Kruse has the best chance. He’s been on fire all year and never has slowed down. He’s also got the lead, so that gives him a pretty good chance. I think he’s got the best shot because of that. You’ve also got some young guys who it’s their first time there, like Wade Sundell. Isaac Diaz got real hot there at the end, too.”

Five-Time World Champion Billy Etbauer is also among that pack and despite being 46 years old, many believe he is riding better and hitting the ground less than last year. He will win rounds and he may be more of a factor in the average this year than in year’s past. Last year, he bucked off five times, the other five times he placed no lower than fourth and won two rounds. Surprisingly, he was still second in the world-but 13th in the average.

“You can’t count Billy out, he’s been way more consistent this year than I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said. “He’s hardly ever hit the ground that I’ve seen. You can’t count Billy out, that’s for sure, he got pretty hot this summer.”

At the other end of that spectrum is newcomer Wade Sundell, who won $16,985 at the Heartland Finals as a springboard into his first Wrangler NFR. If his roll can continue, he’ll be in the thick of the race. Diaz won the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha to punch his ticket to his second NFR. The first time he was there, in 2007, he placed in five of 10 rounds and finished third in the average.

Somewhere between Etbauer and Sundell on his career arc is J.J. Elshere. Elshere, going to his third Finals, won the NFR average title in 2006, plus he can step up and win rounds with the right draw, too. He placed third in the world last year and fourth in the average.

Plus, there are former champs Taos Muncy, Cody Wright and Chad Ferley in the field.

With a close race coming in and an evenly-matched field of competitors, no one will dominate the rounds. This year, the average will play a huge role in determining the world champion.

“Jesse will be in the average,” Johnson said of Kruse. “Chad (Ferley) is hard to get on the ground, too, but he’s coming from way back. He’s one of the stickiest ones that made it this year. For the average, you’ve got J.J. there, he’s won it before. He’s shot way up there, too, so they need to watch for him.”

All that considered, Kruse remains the favorite. Inexperience won’t deter him much. If he draws terribly all week, it could open the door for others, but with the stock at the Finals, it’s next to impossible to draw poorly in one round-much less for 10 rounds. The only way the draw will hurt him is if Cody DeMoss, for example, draws at the top of the pen, with horses that fit him perfectly, all 10 days.

Kruse, however, has three advantages that will play into his hand. First, he’s consistent enough to stay in the average, second he can win rounds with the right draw and third, he’s got a $30,000 lead.

It’s Trevor’s To Lose
Brazile Cements His Stature

Performance in Omaha at the Justin Boots Championships, Trevor Brazile is in the driver’s seat for his second world tie-down roping title. Sure, no lead is safe in the Thomas & Mack, but Brazile has proven that he can protect a lead. When he won his first tie-down title in 2007, he had a $22,000 lead and ended up winning by a little over $4,000.

Further, he’s got the horse. Brazile’s buckskin horse, Jaguar, fits the small set-up well. As in 2007, however, he’ll have to face some serious competition from a pack of hungry, young ropers.

“Right now, it looks like Trevor’s to lose,” said Five-Time Tie-Down World Champion Joe Beaver. “I just can’t keep from not looking at guys like Matt Shiozawa. He probably has as much talent as any young roper out there today. He and Hunter Herrin both. I think either of those guys are capable of winning a gold buckle anytime they’re ready. What worries me about both of them is their choices of horses at the Finals. I think those guys need to batten down the hatches and find the right horse for that setup. If they can find a good horse that works in that setup, either of those guys can overcome a $20,000 or $30,000 deficit and win a gold buckle any time.”

On August 3rd, Shiozawa had $42,470 in the world standings and sat 17th. Going in to the Wrangler NFR, he’s got $84,052 and sits fifth.

“Anybody bringing that kind of roll in is dangerous,” Beaver said.

For Herrin’s part, his late charge at the 2008 Finals should be an indication of his potential for 2009. He pushed eventual champion Stran Smith right down to the wire and came within $2,400 of the world title. In fact, had his eighth-round calf not gotten up, he probably would have won the buckle. That knocked him out of the average, though he was far and away the fastest on nine calves.

