The only safe prediction in the steer wrestling event is that the gold buckle will come down to the final round.
As to which cowboys will be in contention at the end, that's anybody's guess. Outside of the 51 people in Lance Creek, Wyo., not too many would have picked Jason Miller to win it all before the Wrangler NFR started last year.
"Jason had been bulldogging for a long time and he figured out what it took to win," current Crusher Rentals World Standings leader Wade Sumpter said.
"He figured out the first thing to do was what? Ride Willy. He came in there 15th, but he had it figured out what it took to win and then he went and got Willy," referring to Greg Cassidy's newly-crowned PRCA/AQHA Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year.
So who will this year's Jason Miller be? Ken Lewis will most likely be riding the horse he and Wade Sumpter partner on, Wick, and he could make a run. Lewis has been gaining momentum all fall, however this will be his first year competing at the Wrangler NFR.
Willy will be carrying Luke Branquinho, Curtis Cassidy and Miller. Any one of those cowboys has a shot.
Despite the depth and competitiveness of the field and the ability for anyone to win at anytime, there's too much talent both from rider and horse to count out the two current world standings frontrunners: Wade Sumpter and Luke Branquinho.
Sumpter led the standings nearly all year after a huge win in Houston. This will be his third trip to the Finals, so he's figured out the pen and knows his strategy-which isn't much different from everyone's.
These cowboys treat the 10-day marathon as 10 one-headers, willing to let the average fall where it may because of how unpredictable the event is. A bad draw or a barrier can take a person right out of contention in the average, so they don't let it enter their minds-even near the end.
"Because the start is so fast there, the strategy is you have to be fast every night," Sumpter said. "So you have to be riding something that gives you a chance to win every time. For 10 nights horses are huge, I think. Everybody will be riding great horses out there. Three of the best guys in the world will be on the top horse."
Despite that, the average invariably plays a huge role in determining the world champion. Last year Miller won the average-worth over $35,000-and won the world by about $14,000.
"Both years I missed one steer and it cost me $30,000 each time and maybe a world title," Sumpter said.
So, after throwing all the variables into the mix, the one glaring statistic that stands out is that Luke Branquinho hasn't won a title since 2004. As of this writing, he had just won Omaha, signaling the possibility of a hot streak at the perfect time in the season. Sumpter, although a threat, had not had any huge wins as the season wound down while Branquinho slowly closed the gap in Sumpter's lead. Their trajectories seem headed in different directions, and Branquinho's is on a steady rise.