The cattle at this year's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo are promised to be a bit smaller than years past, meaning things could get quick in a hurry. Five NFR rookies will back into the box in Round 1, and a few teams will run their first steer in competition together tomorrow night. Here's what you need to know before you watch, with the expert analysis of two-time NFR header Garrett Tonozzi.
1. Clay Smith ($150,512.22) and 3. Jade Corkill ($108,637.93)
The reigning World Champ Clay Smith is coming into the Finals leading the pack for a second year in a row, with some $35,168 more than he started the NFR last year and setting a regular-season earnings record. He's got the same horse—the grade, gray gelding Marty—and a partner who knows how to break arena records, win the average and win the world in Jade Corkill. There's no reason to believe, after dominating all year and knowing their track record in the Thomas & Mack, that these two won't be the ones to beat. With other partners, Smith won the Ram National Circuit Finals, Denver, the Fort Worth Timed Event Challenge, the Wildfire and the Wildfire Gunslinger. Corkill cracked out and won the Broc Cresta with Luke Brown and took home about $40,000 from California this spring, then teamed up with Smith to win the most money over the Fourth of July run, and then they won the US Finals' Open, too.
Corkill, who will mark his 10th NFR appearance Dec. 5, will ride Huey, the sorrel gelding that helped reinvigorate his heeling after a year off in 2018. Smith rode Wishbone, a bay gelding that came from Lari Dee Guy and Trevor Brazile, for part of the NFR steer break-in, too, so in the unlikely event he needed to make a horse change, he could.
Tonozzi's take: You have the best header in the world on the best head horse. Clay was amazing last year and I'm excited to see them this year. They'll be great. Jade Corkill has shown how good he is over the last 10 years. He's one of the best ever and they'll be super exciting to watch in the go-rounds and average. They're the favorites for the gold buckle.
2. Kaleb Driggers ($118,455.30) and 1. Junior Nogueira ($115,774.66)
Kaleb Driggers, roping at his eighth Finals, and Junior Nogueira, roping at his sixth, are making a change in horsepower for 2019. Driggers is riding Maestro, the yellow gelding he just bought from Bubba Buckaloo, and Nogueira is riding Timon, the dun-roan horse he won the Spicer Gripp aboard. Nogueira cut his right thumb just a week ago, and while the stitches have been out for a few days, his finger is still pretty sore and wrapped. But Nogueira has roped sharp after injury at previous Finals, so that shouldn't hold him back.
Both Driggers and Nogueira got married this year, with Nogueira preparing to be a new dad in early March. Nobody has ever doubted that these two are talented enough to win a world title, so perhaps this year's maturity and horse change will be the key to their first team roping gold buckles.
Tonozzi's take: They're probably the most talented team in the field. Kaleb can reach and keep it tight better than anyone and Junior is amazing. He can do stuff other people can't with the angles of his heel shots. They'll win a few go-rounds and be fun to watch.
3. Coleman Proctor ($104,318.34) and 2. Ryan Motes ($109,166.08)
Sailing into the Finals this year after a record-breaking win at The American, Coleman Proctor and Ryan Motes are back at in the Thomas & Mack for the first time as a team and the first time for each man in a few years. Proctor is going to start his NFR campaign on his bay gelding, Heisman, aboard whom he won $433,333 at The American, while Motes is cracking out Rocky, the full brother to his great horse Starbucks who's here as a backup. Rocky has been off for a few months, so Round 1 will mark his first competition run since mid-summer. Motes is confident in the gelding, though, who's fast and free no matter the setup. Proctor, who crossed the million-dollar-mark earlier this year, is a shoe-in for go-round wins, and Motes, who came ever-so-close to a gold buckle in 2015 when he finished second to Kollin VonAhn, ropes to win a world title every time he's in Vegas.
Tonozzi's take: It seems like they live for big moments. They rope great and Coleman always has a really good horse for this building, and Ryan will throw as fast as anyone. If they get tapped off right they will be a dangerous team.
4. Clay Tryan ($103,164.76) and 4. Jake Long ($106,896.49)
Clay Tryan and Jake Long decided to give this partnership a go at the end of this season, making the NFR their first big appearance together. But Long has roped with both of Clay's brothers, Travis and Brady, at the Thomas & Mack, and he's aboard his three-time Horse of the Year Colonel again. Tryan, who will ride his sorrel gelding Johnson for the third year in a row, is at the top of his game 18 years after his first NFR. After a disappointing showing (Clay's words, not ours) at the 2018 Finals, the most intense man in rodeo is ready to prove himself again. Long, an elite heeler with wins at the Wildfire and BFI to his name, is hungry for his first gold buckle, and Tryan knows how to win in Las Vegas.
