When the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association spurned the advances of Orlando, Fla., and Dallas last winter and agreed to a new 10-year deal to keep the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas through 2024, Elko native Dakota Eldridge felt like he had won a gold buckle.
“I was super pumped about that. Just six hours from the house to the best rodeo in the world,” he said. “I don’t want to see it move.”
In his debut at last year’s NFR — aka the “Super Bowl of rodeo,” which kicks off its annual 10-day run at 6:45 p.m. today at the Thomas &Mack Center — Eldridge enjoyed a rapid rise in the steer wrestling standings, riding a Las Vegas hot streak worth more than $90,000 from 15th place to fifth.
“I wasn’t just satisfied to make it (to the NFR),” the 23-year-old said. “I wanted a go-round buckle, and I wanted to win over $100,000. I got pretty close.”
Eldridge won the second round and placed in four other rounds last year on his way to finishing second in the average. A similar run in the next 10 days could propel the 2012 PRCA All-Around and Steer Wrestling Rookie of the Year from ninth place to a world title.
Of the NFR’s seven events — bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, bull riding and barrel racing — steer wrestling features the tightest title race from the first to last qualifier.
While the average, or event, winner will make almost $49,000, less than $40,000 separates the top 15 steer wrestlers.
“Everybody’s got pretty much the same shot,” said Trevor Knowles, who leads K.C. Jones in the event by less than $10,000 entering his 11th straight NFR but who never has won a gold buckle. “Just because you’re 15th doesn’t mean nothing at this rodeo. There’s so much money.”
The field of the world’s best 120 cowboys and cowgirls will compete for a total purse of $6.375 million.
Four-time world champ Luke Branquinho was leading the steer wrestling standings when he suffered a regular season-ending injury in July. In eighth place, Branquinho is healthy again and will compete in the NFR using Eldridge’s horse, Rusty.
“All the steer wrestlers are a pretty close group of guys,” Eldridge said. “We help each other out, but at the same time, it’s about making a living. We’re all going for first.”
Fallon native Jade Corkill is involved in another close battle in team roping. The heeler leads Cory Petska by a little more than $8,000 while his partner, header Clay Tryan, leads Trevor Brazile — aka the “Michael Jordan of rodeo” — by less than $10,000.
Corkill is trying to become the first team roper in a decade to win three consecutive gold buckles. Speed Williams and Rich Skelton won eight in a row from 1997 to 2004.
“That guy’s an animal,” Eldridge said of his longtime friend. “I honestly think he’s the best there ever has been and will be for a long time.
“He’s just a winner. It takes a lot in this game to survive out here. You can’t just be satisfied with the parties, hype and limelight. You’ve got to be out here to win.”
If Brazile wins a world title in team roping, he would become the first cowboy ever to capture multiple titles in four categories. His collection of 20 gold buckles comprises 11 all-around titles, five steer roping (he won his fifth Nov. 8), three tie-down roping and one team roping.
With a lead of almost $145,000 over Tuf Cooper, Brazile has all but locked up his 12th all-around crown and 21st title.
Here’s a quick look at the storylines in the other events:
■ BAREBACK RIDING — Kaycee Feild might want to celebrate with a double-double at In-N-Out Burger if he’s able to pull off his unprecedented fourth consecutive year of winning the world championship and NFR average title. He leads Steven Peebles by more than $45,000 in the standings.
■ SADDLE BRONC RIDING — For the first time ever, four brothers have qualified for the NFR. Making their feat more impressive, the Wright brothers — Cody, Jesse, Jake and Spencer — compete in the same event. Coincidentally, two other brothers — Heith and Cody “Hot Sauce” DeMoss — also are in the field. Taos Muncy leads Cody Wright by almost $16,000 for first.
■ TIE-DOWN ROPING — At last year’s NFR, Tuf Cooper squandered a chance to become the first cowboy to win three consecutive tie-down roping titles since his father, Roy Cooper, won five in a row from 1980 to 1984. With a lead of almost $37,000 over Matt Shiozawa and $60,000 over Brazile, Tuf is again poised to bring home his third gold buckle.
■ BULL RIDING — Sage Kimzey is trying to become the second bull rider ever to win the world championship as a rookie. The only other one to do it was Bill Kornell, 51 years ago. Kimzey, 20, already has broken the regular-season PRCA earnings record for a rookie, in any event, with $143,165, and could surpass bull rider Steve Woolsey’s full-season mark of $197,646, set in 2005. Kimzey leads Trey Benton III by more than $17,000.
■ BARREL RACING — Kaley Bass takes a lead of almost $24,000 over Fallon Taylor into her third straight NFR. Defending world champion Sherry Cervi is ninth, more than $62,000 off the pace, a year after winning the Top Gun Award, which honors the NFR’s top money winner in a single event. Cervi won $155,899 last year in Las Vegas.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.