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Young, old ready to ride

Trevor Brazile will start tonight’s first go-round of the National Finals Rodeo with a big lead in the all-around world championship standings.

That’s not a surprise, considering he’s the reigning multi-event champion and winner of the cowboys’ ultimate prize four of the past five years.

But anything can happen during the 10-day rodeo before eight world champions in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association are crowned Dec. 15 at the Thomas & Mack Center, where the event has been held for 23 years.

One upset already is in the books.

For the first time since 1990, Fred Whitfield will not be competing in the $5.5 million rodeo, the world’s richest. The popular eight-time world champion from Hockley, Texas, spent the first half of the year rehabilitating from January surgeries on his back and shoulder.

But as in any sport, when veterans step aside, a group of rookies is often ready to step in.

This year, 37 of the 118 contestants — 31 percent of the field — will be competing in their first NFR.

Josh Peek, 28, leads the class of NFR rookies. He and Brazile are the only finalists qualified in two events: Brazile in calf and team roping, Peek in calf roping and steer wrestling. Peek, of Pueblo, Colo., trails Brazile by about $140,000 in the all-around.

Though Whitfield won’t be competing, plenty of other veterans will.

Cody Ohl, 34, will start from seventh place in pursuit of his seventh calf roping world title, and five-time champ Billy Etbauer, 42, waited until the final regular-season rodeo to earn enough to reach his 19th NFR. Etbauer will enter as the 14th-ranked saddle bronc rider in the field of 15.

Other contestants with at least 18 NFR qualifications are: Allen Bach (team roping), 26 Finals; Tee Woolman (team roping), 23; Clay O’Brien Cooper (team roping), 22; Mike Johnson (calf roping), 22; Jake Barnes (team roping), 21; Mike Beers (team roping), 21; and Rod Hay (saddle bronc), 18.

This year’s NFR, which will begin on a Thursday night for the second straight year, has made a couple of changes to encourage ticket-holders to arrive early and use public transportation.

Entertainment that had been held outside the Thomas & Mack will be moved inside the adjoining Cox Pavilion. Shuttles buses from various locations on and near the Strip will be provided at no charge this year.

The biggest tradition to change is the moving of the championship gold buckle presentations. Previously held at the Gold Coast after the first nine nights of competition, the presentation will now move to the South Point.

However, the drama surrounding who leaves with championship gold buckles remains the same.

Following are breakdowns of each championship on the line, including top contenders and event descriptions:

ALL-AROUND COWBOY

TOP CONTENDERS: 1. Trevor Brazile, Decatur, Texas, $285,412; 2. Josh Peek, Pueblo, Colo., $145,214; 3. Cash Myers, Athens, Texas, $135,045; 4. Cody DeMoss, Heflin, La., $114,868; 5. Jesse Bail, Camp Crook, S.D., $113,418.

2006 CHAMPION: Trevor Brazile, qualified in first.

OVERVIEW: Brazile has a huge lead as he goes for his second consecutive all-around title and fifth in the past six years. His lead over Peek, a first-time qualifier, is largely from winning the steer roping world championship and nearly $90,000 this year in that event. Steer roping is not part of the National Finals Rodeo but does count in the standings.

Brazile, 31, and Peek are the only NFR contestants qualified in two events; Brazile in calf roping and team roping, Peek in calf roping and steer wrestling.

DESCRIPTION: The PRCA cowboy who wins the most money in a year while competing in at least two events, earning a minimum of $3,000 in the second event, wins the all-around crown. Only prize money earned at sanctioned PRCA rodeo competition is counted, and money earned by bull riders in the PRCA’s new Xtreme Bulls tour does not factor into all-around money.

BAREBACK RIDING

TOP CONTENDERS: 1. Bobby Mote, Culver, Ore., $152,184; 2. Justin McDaniel, Porum, Okla., $106,202; 3. Ryan Gray, Cheney, Wash., $94,444; 4. Jess Davis, Payson, Utah, $88,611; 5. Jason Havens, Prineville, Ore., $87,219.

2006 CHAMPION: Will Lowe, qualified in 10th.

OVERVIEW: Mote, the 2002 bareback world champ, finished second to Lowe a year ago. Mote, 31, carries a big lead into his seventh NFR and has nearly twice what Lowe has won. Lowe, a three-time world champion, qualified 10th after missing a few months while waiting for a broken leg and an injured ankle and knee to heal.

DESCRIPTION: A bareback rider begins his ride with his feet placed above the break of the horse’s shoulder. If the cowboy’s feet are not in the correct position when the horse hits the ground on its first jump out of the chute, the cowboy has failed to “mark out” the horse properly, and his ride gets no score.

Throughout the eight-second ride, the cowboy must grasp the rigging (a hand-hold made of leather and rawhide) with only one hand.

The rider is judged on his control and spurring technique. The horse’s performance accounts for half the total score. A rider is disqualified if he touches his equipment, his body or the animal with his free hand.