[Learn More: Right Hand Circle Drill with Clay Tryan]
[Read More: Cashing In With Colonel: Jake Long's Heel Horse]
Tonozzi's take: Clay knows exactly what to do and when to do it. He's amazing everywhere but especially in the Thomas & Mack, being the veteran. Jake will throw fast every time, and he's got one of the best heel horses in the world. They'll be players for the gold buckle.
5. Ty Blasingame ($101,489.65) and 5. Travis Graves ($103,164.76)
Ty Blasingame and Travis Graves were the odd men out when some teams shuffled at the end of the season, forcing them to pair up by the time books closed for the Finals. Blasingame spent most of 2019 with Brandon Bates, but won RodeoHouston with Kyle Lockett. Graves roped for the second year with Clay Tryan, but Tryan opted to rope with Long for this year's Finals. Blasingame and Graves hadn't roped much together, but Blasingame left the cold Wyoming winter for Morgan Mill, Texas, and spent a few weeks building a run with Graves.
[Learn More: Learning to Drop a Coil with Ty Blasingame]
Blasingame is riding the wave of a RodeoHouston win the whole way to Las Vegas—riding the same 16-year-old roan horse (Roany) he rode at his first and only NFR appearance in 2010, when he and Cody Hintz placed in three rounds. He's also got his 20-year-old black (Blackie) as a back up—the war horse he rode most of 2019, including those last two steers at Houston for the $50,000 win that helped get him here. Let's all hope his heading is sharper than his horse-naming going into Round 1.
[Learn More: Spoke Length with Travis Graves]
[LISTEN: The Score Episode 15 with Travis Graves]
As of Wednesday night, Graves had yet to decide between riding his already-famous new horse, Appy, on whom he just won $17,000 at Rancho Rio, or his great horse Chip, who's been off for a month prior to making the trek to Sin City. He rode both at the steer break in, and both looked good.
Tonozzi's take: Blaster throws it as far as anyone. If he can keep it tight, TG won't miss many—if any. He's proven that he's one of the most consistent heelers there time and time again. I think they'll be a really good team, with Blaster being a reacher and TG being able to clean it up and knowing the scenario in that building. If the steers really are a little softer, smaller and slower, Blaster's style could really benefit.
6. Riley Minor ($97,648.95) and 8. Brady Minor ($97,648.95)
This will be Riley's 10th and Brady's 11th Finals, and last year they finished 11th in the average and won $62,038 in Vegas. They'll be back looking to show the rodeo world more consistency in 2019, riding their great team of horses Bob and Sug. They're due for a big NFR, and this could well be their year. They're the longest-tenured partnership going into this NFR, and that could help make all the difference with a field of teams either planning to split up after the Finals or just getting together for the first time. They're both $1.5-million cowboys, and they get their NFR practice on outstanding Mexican cattle in the Arizona sun. If anyone should be practiced and ready, it's the Minors.
[Read More: How to Ride Better Position with Brady Minor]
Tonozzi's take: Riley is on one of the best head horses in the world, and Brady has an awesome heel horse in Sug. They're the most consistent team there is so they'll be players in the average. They've won go-rounds too, so they're real contenders any way you look at it.
7. Chad Masters ($95,528.72) and 7. Joseph Harrison ($98,277.59)
Chad Masters and Joseph Harrison had a banner year in 2019, including winning the Silver Spurs at the Reno Rodeo. Two-time World Champ Masters, who's won the NFR average title three times and has over $2 million in career earnings, surely wasn't satisfied with an eighth-place finish in last year's average race, especially with a catcher like Joseph Harrison behind him. With Masters heading for Wesley Thorp in 2020 and Harrison heeling for Wyatt Imus, they're looking to end their partnership with a bang. Horsepower is a no-brainer for these two, but Masters has yet to decide which one of the great horses he'll hop on. At steer run through, he brought his former Horse of the Year, Clint, his 21-year-old campaigner, Cody, and the yellow he's ridden the last few years, Jimmy. He'll have them all ready to go Thursday night and decide which one he'll ride after he sees the draw an hour before the perf. Harrison will stick with Main Street Boon, the sorrel gelding that's looked so outstanding all year.