“He out-roped everybody,” Beaver said of Herrin’s 2008 performance. “Stran roped great and made two great runs, but Hunter made seven great ones.”

The difference in the chances Herrin and Shiozawa have might be their regular season earnings. Herrin is $16,000 closer to Brazile than Shiozawa, nevertheless, they’re both among the favorites.

But they aren’t the only ones who will contend for the buckle.

Last year, in his first NFR, Tuf Cooper made $81,671-behind only eventual-champ Smith and Tyson Durfey. He had the fastest run of the Finals-a 6.7 in the ninth round- and he managed to stay in the average. If he repeats his performance, he’ll be in the thick of the action for a world title again.

“You never can count Clint Robinson or Tuf Cooper out,” Beaver added. “The main reasons are, they’re going to win go-rounds. First-place checks are worth a lot more than fourth and fifth. I don’t see those two guys being as consistent and tough over 10 head as I do Trevor, Matt Shiozawa and Hunter. When Saturday night rolls around, to win a gold buckle in any event, you’ve got to have a chance at two checks.”

What’s more, Brazile is a battle-tested veteran despite being only 33 years old. Because he competes in three events, he’s been to 29 Finals: Ten tie-down roping, six team roping and 13 steer roping. He’s got more experience competing in high-pressure situations than any active competitor in the sport of rodeo. Furthermore, if he’s not still in it, he’s not far removed from his physical prime. This year alone at regular season rodeos, he won 14 tie-down roping titles and 7 team roping titles (and 26 all-around titles). He’s become so much more than an all-around lock who merely keeps pace with the pack in his individual events. As evidenced by the 2009 regular season standings, he sets the pace and pushes the leaders.

Last year, he won the all-around, was second in both the steer roping and team roping and third in the tie-down roping.

In short, he knows how to play the game and he’s put himself in a position to win. There’s no reason Brazile shouldn’t end his 10 days in Las Vegas with two (and maybe even three) 2009 gold buckles. And if he does, he will leave little doubt that he’s the best timed-event hand in ProRodeo history.

Two in a Row
Martha Carries Sears to Second Title

The past three barrel racing world champions, Lindsay Sears, Brittany Pozzi and Mary Burger, are entering the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo 1-2-3. Pozzi leads the charge by about $14,000 over Sears and Burger trails Sears by about $19,000.

Obviously, these three are the runaway favorites heading in to Las Vegas. They’ll each be riding great horses. Pozzi on 2007 top horse Stitch, Sears on 2008’s winner Martha and Burger on the 2006 and 2009 champion, Fred.

With due respect to the field, it will take one of these women going out of the average to allow anyone else a chance. They’re all just too good, they’ve all been there before, know what it takes to win and have the horse to do it.

Pozzi is known for her consistency. In 2006 and 2007, she won the average titles at the NFR. In addition to Stitch, who doesn’t hit barrels, she’ll have a horse she calls Duke. She won the Justin Boots Playoffs in Puyallup, Wash., riding that horse.

Sears, on the other hand, is known for her go-for-broke style that wins plenty of rounds, but occasionally results in a tipped barrel. Last year, when she won the world, she won five rounds and finished third in the average with a tipped barrel in the second round.

The year Burger won her title, she was third in the average with one 5-second barrel penalty.

The momentum probably belongs to Sears. She won the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha for the third-straight year. Both she and her horse Martha fought injuries all year and they both appear to be back to 100%. Sears broke her leg on a gatepost after exiting the arena at a rodeo. Martha has a tendency to develop hoof abscesses-which while not career-threatening can put her out of commission for a time.

If Sears has the momentum, Pozzi has the lead and she’s proven she can protect it. Leading by around $55,000 in 2007, she kept her eyes on the prize and wound up beating a hard-charging Sears by $30,000.

Last year, Sears and Pozzi accounted for seven of the 10 round wins. If Pozzi can place high in the rounds and win the average, she should maintain the lead.

Then there’s Burger. She comes in as a 61-year-old with one of the best horses going. Last year’s Finals was nothing like her first, she finished with $27,313. But didn’t come in within striking distance last year, either. This year, she’s in contention. Plus, her daughter-in-law, P.J., will be running at the Thomas & Mack.

