Gunning for Gold Buckles and Tall Dollars at the 2018 NFR.

I’ll be covering my 32nd consecutive Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas this month, and what being up close and personal with my cowboy friends all these years has taught me is that you just really never know who will blow everybody’s doors off before it happens. I’ve seen guys who had heck hitting hair when they ran the steers in that Thomas & Mack Center Arena just a couple days before go-time catch fire on opening night and hold that heat for the duration after such tiny tweaks as a last-minute horse change, or a little off-campus practice session.

No one could have predicted that Allen Bach could possibly climb from 15th to first running and gunning behind Doyle Gellerman at the 1990 NFR for Big Al’s second of four gold buckles, or that Bobby Hurley and Allen would win five straight rounds at the 1993 NFR to give Bobby his first of two gold buckles. No one ever would have guessed that Jake Barnes would lose his right thumb in the heat of NFR battle at the 2005 NFR (I was right there to watch Allen run into the arena and retrieve it), when Jake and Kory Koontz were knocking on the world championship door.

Don’t even try to tell me that you all saw it coming in 2016, when Canadians Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler came from deep in the pack to cover center stage in maple leaves. Then again, they won Round 1. And sometimes getting this particular party started with a skip in your step sets the tone for a team’s 10-day run at Rodeo’s Super Bowl.

[Read More: 2016 World Champs: Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler]

It’s the unpredictability of it all that makes it such good watching. And the $10 million payoff—featuring 10 rounds that pay $26,231 a man, and that $67,269 per-man average that comes in so handy at week’s end—that keeps the pressure cooker past boiling point, and makes just about anything possible. Pre-NFR leaders—Clay Smith on the heading side with $115,345, and Junior Nogueira among heelers with $115,936—have $50,113 and $54,587 leads, respectively, over 15th-place header Rhen Richard and 15th-place Quinn Kesler. Those gaps and all others can be closed in two rounds flat.

Tryan and Graves 

Tryan and Graves 

Which guys will grab the gold? The answer to that typically leans toward teams that get tapped off early, and find that zone all professional athletes seek. Who will steal the show in Cowboy Town this year is yet to be seen. None of us has a crystal ball. But here’s what a few of team roping’s living legends have been buzzing about back behind the roping boxes.

“Clay Smith and Paul Eaves are my pick to win the world this year,” said seven-time World Champion Team Roper and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Jake Barnes. “They’ve got a really good style and run together. Clay’s not a mad bomber, and he catches them all. They’re fast, but consistent also.

“My sentimental pick is Kaleb Driggers and Junior (Nogueira). Junior’s like a son to me, so I obviously want to see him win a world championship. I’ve picked him before, and I don’t want to jinx him. It’s a tough one to call, because it’s anybody’s game. The NFR is so unique. Whoever gets off on the right foot has the advantage, and it seems like it always comes down to the last steer, with about three teams having a shot right there at the end.

“My other pick is Kory. I’m pulling for him, too. He’s been at it a long time (this’ll be Dawg’s 21st NFR), knocked on the door and been denied, and he’s well deserving of a gold buckle. Luke Brown’s right there, too. I’d like to see guys who deserve a gold buckle get that first one. Everyone there deserves to be there, and everybody’s dream is to win a world championship. But I have a heart for guys who’ve been there a long time and haven’t yet gotten one. Never say never.”

You probably know that Jake and his fellow Dream Teamer, Clay O’Brien Cooper, set the 59.1-second NFR average record in 1994 that still stands. But did you know that Jake—who’s qualified for the NFR 27 times between 1980 and 2015—has won more NFR go-rounds in his career than any other header in history with 31? Who does he like in the rounds?

“Luke Brown and Jake Long’s run is about maxed out every time on both ends,” Jake Barnes said. “Luke hooks it on ’em fast, and Jake throws fast, too. Same way with Kaleb and Junior, and Dustin (Egusquiza) and Kory. I’ve been 3 seconds one time in my whole career, and I’ll bet Dustin and Kory were 3 10 times this year. Dustin’s just got a crazy shot where he can rope ’em right when the barrier pops. He turns a lot of fast steers. Whenever you’re throwing bombs, there’s a better chance of missing a few. But he’s really consistent at it.

