That december gold

It’s Gold Buckle Go Time in Vegas: Team Roping Fast Stats
The most wonderful time of the year.
World Champion heeler Wesley Thorp, left, won the regular season on the heeling side roping with Tyler Wade. Kaleb Driggers, shown here starting the 3.3-second, NFR-record-tying run in 2017, won another regular-season crown among headers and is in search of a third-straight buckle with Junior Nogueira. | Photos by Click Thompson and Kirt Steinke

The 2023 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Teton Ridge will shell out a whopping $11.5 million during its December 7-16 run at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. That’s a Super Bowl of Rodeo record, and first in all 10 rounds will pay $30,706 a man, with a $ 78,747-per-man kicker to the 10-head average champs at the rodeo’s end. As always, The Show will be guaranteed good watching.

Here’s some rodeo-style Inside Baseball heading into the most wonderful time of the year in Cowboy Town:

Who are the 2023 NFR team roping partners?

Here’s how the Top 15 headers and heelers in the world are pairing off to form the 15 dream-team hopefuls of NFR 2023. The only plot twists here are Wyatt and Torres, and Smith and Bray joining forces because their other 2023 halves didn’t quite make the cut.

  • Kaleb Driggers & Junior Nogueira
  • Tyler Wade & Wesley Thorp
  • Nelson Wyatt & Jonathan Torres
  • Derrick Begay & Colter Todd
  • Dustin Egusquiza & Levi Lord
  • Coleman Proctor & Logan Medlin
  • Rhen Richard & Jeremy Buhler
  • Erich Rogers & Paul Eaves
  • Tanner Tomlinson & Patrick Smith
  • Andrew Ward & Buddy Hawkins
  • Clay Smith & Paden Bray
  • Marcus Theriot & Cole Curry
  • Jake Clay & Tyler Worley
  • Clint Summers & Jake Long
  • Luke Brown & Hunter Koch

How much do NFR winners get paid?

This year’s NFR is already a record-breaker in terms of financial gain. Here’s the breakdown on all 10 rounds and the average. Every NFR contestant is again guaranteed $10,000 for qualifying. And in case you’re curious and care to compare, last year’s rounds paid $28,914, and the average was worth $74,150 per man in 2022.

2023 NFR payout per round

  • 1st place: $30,706 per man
  • 2nd: $24,268
  • 3rd: $18,325
  • 4th: $12,877
  • 5th: $7,924
  • 6th: $4,953

2023 NFR average payout

  1. $78,747 per man
  2. $63,889
  3. $50,517
  4. $37,145
  5. $26,744
  6. $19,315
  7. $13,372
  8. $7,429

NFR team roping records

The fastest NFR team roping run ever made was a 3.3-second sizzler by Chad Masters and Jade Corkill in 2009, which was matched by Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira in 2017. 

In the 10-steer NFR average, after Jake Barnes and Clay Cooper’s 59.1 on 10 stood from 1994–2021, that record was finally broken 27 years later by Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins with 54.7 on 10 in 2021. Tanner Tomlinson and Patrick Smith turned right around and raised the NFR average bar yet again at last year’s NFR ’22 after stopping the clock 10 times in 53 flat. What are the odds those records will fall this year?

Tomlinson looks at Smith in celebration after turning all 10 steers in his very first NFR appearance. | Jamie Arviso Photo

“What stands out six years later about that run is Junior falling off at the end of it,” Driggers grins. “Seriously, though, when we broke the steers in before it started that year, that steer we set the record on broke straight as a string with his head in the air, squared off fast and hopped perfect. I told them from the word go that somebody was going to be really fast on him. And sure enough, we ended up getting him and going 3.3 on him.

I think the odds are pretty good that that record will be broken. Everybody’s getting really fast and so advanced. The talent level keeps rising, and I think somebody will beat it. That’s what records are made for—to be broken.” 

As for the average…

“Jake and Clay’s record stood almost three decades, then got broken twice back-to-back,” said three-time NFR average champ Smith, who won his first NFR average title with Matt Tyler in 2003, then struck again in 2008 with Trevor Brazile before last year’s record win with Tomlinson. “Averaging 5.3 seconds on 10 steers is hard to do at home. Kudos to Tanner. He did beyond amazing at his first NFR. 

“I went into NFR battle last year just trying not to get sucked into the hype of going fast, especially roping with one of the fastest guys out there. It’s just so unpredictable anymore when it comes to records. That record could stand for a long time. But then again, it only takes one team getting hot to break it. Just ask Andrew and Buddy.

