The 2020 rodeo season has been filled with uncertainty. With more and more rodeo cancelations due to COVID 19, including the majority slated with major payout potential— like Cheyenne, Salinas, Caldwell, Ellensburg and Pendleton—off the books, the regular-season cutoff date of September 30 is suddenly within sight. And with fractional money up between now and then, big moves made in years past might not be mathematically possible in what’s left of the summer and fall of 2020.

Ordinarily, “bubble-boy” talk and conversations about the guys close to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo’s Top-15 cut kicks in about early September. But with all the rodeos that continue to cancel, which has dominoed into dwindling chances at big checks, cowboys are feeling that traditional late-season pressure cooke a little earlier this year. The way this season is going, teams with $10,000-15,000 deficits to make up in July, August and September are in for a much tougher time than usual.

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Cowboy Christmas seemed to supply the most opportune time to make up ground in the world standings. And teams like Erich Rogers and Paden Bray, and Nelson Wyatt and Levi Lord made the most of it. Fourth-of-July earnings catapulted both pairings from outside to inside the Top 15.

“There was more pressure to try and do good over the Fourth of July this year," said 2017 World Champion Header Rogers. "One, because of the lack of rodeos left you can get to, but really the lack of good rodeos, too. There are rodeos left, but they aren’t as good as there usually would be later in the year. A lot of them add $1,000 and don’t have equal money for team ropers.

“It’s going to be harder for guys that are back in the pack. If they can hit a run and place at all of them, they’ll have a chance. But there are so many guys entered now and so many guys that are capable. The guys that are around at the amateur rodeos and know how to enter those smaller (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) rodeos have a chance. It’s going to be tough to make a bunch up this year.”

Canadian Levi Simpson, who won the world on the heading side in 2016, and his 2020 partner, Shay Carroll, also made a strong charge over the Fourth. Shay was already inside the Top 15, but their big Cowboy Christmas week helped him stay steadily in the Top 10 (with $33,099.95 as of July 8). For Levi, it was a saving grace in catapulting him to 11 in the world standings and certainly kept his chances strong to qualify for his second NFR (with $27,230.29, also as of July 8).

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“It’s more important to do good at the rodeos we go to this year, because we probably aren’t going to have the 65 (team ropers are allowed to count 65 rodeos toward their official world standings) we normally do. So it’s bigger than ever to capitalize on those we do get to compete at,” Simpson said.

The team of Aaron Tsinigine and Kyle Lockett weren’t Cowboy Christmas headliners this year. But what they did win let Lockett stay in contention for a 2020 NFR berth. His outlook is one that resonates with many others.

“What sucks right now is the season is such a question mark," Lockett said. "Nobody knows what’s going on the rest of the season. You don’t know if they’re going to have 10 more rodeos or 50. You sort of have to have your name in the hat and keep going, because you never know. But it’s hard to plan. It for sure feels like an end of the year bubble situation, and so in the spot I’m in I need to try to go win a couple thousand a weekend. From here on out, it’s about who can go get a couple thousand put together each week.

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“The bad deal about it is you’ve got guys driving all over, 16-18 hours for one or two rodeos. Spending $1,500 to try and win $1,800. You can’t get very far like that, but guys with a chance can’t really quit now. But there are so many questions, and not really many answers. Will there be an NFR? Where will it be? What will it pay? What are we all shooting for? Those are the biggest questions that we need to know the answers to.”

Two-time World Champion Header Chad Masters and reigning World Champion Heeler Wesley Thorp placed along over the Fourth, and are now both 15th in the world, respectively, each with $22,151.58 won. In a normal season, there would be a lot more rodeo left in mid-July. This year, it feels more like an “on the bubble” spot comparable to mid- to late-September in a normal rodeo season.

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“Later in the year, it’s always harder to get money," Thorp said. "There are more teams, and it gets spread out. I think right now is how it normally is later in the season, and later this year will be worse than normal as far as that goes. If they don’t cancel Dodge City, that’ll be a big week. I’m not sure if you can even get to them all, but you could go to five or six and have a good week. After that, it’s going to be hard to have a very big week. You would have to dominate to win $5,000-6,000 after that, so it’s going to be harder to make big moves after that relative to throughout the summer normally.

“So far, we are staying hooked. We’re putting our names down everywhere. We’d rather be entered and not be able to make it than to not be entered and be able to. We are going to go everywhere, unless we hear of any big news.” TRJ

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