There are others, like Jordon Peterson and Sherry Cervi, who will have great Finals on first-time horses, but are just too far back to threaten for the title.

Last year, Sears came in with a nearly $50,000 lead over Pozzi and, in the end, Pozzi finished third and Sears lengthened her margin of victory to $104,700 over Jill Moody.

This year the race will be closer, Pozzi is a competitor. The women in the lead are there for a reason and know how to win. They will battle it out for round money and come round 10, the highest-finishing one in the average will be the champion.

Sears will win more rounds than the other two and will stay in the top five of the average. Because of that, she and her horse Martha will ride out of Las Vegas with their second consecutive title.

J.W. Is a Sure Thing
Harris Will Win Second Title in a Row

Other than the all-around, there’s no surer lock for world title this year than the bull riding. J.W. Harris has absolutely dominated the ProRodeo scene. He came within $10,000 of matching Matt Austin’s 2005 bull riding regular season earnings record and won 22 regular season rodeos, from San Antonio, St. Paul and Reno to Mesquite and Belton.

When Austin won his world title in 2005, he earned $92,380 at the Wrangler NFR. The next year, B.J. Schumacher set the Wrangler NFR earnings record for bull riding at $142,644.

These statistics are relevant as we consider the field’s chances of catching Harris. If Harris doesn’t earn a dime, his closest competitor, Steve Woolsey, would have to earn $110,793. While it could be possible for Woolsey to win that much, it’s almost impossible to think that Harris wouldn’t hit pay dirt. (Like bull riders themselves, we don’t consider potential injuries when making predictions. Existing injuries are something different altogether, though.)

“J.W. is running away with it,” bull riding director and six-time NFR veteran Fred Boettcher said. “I think Steve’s gonna give him a run for the money. It’s J.W.’s to lose. I’m really excited to see how Douglas Duncan comes back after a year off.”

After a knee injury in early June in Hugo, Okla., Duncan opted for surgery and missed the rest of the season. However, he had won the $50,000 jackpot from RodeoHouston and another $60,000 from Xtreme Bulls and other rodeo events. At the time of his injury, he had nearly $114,000 amassed. Because he wasn’t able to go to a minimum of 40 rodeos, he couldn’t count his Xtreme Bulls earnings toward his world standings totals and his total dropped to $81,628.

Duncan was sidelined as he was in the midst of his hottest streak. It took him his entire-albeit short-career to get to that point. The momentum he had could not be maintained through a six-month layoff.

“It depends on how Douglas comes off his injury,” Boettcher said. “He’s talking about getting on practice bulls the first part of November. If he’s able to get on practice bulls and be tuned up for Vegas, I think he can give them a run for it.”

For anyone to have a shot at Harris, though, they’ll need the average. As the season wound down, a few cowboys other than Harris began to show flashes of their ability to stay on the best bulls.

Bobby Welsh rode four of four bulls at the Justin Boots Playoffs in Puyallup, Wash., and Corey Navarre stayed in the hunt for the Xtreme Bulls and rodeo titles during a long weekend in Ellensburg, Wash. Plus, there’s always B.J. Schumacher, who’s shown he can take over the Thomas & Mack-and he might have something to prove after a disappointing performance last year.

Boettcher also has a feeling the bull riders will ride more bulls this year than in previous years. He and the bull riders pick the bulls and set the pens, and he took specific measures to make sure the cowboys would be getting on bulls they were familiar with.

“I hope they ride eight bulls a night out there,” he said. “We tried to pick the very best bulls and a lot of bulls they know.”

If his prediction holds true, the average race will be up and down from round to round and a clear picture of the world champion won’t emerge until the end. In recent years, one or two cowboys have taken early leads and while they could mathematically be caught in the final rounds, realistically, the champ was determined by rounds seven or eight. Although with Harris’s lead, that could be the case again this year.

According to ProBullStats.com, Harris boasts a 52.8% riding percentage for the 2009 season. That’s the third among bull riders from both the PRCA and PBR-and best among PRCA riders.

Last year at the NFR, Harris rode six bulls and won the average. With a higher percentage of rider-friendly bulls, the rest of the bull riders will challenge him-making one of the best bull riding Finals in recent memory-and he will respond, ride at least eight bulls, win the average and the world titles again.

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