“I had the best NFR I’ve ever had last year. I had great NFRs with Trevor and Clay (Tryan), but never won more money than last year. It sounds cliché, but the plan this year is to just try not to beat ourselves. There’s something about that place (the Thomas & Mack)—if you can just keep getting times, it’s worth a lot of money when it’s over. I’ve been the guy who struggled at the Finals. So my game plan is to just execute our run. And if things aren’t going well, don’t panic. Trust what we’ve worked on, and just stick to our run.”

Junior Nogueira was so excited about tying the 3.3-second record that he finished the run on his feet. | Kirt Steinke
Jade Corkill closing the deal for Chad Masters on the first 3.3-second run ever made at the NFR, in 2009. | Hubbell Rodeo Images

Team ropers heading to the NFR for the first time in 2023

Jake Clay, Marcus Theriot and Cole Curry are the only three first-time National Finalists in this year’s field. Jake Cooper Clay is, of course, named after living legends Jake Barnes and Clay Cooper. He won the 2022 BFI heading for Billie Jack Saebens, and will spin for Worley in Vegas. Theriot and Curry are the only first-time NFR team. 

“I’m looking forward to running that first steer, and all 10 of them,” Clay said. “It’s the NFR, and this is something I’ve dreamed about my whole life. I plan to ride Sun (the horse he bought from Zac Small after Small rode him at the 2016 NFR, then left the rodeo trail for vet school). I don’t know if he’s the best horse, but he is for me, and I like him everywhere. 

“Worley and I started roping together at Puyallup (Washington in September), and neither of us was in the Top 15 at the time. We won enough for both of us to get in, so we have some good momentum going.”

Theriot was born three years after his NFR tie-down roper and steer wrestler dad, Herbert, won the 1994 world tie-down roping title. What Marcus remembers most about going to watch his dad at the NFR as a little guy was how loud it was in that packed Thomas & Mack house. What Momma Renee remembers most is little Marcus saying, “Miss him, miss him, miss him” as everybody backed in the box. 

“Watching guys use a second loop was my favorite, so I used to root for all the calf ropers to miss, including my dad,” chuckles Marcus, who’s 26 now. “I still think three loops is good watching.”

The tie-down ropers still get a spare second loop, but the team ropers are down to one each now. And Marcus is pumped to rope at his first Finals.

“Getting it made just fulfills a lifelong dream and goal,” he said. “I’ve felt like I would do well there for a long time, it’s just taken a while to get there. I think Cole and I have a good run for that building. It’s not a top-three run every time, but we’ve placed a lot this year. And if we can make that run more than not out there, we’ll win a lot of money.

“Kaleb Driggers and Jake Cooper have given me a lot of advice about doing my thing, and not getting caught up in what everybody else is doing. They say I should do what got me there, and stick to our run. They would know, so it sounds like good advice to me.”

Marcus Theriot and Cole Curry, shown here making a money run in Red Lodge, Montana, are ready to try on the Thomas & Mack. | Avid Visual Imagery/Phil Kitts

Noticeably absent

Who will we not get to watch at NFR ’23? There’s one team that seems to stand out extra to the ultimate experts. 

“Cody Snow and Jade Corkill are a great team, so them not being there this year is the biggest surprise to me,” said 2020 World Champion Header Colby Lovell. “Snow has been one of the top headers in recent years, and Jade is no doubt one of the best heelers of our generation and maybe any generation. I’d have lost my ranch if somebody would have said they weren’t going to make it.”

Cowboy King Brazile conquers. 

“I’d have to say Cody Snow and Jade Corkill were the least likely to not make it, because they’re badasses,” said Trevor, with his 26 gold buckles and $7 million in earnings. “There’s nothing that would surprise me more. You could have taken all my money if you’d tried to tell me that Jade Corkill would not be roping at the Finals.”

Consistency captains

It was a split decision for this year’s regular-season champs, with Driggers and Thorp getting it done from different teams. Driggers has managed the feat more than once, and it definitely means something to him.

“It’s a yearlong battle,” Driggers noted. “It’s a marathon and not a sprint to win the regular season. It’s easy to get caught up in the highs and lows, but as long as I’ve rodeoed, I know they’re coming. I just try to keep a positive attitude, and fall back on my fundamentals to get back on track. 

“The No.1 tip I have for rookies and people just getting started with their roping is to get those fundamentals down. Because when you’re out there bouncing from rodeo to rodeo, you just have to fix it in between rodeos and roll on. 

