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3 takeaways from NFR: Injured Wright still savors 5th straight title

The dust has settled at the 2023 National Finals Rodeo. Over 10 rounds, eight world champions were crowned on rodeo’s grandest stage at the Thomas & Mack Center.

This year’s NFR won’t be forgotten. The event had its first scheduled day canceled after the shooting at UNLV. Once the rodeo resumed, and after paying tribute to the UNLV community, the world’s best cowboys and cowgirls showed off their skills in their toughest and longest rodeo of the year.

Among the many memorable moments this year, the final night was capped off by an epic comeback by steer wrestler Tyler Waguespack, who entered the 10th go-round fourth in the standings but won the round and moved up in the average to claim his fifth world title and third straight.

And there will be plenty more memories to make in the future, as the NFR recently reached an agreement to remain in Las Vegas through 2035.

Here are three takeaways from the 2023 National Finals Rodeo:

1. Wright wins fifth all-around title

If anyone entered Las Vegas in a safe spot, it was Stetson Wright.

The 24-year-old had such a large lead in the all-around standings that he had already clinched his fifth consecutive world title before NFR started.

Unfortunately for Wright, he reaggravated a lingering right hamstring injury after falling off on his saddle bronc riding run in the first and second rounds and was ruled out for the remainder of NFR.

“I ride so much better when I’m healthy, and when it wasn’t firing, it’s not even fun to get on,” Wright said after the finale Saturday night. “Those first two rounds were miserable. I wanted to be done. Sitting out was honestly a blessing, and I’ll be ready next year.”

Wright is the fifth competitor to win five or more consecutive all-around titles since the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association was founded in 1929.

“Having to sit out of the finals, it was hard, but it was hard for a couple of days,” Wright said. “Once I realized the bigger picture, I was pretty much over it pretty fast.”

Without a chance to pad his lead at NFR, the Beaver, Utah, native relied on a stellar regular season to still take the all-around title by $183,160. Wright entered NFR with the lead in the saddle bronc and bull riding world standings but lost both of those title races because he didn’t compete.

“All this was won strictly off the regular season and everything I did leading up to the finals,” Wright said. “To walk out of here (with the all-around title), it really shows that every rodeo is important.”

Asked about his timetable for return: “The only thing I’ll say is I’ll be back when I’m 100 percent,” Wright said.

2. Hamilton perseveres for title

No one was tougher at the NFR than Australian bull rider Ky Hamilton. The 23-year-old won his first world title, but will leave Las Vegas with a few injuries.

Hamilton got knocked off his bull in the fifth round and lost consciousness. Less than 16 hours later, he returned to place third in the first go-round Wednesday afternoon and won Wednesday night’s go-round in a historic doubleheader.

“It’s all about being a cowboy,” Hamilton said. “That cowboy mentality, that tops everything. When you have no quit in you, that’s what will get you to the top every time.”

Hamilton said he suffered a broken rib and bruised lung after his fifth-round fall and was carried out of the arena on a backboard.

“That’s part of the sport,” Hamilton said. “When I told my dad I decided I wanted to ride again, he said, ‘You got to be all-in or not at all.’”

Hamilton also won the Top Gun award for the most earnings won at NFR with $239,060 racked up over the 10 rounds, which does not include an additional $78,747 for having the best average score of all bull riders during the event. He won the world title by more than $194,000 in the overall standings.

3. First-time champions

Hamilton wasn’t the only young cowboy to win his first world title. Twenty-year-old rookie Keenan Hayes won the bareback riding world title, and Riley Webb, also 20, won tie-down roping in his second NFR appearance.

“This is the coolest rodeo I’ve ever been to by far,” Hayes said. “It’s been a fun two weeks.”

Hayes didn’t have the most dominant NFR, as his lone go-round win came in the final round Saturday.

The Hayden, Colorado, native said being “hard-headed” helped him stay focused over the 10 rounds and consistently do well enough to claim $168,154 in earnings at NFR.

“I didn’t let it get to my head, and I kept plugging away,” Hayes said. “I just kept driving. Those guys kept pushing it and bringing it every night, so I had to do the same.”

Contact Alex Wright at awright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlexWright1028 on X.

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