The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is Las Vegas. The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (which runs December 6-15) is our make-or-break event. For all the guys who rope for a living, all our eggs are in this one basket. This is the big-money event. There will be 15 teams hoping they’ll be the one who peaks right there and rises to the top. Financially, it’s all on the line. Some teams will walk away from this one rodeo with $80,000-$100,000 a man. A couple teams won’t win anything. The NFR is the one with all the fame and all the money. It’s televised, and the world titles are on the table. It’s the event of the year, the Super Bowl of rodeo and roping.
You better be prepared when you show up in Vegas. We all know what the conditions are going to be like. This is our 23rd year at the Thomas and Mack Center. We know the arena conditions are small and times are fast. It’s no secret the way we all practice before the NFR. We set our arena dimensions up at home the same as the NFR. We line up several practice horses and go at it all day long, trying to get in a rhythm for that type of fast run.
The NFR has its own mystique, and so much of it depends on the cattle each year. The steers dictate the outcome of every rodeo all year long. When the cattle are the right size and have been prepared properly, it makes for a fast track in that little building. We’ve also tried older cattle that got tricky real quick, and it didn’t make for a very good event at the Finals. Stace Smith has the contract for the steers this year, and Boogie Ray is helping oversee the preparation of the steers.
This will be an interesting year. It could be anybody’s year. There hasn’t been a team that’s just jumped out there and dominated all year long. There are just so many ways it could go. It’ll all come down to who executes with consistently fast runs at the Finals. And when it’s over, that 10-steer average will be a factor. But you can’t get conservative. You have to have a consistently fast run that’s controlled enough to place in the rounds along the way.
To win the rounds, you’re going to have to throw caution to the wind. That’s the only way to be a long 3 or a short 4. You have to take some chances to do that. But when you do, you put yourself in a vulnerable position. You’re more likely to lose your rope, rope a front leg, pop it off or hickey a horn in a situation like that. There are just so many variables that come into play when you’re going that fast.
Whoever wins the most money at the National Finals has the best chance of being the world champion. That’s probably going to take a combination of go-round money and average money. Everyone has their strategies, depending on what type of ropers they are. The more conservative teams will be shooting for placing in rounds and looking more toward the average, because that’s where their strength is. Other teams will go for first every night and won’t worry about the average, with the strategy that two rounds pay about the same as the average.
I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum as far as NFR strategy goes. I’ve gone in there with a good lead before, with the strategy of going for the rounds and figuring if we won a couple of them no one could catch us. I’ve also gone in in the middle of the pack, behind, and not feeling any pressure. The year Clay and I set the record in the average (they were 59.1 seconds on 10 steers in 1994, which is the year they won their seventh world title together), I’d just bought a horse right before the National Finals. I hadn’t even taken him to a rodeo and he was green. We did good in the go-rounds and won the average on a horse you wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that on going in. Go figure. Two years ago, when I was roping with Kory (Koontz), we went in with the strategy of roping every steer for what he was, with a good, controlled run, with the plan to try and place in the go-rounds and the average. Everything was working to a tee, then I lost my thumb. So you just never know. One thing you can bet on is that I’ll practice hard and be prepared to the best of my ability when I show up there, and that I will give it 110 percent. Fourteen other teams will be on the same page. This is the Super Bowl, and we all realize the urgency. It could be anybody’s week. Time to see who can close the deal.