Tonozzi's take: They're a very interesting team. Chad takes a third swing in that building, and as fast as Joseph heels, they could be great this week. Chad heads amazing and can run them halfway down that pen and let Joseph tee off on them. They'll be fun to watch.
8. Cody Snow ($95,053.52) and 10. Wesley Thorp ($87,295.99)
Cody Snow and Wesley Thorp made the Finals together the last two years and both have four qualifications to their name. They finished the 2018 NFR fourth in the average with $108,788 won. They're cruising on an upward trajectory at the Finals, as the year before they went home with just over $33,000. Snow will again ride his mare Annie, who looked phenomenal in 2018, while Thorp will get to ride his brown horse Lex, on whom he's got all the confidence in the world.
Tonozzi's take: Last year they roped so consistent in that set up. Both have great horses and are super talented. That mare of Snow's is so great—she could be the best horse this week. They'll win a lot of money.
9. Brenten Hall ($88,926.57) and 11. Chase Tryan ($86,345.09)
Brenten Hall is just in his second year in ProRodeo competition, but it's hard to tell that. He's won first and second at the Ariat World Series of Team Roping Finale, and won the #12 Shootout at the USTRC's Cinch National Finals of Team Roping. He's tough as nails in high pressure situations, exemplified by the way he roped at the Tour Finale in Puyallup when he roped to secure the win and he and Tryan's spot in Vegas. He'll be on Timebomb, the bay horse he rode there, too, and he has a great backup in his old Paint Captain.
[Read More: 4 Things You Didn't Know About Brenten Hall]
[Listen: Season 2, Episode 24: Chase Tryan]
Tryan, who was paired up with Bubba Buckaloo at the 2018 NFR, took home $106,814 after finishing 9th in the average and placing in six rounds, including a Round 8 win. He's got Friendly, the same great horse that has helped up his game since his first Finals trip in 2012.
They've been practicing relentlessly at Motes' place in Weatherford, and their game together is sharp. Hall got Tryan to Vegas last year, and they're not looking to miss the opportunity to rope together under the bright lights in 2019.
Tonozzi's take: Brenten is so talented for a young header. Chase heeled great last year in that building. You just never know about first-time guys but he's one of the most talented in a long time. They could get tapped off and do well this week.
10. Luke Brown ($84,939.19) and 9. Paul Eaves ($89,446.54)
Twelve-time NFR header Luke Brown has three NFR average titles to his name, and Paul Eaves—on his seventh trip to Vegas—left Sin City with $174,577 and a gold buckle last year. Brown is starting on Cowboy, the tall sorrel horse he won Cheyenne and the BFI aboard.
Eaves' Guapo was clutch in the Thomas & Mack last year, letting him get up and around the steers with ease before Smith got into the wall. Brown has won $2 million in his career, and is due for a big year in Vegas. Few headers rope more steers throughout the year than Brown, who spends his days hauling between his arena and that of his 2020 partner Patrick Smith.
Tonozzi's take: Luke's been one of the most consistent headers in that building over the last decade. And Paul Eaves is wearing the gold buckle for a reason. They could win a lot this week for sure. They are going to have a really good week.
11. Matt Sherwood ($76,204.07) and 12. Hunter Koch ($84,307.07)
Matt Sherwood has been to the NFR five times leading up to this year's Finals, winning a gold buckle in his first two appearances there. He's the PRCA's team roping event rep, who is as mentally tough as anyone who's ever roped in Vegas. He hadn't decided which horse he'd ride by Wednesday night, but he was leaning toward his great old mare Murphy, aboard whom he won RodeoHouston in 2018.
[Read More: Behind NFR First-Timer Hunter Koch]
NFR first-timer Hunter Koch, 22, earned just $24,002 in 2018—as much as he can win for winning one go-round in Vegas. Sherwood and Koch did lots of their 2019 winning in Canada, and they've got a great rapport. They got big wins at the Strathmore (Alberta) Stampede, the Innisfail (Alberta) Pro Rodeo, the Brooks (Alberta) Kinsmen Pro Rodeo, That Famous Preston (Idaho) Night Rodeo, the Nicola Valley Pro Rodeo (Merritt, British Columbia) and the Young Living's Last Chance Rodeo (Mona, Utah).