“It’s hard to win the world. I proved that by taking all those years to win it the first time, and how you do at the Finals has a lot to do with that. But the regular season is kind of the true testament. Long barriers, short barriers—we rope under every condition over the course of the regular season, and it’s a long year. Being the guy in the lead after all that is always special to me, because it’s hard to do.”

Heartbreak holers

A very honorable mention goes out to Brenten Hall and Dillon Graham for finishing one out of this year’s Top-15 cut. Hall was just $1,068 behind Luke Brown in 15th among headers, and Canada’s Graham came up $6,289 short of Worley, who finished 15th on the heeling side. 

Boss hosses

We all know horses are a cowboy’s most valuable tool. And since the top 25 in the world vote on the Nutrena Horses of the Year presented by the American Quarter Horse Association, it should come as no surprise that Clint Summers’ Joe and Patrick Smith’s Turbo would be major players in their cowboys’ 2023 campaigns.

Derrick Begay will ride the horse he calls “The Sorrel” under the bright lights in Vegas. But if he were to bum a ride…

“It’d probably be Clint Summers’ horse of the year,” Begay said. “He’s a good-looking bay, he works great and a guy would look good gathering cows out in the country on him. He’s good in the arena, and he’d be a good ranch horse, too. Heck, he’d be a good pickup horse or horse to rope bulls off of at the PBR (Professional Bull Riders) Finals. I can tell he wants to be your friend and help you, and those are the horses I like. He just looks like an all-around good horse to me.”

After a seven-year absence, Smith returned to the NFR roster last year and again in 2023. His 13-year-old dun Kadabra King just won back-to-back heel horse of the year honors. Coincidence? Patrick thinks not.

“Turbo’s had a lot to do with me getting back to Vegas,” Smith said. “He’d just won horse of the year going into his first Finals last year, then never made a mistake. That’s a lot of pressure on a heel horse. And I rode Turbo at 70 of the 75 rodeos I roped at this year. He’s super talented in all situations, and he does his job no matter what.”

Patrick Smith Turbo
Smith’s Turbo won his second-straight Heel Horse of the Year award in 2023, and has everything to do with Patrick’s return to contender status. | Jamie Arviso Photo

Who you got?

It’s always fun to pour the heat to a few of the cowboys who’ve been there and done it to see which team catches their eye a little extra going into NFR go time. This year’s panel includes Lovell, Brazile and Speed Williams, who is taking on a new role in 2023 with daughter Hali roping at her first Wrangler National Finals Breakaway Roping presented by Teton Ridge across town at the South Point. 

“I would have to say Erich and Paul,” Lovell said. “Erich’s mental game is probably the best in the league, and he ropes great in that arena. I’ve watched him rope in the Thomas & Mack, and it’s solid as concrete. Nothing rattles him, I like his style, and with the way he goes about it he’s going to be there at the end. 

“Paul (who picked up his second gold buckle roping behind Lovell in 2020) is roping better than I’ve seen him rope in a couple years, and he’s got a new horse. He’s roping great, and when you put Paul in the right spot at the right time, he’s going to be dominant at blocking and tackling.”

“I’m going to say it’s between Tanner and Patrick, and Begay and Todd,” Brazile said. “Tanner’s got a year of NFR experience under his belt. He did amazing last year, and realizing what worked last year and what he’s capable of, there’s no telling how good it might be for him and his team this time. How do you not want to watch Derrick and Colter (who now joins Trevor as an elite NFR switch-ender)? That’s going to be fun. I love it.”

“As always, the NFR’s going to be great watching this year,” Speed noted. “I don’t think many people can argue with Dustin Egusquiza being the best reacher, because he’s very consistent with it. A lot of guys can reach now, but Dustin stands out. It’ll also be fun to see if Kaleb and Junior can make it three in a row. We’re still a long ways from me getting nervous about somebody winning nine in a row, but there are just so many factors that go into winning consecutive championships. Right now, they’re roping like they can. But you’ve got to keep the horsepower, and you can’t have a bad year or one bad Finals and get it done. 

“I’m a National Finals dad for the first time this year, and it feels like two completely different things. When I was competing, I had control of the outcome. I’m finding it so much more difficult watching my kids compete (Speed and Jennifer also have a handy heeler son, Gabe) as far as nerves go, because I’m not in control of anything. I was very confident in my preparation when I was rodeoing, so getting nervous at big events didn’t really happen. Being a dad in the bright lights is a whole new ballgame.” TRJ

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