Updated December 10, 2022 - 5:24 pm
At the beginning of the National Finals Rodeo, it would have required tea leaves, a Ouija board and the clairvoyance of Nostradamus to predict the winners of the gold championship belt buckles.
But with one go-round remaining at the Thomas & Mack Center, about all it takes now is a good internet connection.
Starting with the conclusion of Round 7, the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association began listing projections for how the championship battles in bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, barrel racing and bull riding likely will play out.
With most of the money from the record competition purse of more than $10.9 million having been paid out, and bonuses for high finishes over the NFR’s 10-day run — or the “average” — taking shape, so are the championship battles in the seven disciplines.
There’s still money to be won, and a buck off or slow time in Saturday’s final round could juggle the standings. But the projections provide a much clearer picture of who will be doing victory laps when the dust settles.
The sport’s most coveted championship already has been decided.
Precocious superstar Stetson Wright clinched his fourth consecutive all-around cowboy title Tuesday night, after starting the NFR with an near insurmountable edge on second-place Caleb Smidt.
Basically, all Wright had to do to nail down the all-around was show up. But by earning money in each of the NFR’s first nine rounds, the 23-year-old saddle bronc and bull rider from Milford, Utah, did it in a style that rodeo fans have come to expect from him.
“When you break your own record, it means you did better than the year before, whenever you set it,” said Wright, who had amassed $722,824 in season earnings through Tuesday after collecting $686,513 last year. “The way I look at it is that I’m improving every year, and to improve just from last year is pretty special.”
The other money leaders when the NFR began were Cole Reiner in bareback riding, Stetson Jorgensen in steer wrestling, Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira in team roping, Sage Newman in saddle bronc riding, Shad Mayfield in tie-down roping, Jordon Briggs in barrel racing and Wright in bull riding.
Heading into Round 10, the projected champions are Jess Pope (bareback), Will Lummus (steer wrestling), Driggers and Nogueira (team roping), Zeke Thurston (saddle bronc), Smidt (tie-down roping), Briggs (barrel racing) and Wright (bull riding).
Reiner and Newman have slipped to sixth and fifth in the projections based on their scores and averages over the first nine rounds.
Among the significant charges, Leighton Berry has climbed from seventh to a projected third in bareback, Kyle Irwin from ninth to fourth in steer wrestling, Patrick Smith from sixth to second in team roping (heeler), Thurston from sixth to first in saddle bronc, Kincade Henry from 15th to eighth in tie-down roping and Lisa Lockhart from 14th to third in barrel racing.
One of the most competitive of the gold buckle battles heading into Round 10 is in saddle bronc, where Thurston, Logan Hay, Lefty Holman and Wright are separated by a projected $55,000. With first place paying almost $29,000, the order could change in a hurry.
“Really, at this point there is just excitement to make a good run and try to put myself in the mix for the average and the gold buckle,” steer wrestler Lummus said about the NFR marathon having become a sprint to the finish.
More Hay made in NFR saddle bronc competition
After older brother Logan showed how it is done with three consecutive wins earlier in the week, Dawson Hay picked one up for himself Friday night in saddle bronc riding.
The Canadian cowboy made it four victories for the Hay brothers in nine nights by riding retiring Beutler and Son Rodeo’s BDM Mud’s Killer Bee for 92 points during the ninth round of the National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“Guys go years without getting a go-round win, and I was lucky to get one in 2019. And last year I got a second place,” said the diminutive rider after joining his brother in the winner’s circle.
“But it’s not the wins that stick with you, but the rides. The moments you get on top of some of the greatest, most legendary horses in front of by far the greatest crowds, that’s what really sticks with you.”
Based on their budding NFR careers, the former hockey-playing sons of 20-time NFR qualifier Rod Hay are nearly equals in the arena. But not so much on a frozen pond, Dawson conceded.
“Logan was definitely a better hockey player,” he said. “He got a lot of goals, and I got a lot of penalty minutes.”
Other ninth-round winners:
— Tim O’Connell, Zwingle, Iowa, in bareback riding (88)
— Hunter Cure, Holliday, Texas, in steer wrestling (3.6)
— Rhen Richard, Roosevelt, Utah, and Jeremy Buhler, Arrowwood, Alberta, in team roping (3.8)
— Marty Yates, Stephenville, Texas, in tie-down roping (7.8)
— Hailey Kinsel, Cotulla, Texas, in barrel racing (13.34)
— Trey Holston, Fort Scott, Kansas, is bull riding (89.5)
Quoteworthy: “Oh, nerves don’t really play into things this late in the rodeo. Just trying to get as much money as I can. I never thought I would be taking three firsts. But at this point in the game, that’s really what I have to do.” — Two-time world steer wrestling champion Hunter Cure, after winning his third round of the NFR.
National Finals Rodeo
When: 5:45 p.m. Saturday
Where: Thomas & Mack Center
TV: The Cowboy Channel, RFD-TV; Channels 603 and 345 (DirecTV); Channels 231 and 232 (DISH Network)