“Dustin and Kory’s run reminds me of Speed (Williams) and Rich’s (Skelton) run back in the day. Speedy would get it on ’em fast, and Rich would clean it up and get every steer caught, and they’d win first. Kory used to be the one on his team that’d rope ’em fast. Now his role has changed a little bit. Now that Dustin gets it on ’em so fast, Kory’s job is to make sure he catches every steer.”

[Read More: Brown and Long and Egusquiza and Koontz Split Round 4]

Clay O’s going with Kaleb and Junior in the world championship race.

“They’ve been arguably the best team out there for a few years now, and I think this is their third attempt,” Champ said. “This year maybe more than others, I think the yearlong test and placings going into the Finals is a pretty good indicator on the strength of the team. I think Kaleb and Junior have just a little bit of an edge over Clay and Paul, because of what they’ve done the last few years as a team, and how they’ve been trending. I would give them a slight edge for that, just because.

“That edge isn’t much, mind you. You can see how close it is. I’m just saying that Kaleb and Junior are going to get the job done and knock the door down before too long. Clay and Paul are right there, too. They’ve shown themselves in recent times to be a super solid team, and they keep growing as a team. Their dreams and aspirations of winning it are very strong, as well.

“To me, the dark horse in this whole deal is Dustin and Kory. They’ve had a phenomenal year, because they’ve got a great equation. Dustin can get his head loop on a steer faster than any person living, and everyone knows it. And you have Kory Koontz on the back end, who’s had a phenomenal year behind Dustin. If they have a good week—if Dustin can get hot, and do it like he can—that could be really good watching, and all the other teams have to beware.”

[Listen: The Score Episode 10 with Kory Koontz]

At 29 appearances between 1981 and 2015, Clay O is second only to Allen Bach in the NFR team roping qualifications count. Clay’s also won 29 NFR go-rounds.

“My #1 team in the go-rounds is going to be Dustin and Kory,” Clay said. “All year long, they’ve won a lot of rodeos, and their times would be two and three tenths to half a second faster than any other team on a consistent basis. They would be 3.9, and second would be 4.4. Right through the heart of the summer, at all the big rodeos, they were making their run.

“It seemed like it was first place every single time. When you pulled up to a rodeo, and asked people about the setup, it got to be a standing joke—‘Who’s winning it?’ And the answer would be, ‘Well, who do you think’s winning it? It’s the team that’s kicking everybody’s butt right now.’ If Dustin and Kory get on the right roll in Vegas, they better look out in the day moneys.”

The heading half of the eight-gold-buckle dynasty of Speed Williams and Rich Skelton is staying pretty PC with his NFR predictions this year.

“With that much money up, I think all 15 teams have a chance,” said Speed, who’ll be in Vegas with his new Speed Trainer training tool, which “makes you accountable for your left hand in your run, so you don’t use your reins for balance.” “There are a lot of guys in this field who rope good enough to win a world title. I think all 15 teams have a chance, I really do.”

In addition to those eight gold buckles, Speed owns 28 NFR go-round buckles, which ties him on the heading side with Tee Woolman behind just Jake and Doyle Gellerman.

“Anybody nowadays who makes the National Finals can be 3 seconds,” Speed said. “There won’t be a team there that can’t do that. So really and truthfully, it’ll come down to who draws the good steers at the start and gets that roll going. It’s hard to say who that’s going to be before they show up. There are a lot of factors between now and opening night, including what they decide to ride.

“There are some reachers in the field—Driggers, Dustin, T Wade (as in Tyler Wade), to name a few. But when it comes to the National Finals, it’s not how far you can reach, but how fast you can get it on ’em and then help your heeler get the run finished.”

