The first round of the 2018 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo will feature the strongest set of steers in the team roping, and ropers are just dying to get that first one down clean. Here are some team roping tidbits to look for as you prepare to watch Round 1 of the 2018 Wrangler NFR, with analysis from two-time world champion heeler Patrick Smith.
Clay Smith (1st, $115,344.55) and Paul Eaves (2nd, $115,344.55):
Smith is going to start on his grey Marty, but his back-up horse Ransom, who came from Lari Dee Guy, also looked outstanding breaking in steers. Eaves will choose to hop on Guapo, an 11-year-old bay roan gelding he's ridden off and on for a few years, instead of his great horse Casino who came from Jhett Johnson.
Patrick's take: Clay Smith does such a good job every time and Paul's been on fire this year. I haven't seen him mess up. I see that this year, after three years under Clay's belt, he'll be pretty aggressive. It's not going to surprise me if he's going for a gold buckle starting in Round 1. They're deadly.
Kaleb Driggers (2nd, $114,951.67) and Junior Nogueira (1st, $115,935.52):
Driggers is starting out on Yahtzee, the grey horse he won his first RFD-TV's The American title on in 2014. That horse allowed Dustin Bird to win a lot of go-round money in Las Vegas when Bird owned him, and looked as sharp as ever breaking in steers. Plus, Driggers roped sharp in Wickenburg just days before the NFR, winning the Open Big Gamble with Clint Summers worth $12,000. Junior Nogueira will ride Green Card, the horse he fell off of after being 3.3 in Round 9 last year and the horse he's done the bulk of his winning on—including the 2018 American title. Green Card stays free in the Thomas & Mack and lets Nogueira throw fast, and has been his pick at every NFR since he bought him in 2016.
Patrick's take: There's no doubt in my mind their time is coming. I'd put them in my favorites for the world title. There's so much talent, it's any man's game when tomorrow night starts. I don't remember a time where it doesn't come down to the 10th round, and I don't think it will be any different this year. But Kaleb and Junior have to be some favorites.
Dustin Egusquiza (3rd, $106,396.03) and Kory Koontz (3rd, $106,396.03):
Egusquiza throws faster than anyone going, and Koontz has spent the last two years learning how to heel behind that. They've seemed to get it down in 2018, and Koontz's game plan is to ride his horse better, with more weight in his stirrups, so he can get his rope up faster and be in position quicker than ever before. He said he spent his career roping one way during the regular season and another at the NFR. But with Dustin, he's learned he needs to heel that way year-round, which has left him feeling more prepared than ever for Vegas. Plus, Koontz be riding Remix, the dun gelding that's helped him be there all year. Egusquiza will ride Kickstand, the horse he finished the Finals on in 2017.
Patrick's take: Dustin Egusquiza is extremely good at what he does, and now he has a year under his belt. I got to practice with him, and I think he's going to be fun to watch this year. He's doing things nobody has ever done. Everybody will agree he's the fastest header going. And Kory Koontz will be ready to throw fast behind him.
Clay Tryan (4th, $96,990.03) and Travis Graves (6th, $93,132.89):
Tryan, coming into this year's Finals fourth in the world, isn't just happy to be here. Tryan is in Vegas to prove that he's the best header in the world for the fourth time. He's aboard Johnson, and has his AQHA/PRCA Head Horse of the Year Dew as a backup. And he's back again with Graves, who is equally intense and beyond ready for a gold buckle. Graves' bay gelding Chip, who came from Joseph Harrison, is sharp and quick, and he's got Manny with him here, too, if he needs to get back on old faithful.
Patrick's take: You never want to bet against Clay Tryan. He's been there so many times and knows how to win like nobody else. TG knows when to catch them and when to be fast.
Cody Snow (5th, $91,862.73) and Wesley Thorp (8th, $88,173.40):
Snow and Thorp are in their third consecutive Finals and second as a duo. During the steer run through, Snow was back aboard his buckskin Annie, who got hurt at the Greeley Stampede. Thorp will be on Dustin Searcy's bay horse Rio, as his good one got hurt at Cheyenne. These guys battled serious horse troubles in 2018 and are still coming into the Finals at fifth and eighth in the standings, respectively.
Patrick's take: These guys are another sleeper team, but everybody knows how good they rope so that's hard to say, really. Wesley heels so good and is so consistent. Wesley's on a horse I've ridden before, a good horse with a lot of finish to him that can help in that building. It's all about getting tapped off. Everybody thinks it's that first round. But I've seen people over and over start good, and finish badly. So it's not necessarily how you start. The last half of the Finals, guys get in a groove and there's so much money to win.