Tonozzi's take: Every time Sherwood nods his head in that building he wins a lot. He's going to head great this week for sure. He always does in big-time scenarios, and Hunter is so talented. He's a first-time guy but it just depends how it starts for them. Hunter should heel really well behind Matt this week.
12. Tate Kirchenschlager ($75,737.64) and 15. Tyler Worley ($71,190.21)
Tate Kirchenschlager and Tyler Worley are both first-time NFR qualifiers, but they're not brand new to rodeo. Kirchenschlager has been in the PRCA since 2011, and Worley since 2015. Kirchenschlager is on the 2019 Horse of the Year Smoke, and Worley is known as a horseman with a whole herd of good ones.
While Kirchenschlager roped with multiple partners in 2019 and Worley roped with Jeff Flenniken, they aren't like the other NFR teams who are randomly paired. They've roped together on and off for years, and they're comfortable with the run they have together. Of the mismatched teams at this year's NFR, they were the first to decide they'd rope together.
Tonozzi's take: Tate is starting on his head horse of the year. If he uses that horse and lets that horse set the run up—it just matters how they start the week off. Tate is riding such a great horse, They just need to start off on the right foot. This set up is like nothing else so you never know with first-time guys.
13. Erich Rogers ($73,999.00) and 6. Kyle Lockett ($98,729.83)
Erich Rogers and Kyle Lockett might just be the fan-favorites heading into this year's NFR. Rogers has the support of the Navajo Nation, and Lockett is a returning legend after a 14-year self-imposed absence from the rodeo trail. They've only run a few steers together, but Lockett has a history of jumping in behind Navajo headers and having big success.
[Read more: Rogers and Lockett are Locked and Loaded for Vegas]
Rogers will ride Boogieman, the dun horse he rode on the last four steers the year he won the world and again last year to win $48,288 with Clint Summers. Lockett has counted on Stinky no matter the set up, and he's proven that the ice still runs cold through his veins every time he's backed into the box since returning to rodeo.
Tonozzi's take: Erich Rogers is one of the best guys in that building and he's proven that time and time again. He can win the rounds, and he's consistent. And Kyle Lockett is living a dream right now. He gets into the NFR, and he gets somebody like Erich Rogers. He heels so good and his style fits the Thomas & Mack. They'll win a lot of money this week.
14. Tyler Wade ($73,394.24) and 14. Cole Davison ($71,909.31)
For the second year in a row, Wade and Davison made the top 15 without their respective partners—Billie Jack Saebens and Cole Davison. They paired up in 2018 at the Finals, and they took home $63,308 a man—including two go-round wins. They got their run figured out for the second half of the 2018 NFR, so they're hoping that momentum carries into 2019.
[Read More: Mid-Roping Horsemanship Fix with Tyler Wade]
Wade is going to ride a horse he calls Spur, after he was forced to retire his great bay horse Fonzie earlier this year. He's got his young roan mare Glo waiting in the wings if he needs to jump on her, too. Davison will ride Apollo, his sorrel gelding that lets him take the aggressive shot behind Wade.
Tonozzi's take: They're both super aggressive all the time. It's one of those teams with two aggressive guys on the same team. If it starts off right, they'll win a lot of go-rounds. Wade will figure out how to keep it tight, and Cole throws so fast. They'll be fun to watch.
15. Jake Cooper ($73,190.95) and 13. Caleb Anderson ($72,389.60)
It's been three years since Cooper's last appearance in the Thomas & Mack, and he's back and as mounted as ever—riding the great Boogie who's been there before with Trevor Brazile. Anderson is another NFR rookie, but he'sbeen living with Patrick Smith and down the road from Luke Brown, soaking up every bit of veteran knowledge he can get. Anderson is from North Carolina, the land of little pens. He's an IPRA world champion, so he knows how to get the steer caught on the corner before his header gets into the fence. He'll be on Sugar Bear, the mare he's ridden for years and has learned to count on in any situation.
Tonozzi's take: They're the sleeper team for the week. Jake has been heading great. He's keeping it tight on their heads, and Caleb has great heel horses. Both of these guys are mounted the right way and they could have a really big week. Caleb Anderson is from back East and knows these short set ups. He's got great heel horses and will heel really good in this set up.