Allen has roped at the Finals more than any other roper in rodeo history with 30 trips to the NFR spanning four decades between 1978 and 2008. The four-time world champ’s first pick for the 2018 world championship is his and many others’ sentimental favorite.

“I’d like to see Kory win it,” said Allen, who won the world in 1979, ’90, ’95, and ’06. “We’ve been buddies throughout our whole careers, and I’ve admired him as a person in and out of the arena all these years. If anyone deserves to win a gold buckle heeling after all the time and effort he’s put in—and all the good things he’s done for the team roping industry—it’s Kory Koontz.

“I’d like to put a disclaimer right behind that, and say that I really don’t want to pick favorites as far as friends go, because it used to bother me when people would say they wanted someone to win it, and that someone wasn’t me. These guys are all my friends, and anyone who’s worked all year to put themselves in the position to win it deserves it.

“There are about four teams that really look strong this year going into the Finals. The favorites who all have a great chance are the leaders—teams like Kaleb and Junior, Clay Smith and Paul Eaves, Clay Tryan and Travis Graves, and Luke Brown and Jake Long. They all have to be the pick of the public, based on performance. But as far as who I’d love to see rewarded for his career accomplishments, it’d be Kory. I don’t mean anybody else any disrespect by saying that, but I’d love to see it be his turn.”

[Read More: Inner Strength with Paul Eaves]

Allen has 30 NFR go-round wins to go with his 30 NFR back numbers.

“I look for two teams to be wicked in the go-rounds this year,” Allen said. “If I had to bet $10,000 on who will win the most money in the rounds, I’d have to pick Kaleb and Junior or Dustin and Kory. And it’d be kind of a tossup between them. Kaleb and Junior made the most amazing run I’ve ever seen in my life when they were 3.3 at the Finals last year (to tie Chad Masters and Jade Corkill’s NFR and world record, which they set in 2009, which also was matched by Brock Hanson and Ryan Motes in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 2012). I thought it was the most perfect run I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Kaleb can get it on steers so fast, and his horsemanship and handles are equally amazing, to where Junior has a really good shot every time. Junior’s hand-eye coordination is beyond belief.

“It’s without argument that Dustin Egusquiza is sticking it on steers faster than anybody—even Kaleb Driggers. That’s the talk. Dustin’s now the guy who can get it on ’em quicker than anybody. Put that with the wisdom of Kory Koontz. He’s a smart heeler, he’s learned how to ride really good position, and take the first good shot without missing. Kory’s going to take advantage of his guy being the fastest header in the world. A fast header with a smart heeler is a really tough combination to beat.”

[Read More: Koontz Focused and Poised for 2018 Season]

OK, Allen, what do you think of the chances of history repeating itself on your most amazing feats—like rising from 15th to first, or winning five rounds in a row? (And I can’t leave out the fact that additional gold buckles were beyond his control left on the table for Bach, back before world champion headers and heelers were named separately—the first year for that being in 1995, when Bobby Hurley won his second world title, and Allen his third of four. Take 1993, for example. Bobby was named the lone world team roping titlist, and Allen was reserve after finishing second overall. But Allen was the winningest heeler that year, so since 1995 that would have been another gold buckle for Bach.)

Snow and Thorp

Snow and Thorp

“I think things like that are like winning the lottery,” Allen said. “The reason the top teams are going in all the way from first to, say, seventh is they’re the best teams in the world. They’re confident, mounted, and consistent. I’m not saying those things can’t be done again, but it’s definitely a long shot. The teams in the lead are there for a reason, and the odds of them all having a bad Finals is going to be pretty rare.

“One thing I will say about lessons learned at the Finals over all those years is that it took me awhile, but I finally learned that it’s all about not beating yourself. There was a time when Daniel Green and I thought we had to try and be 4 flat every night. Then we went back after the fact and did the math, and figured out that just relaxing and being 5 flat across the board will win a lot more money than a person might think. People are starting to see that same thing with guys like Chad Masters and Luke Brown turning so many steers at the Finals in recent years. It’s amazing how much you can win in the timed events when you stop the clock.”

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