Bubba Buckaloo (6th, $88,867.99) and Chase Tryan (12th, $68,283.81)
Buckaloo is riding his grey he calls Silver (who Trevor Brazile insists came from him but Patrick will tell you shortly came from him). He's a horse Buckaloo has long had confidence in and did well on all year. And Tryan is ready to catch 10 in a row thanks to the countless hours in the practice pen at the "heel horse factory" at Ryan Motes' place. Tryan's last appearance at the Finals in 2012 ended in a second-place finish in the average with Keven Daniel, and there's no reason to believe Chase isn't ready to catch 10 this time around.
Patrick's take: I sold that grey horse of Bubba's horse as a heel horse to a friend, and he sent him back to me to sell. I told him I thought he'd really make a head horse, and I sold him to Trevor after that. So don't let Trevor tell you that horse came from him. But anyway, Bubba has stepped his game up roping really, really good. It's Bubba's first time and I'm curious to see how he does, but he headed so good all year it wouldn't surprise me if he gets tapped off. Chase is a catcher. It's so easy to overlook those $10,000 checks people get every night, and everybody's so caught up in the 3-second run that wins first. But those 4.7- and 4.6-second runs bring checks that add up over 10 days. Those guys that are smart can put together some big money and stay in that average.
Chad Masters (7th, $85,342.14) and Joseph Harrison (4th, $104,515.04)
Masters is on Jimmy, the horse that got him the average title in 2017. He's got three average titles in fact, but he said last week that he's concerned he didn't go fast enough last year and wants to step up his game for 2018. Harrison, who will ride the same sorrel he rode last year named Main Street, won $82,346 at the Thomas & Mack in 2017 and is looking for more in 2018.
Patrick's take: Chad knows the game. he's always been so caught up in not getting caught up in what everybody else id doing. He's so good int he average. But with Joseph, he can run them halfway down the arena and win some good go-round money all week.
Derrick Begay (8th, $84,837.15) and Cory Petksa (7th, $91,294.03)
Swagger, Swagger, Swagger. Begay's ageless wonder, the grade horse he's ridden in nearly all of his NFR appearances, looked better than ever breaking in steers in the Thomas & Mack. He's had time off this fall and has just had good exercise in the Arizona desert, and it's done the blaze-face horse some serious good. Begay said his game plan in 2018 was to erase any doubt he ever had in that horse, and he says he's carrying that into the Finals, too. In-arena practice isn't Begay's strong suit, but safe to say he's still sharp with all those loops he throws outside. Petska is well-practiced and as sharp as ever, and will be back aboard Chumley, the tie-down-less, blaze-face sorrel that got him to his first gold buckle last year. Begay and Petska did fit in some last-minute practice together the week before the Finals and got some jackpotting done in Arizona before they headed to Vegas, so they'll be tuned up and dialed in come Thursday night.
Patrick's take: If they get tapped off this week, their run is unbeatable. They're so fast. And this year, they put on a clinic without starting until late. I really like Derrick, and he doesn't have any back off in him, and we all know Petska doesn't have any at all. There's only one title in the heeling, and that's Petska's, and he could get another one.
Aaron Tsinigine (9th, $84,044.49) and Trey Yates (5th, $98,438.94)
Tsinigine is back aboard Smudge for Round 1, his great horse who carried him to his 2015 world title. Tsinigine's mental game is tops when he's on that bay horse, and he's hungrier than ever after missing the Finals in 2016 and 2017. Yates has opted for YY, his most trusted mount throughout his rodeo and jackpotting career. He feels most confident to catch his first steer on YY, but he also has his great horses Dude and Tux waiting in the wing in the event he needs a change up.
Patrick's take: Tsinigine and I are second partners and I get to rope with him quite a bit. He's a veteran and a world champ and knows the game. He's so good at setting that run up out there. When they're good and straight, he can do whatever it takes to get them tight. I got to watch Trey for the first time this year, and he was so impressive and deserves to be where he's at and I don't expect to see any different. He's been waiting a long time to be where he is, and he'll be ready.
Luke Brown (10th, $83,102.17) and Jake Long (9th, $83,102.17)
The team roping is full of solid fantasy picks this year deep in the field. Brown and Long can win go-rounds and the average, as Brown's got three NFR titles under his belt. They'll both be set in the horse department, too, as Brown will ride Yella (a.k.a. Rockstar) and Long will be on Colonel.
Patrick's take: Luke's been living at my place since they've been building their house, and I've got to rope with him every day. Nobody practices harder than Luke Brown. Nobody is more prepared. His roping looked so good when he left the house. I wouldn't be surprised if he turns all 10 steers. Jake is so fast when it comes down to it, Luke will know he can take another swing when he has to because Jake will ride around there and heel them fast.
Riley Minor (11th, $81,553.75) and Brady Minor (10th, $80,361.13)
The Minors have been roping together in the PRCA since 2007, and they've knocked on the door of a world title before. They're NFR veterans aboard veteran horses—Bob and Sug—and surely have a string of backup horses a mile long (including Brady's AQHA/PRCA Horse of the Year Rey) if times get tough.
Patrick's take: Riley and Brady have such a good, consistent run. It wouldn't surprise me at all if they walked away with all of it. They have such a smooth, consistent, out-in-the-middle type of a run. They're riding really good horses so they don't have to go all out every night. They can be under control and use those horses. They're riding the horses that will give them a chance all week.
Tyler Wade (12th, $73,145.02) and Cole Davison (13th, $66,251.57)
Wade is ultra confident on Fonzie, his big bay gelding on whom he won Cheyenne in 2016. This is his second trip to the Finals, and he's been working tirelessly to add even consistency to his game since his first appearance. Davison and his horse Apollo have been ready for Round 1 of the NFR for a long, long time, and their preparation will show.
Patrick's take: Tyler Wade will be fun to watch. I won't miss one of his runs. Everybody knows his game plan: it's fast. Having a year under his belt will help him out. There's something about being there one time. The nerves and the hype never go away, but you know what to look for in your practice the final weeks before the NFR. He'll know more what to expect. Cole's heeled really good this year, and at the end of the year when it mattered he stepped up and made shots he needed to make.
Erich Rogers (13th, $68,354.22) and Clint Summers (11th, $79,466.97)
Rogers, the reigning world champion header, will ride Boogieman, the dun horse he finished the Finals on last year after Dustin Bird's Dolly got hurt. Summers, who grew up roping in tiny setups just like the Thomas & Mack in his native Florida, will ride his sorrel horse Smurf that he did most of his winning on in 2018.
Patrick's take: Rogers is another past world champion who ropes so good and sharp. He's got one of those runs that works out there. There are reachers, and guys that go so fast, but it doesn't matter if you get it on one faster than anyone else if you can't get it tight and get a flag. He gets it on them and can finish fast. Clint has heeled so good, and I'm excited to get to rope this year. He's worked so hard for it.
Lane Ivy (14th, $67,457.61) and Buddy Hawkins (14th, $64,451.01):
Ivy will start out the week on the black head horse he got from the Kirchenschlager family—though when you ask him he'll tell you it's the pickup horse that bucked Patrick off back in 2012. Ivy seemed to truly enjoy himself breaking in steers in the Thomas & Mack, and with a partner like Hawkins, they could have a lot of fun and win a lot of money in Vegas. Hawkins will ride his horse X, and has the experience from his first trip to Vegas in 2013 with Drew Horner to expand on.
Patrick's take: If I had not seen Buddy dancing, I'd say he'd have a great week. But I don't know what to say after that. If the NFR doesn't go well for him, he'll get a job on Fremont Street. I got to watch them all year. Lane has a short, tight game to him and can get it on them fast. I've got to practice with Buddy a lot this year, and his roping is sharp as ever.
Rhen Richard (15th, $65,232.02) and Quinn Kesler (15th, $61,348.76):
Richard, who is the only man to make the NFR in two events in 2018 and is a former Resistol Rookie of the Year on the heel side, rode his buckskin horse to break in steers yesterday. That horse, according to Coleman Proctor, allows Richard to score, ride and rope without having to force the action with his loop. Kesler will ride Alice, perhaps the youngest horse in the field at just 7 years old. But Kesler has one NFR under his belt behind veteran Matt Sherwood in 2016 and will carry that experience into 2018.
Patrick's take: You're hearing all this all-around talk between Trevor and Tuf, but people need to look at Rhen closer. They better watch out for that guy. He's so talented with a rope on both ends. If he gets tapped off, it wouldn't surprise me if he walked out with a gold buckle. Quinn Kesler will let you run them a long ways and he'll heel them plenty fast.