STEER WRESTLING

CONTENDERS: 1. Luke Branquinho, Los Alamos, Calif., $106,464; 2. Shawn Greenfield, Lakeview, Ore., $102,338; 3. Stockton Graves, Newkirk, Okla., $96,876; 4. Lee Graves, Calgary, Alberta, $94,411; 5. Wade Sumpter, Fowler, Colo., $93,283.

2006 CHAMPION: Dean Gorsuch, did not qualify (injured).

OVERVIEW: Branquinho leads one of the closest races of the Finals. He won the 2004 championship, missed the 2005 Finals with an injury and rallied a year ago to finish the season in second place.

Gorsuch, the reigning champ, tore pectoral and biceps muscles during a July rodeo to end his season.

DESCRIPTION: The steer wrestler, on horseback, starts behind a barrier and begins his chase after the steer has been given a head start. If the bulldogger leaves too soon and breaks the barrier, he receives a 10-second penalty.

The steer wrestler is assisted by a hazer, another cowboy on horseback who tries to keep the steer running in a straight line.

When the bulldogger’s horse pulls even with the steer, he eases down the right side of the horse and reaches for the steer’s horns. After grasping the horns, he digs his heels into the dirt. As the steer slows, the cowboy turns the animal, lifts up on its right horn and pushes down with his left hand.

After the catch, the steer wrestler must either bring the steer to a stop or change the direction of the animal’s body before the throw, or he is disqualified. The clock stops when the steer is on his side with all four legs pointing in the same direction.

TEAM ROPING

HEADER

TOP CONTENDERS: 1. Chad Masters, Clarksville, Tenn., $109,856; 2. Speed Williams, Deleon, Texas, $107,803; 3. Brandon Beers, Powell Butte, Ore., $88,978; 4. Clay Tryan, Billings, Mont., $85,932; 5. Travis Tryan, Billings, Mont.,$83,514.

2006 CHAMPION: Matt Sherwood, did not qualify.

HEELER

TOP CONTENDERS: 1. Dean Tuftin, Prineville, Ore., $107,803; 2. Michael Jones, Stephenville, Texas, $83,514; 3. Walt Woodard, Stockton, Calif., $82,665; 4. Mike Beers, Post, Ore., $77,500; 5. Allen Bach, Weatherford, Texas, $76,077.

2006 CHAMPION: Allen Bach

OVERVIEW: Williams, an eight-time world champion, won $17,000 at the last rodeo of the season to pull within $2,000 of Masters. Williams goes for a record ninth heading world title and first without longtime heeler Rich Skelton. Masters will rope with Bach, and Williams is paired with Dean Tuftin, a Finals rookie.

Reigning header champion Matt Sherwood placed 17th his season and did not qualify.

DESCRIPTION: If a team roping header isn’t quick, you won’t find him at the NFR. A header must charge out of the box on horseback, and as in steer wrestling, he can’t break the barrier. He then must chase down a fast-racing steer and rope him around his protected horns, neck or “half-head,” a partial horn-neck catch.

After making his catch, the header rides to the left, taking the steer in tow. The heeler moves in and ropes both hind legs. Catching only one hind leg results in a five-second penalty. If the heeler tosses his loop before the header has changed the direction of the steer and has the animal moving forward, it’s called a “crossfire” and results in disqualification.

The run is completed when the steer is secured and the team ropers’ horses are facing each other on opposite sides of the steer.

SADDLE BRONC RIDING

TOP CONTENDERS: 1. Cody Wright, Milford, Utah, $120,197; 2. Rusty Allen, Lehi, Utah, $114,958; 3. Cody DeMoss, Heflin, La., $111,080; 4. Taos Muncy, Corona, N.M., $109,378; 5. Chad Ferley, Oelrichs, S.D., $98,613.

2006 CHAMPION: Chad Ferley, qualified in fifth.

OVERVIEW: Wright, 30, making his fifth straight Finals appearance, is ranked first, but Rusty Allen and Cody DeMoss could take the lead after opening night. Ferley remains in the hunt, and you can never count out five-time world champion Billy Etbauer.

DESCRIPTION: Rodeo’s classic event has roots that run deep in the history of the Old West.

Ranch hands would often gather and compete among themselves to see who could display the best style while riding wild horses.

Model spurring action begins with the rider’s feet far forward on the bronc’s point of shoulder, sweeping to the back of the saddle as the horse bucks. The rider then snaps his feet back to the horse’s neck a split second before the animal’s front feet hit the ground.

Other factors considered in scoring are the cowboy’s control throughout the ride, the length of his spurring stroke and how hard the horse bucks.

Disqualification results if, during the eight-second ride, the rider touches the animal, his body or his equipment with his free hand, if either foot slips out of a stirrup, if he drops the bronc rein or if he fails to have his feet in the proper mark-out position at the beginning of the ride.

CALF ROPING

TOP CONTENDERS: 1. Trevor Brazile, Decatur, Texas, $132,540; 2. Houston Hutto, Del Rio, Texas, $110,414; 3. Blair Burk, Durant, Okla., $102,375; 4. Hunter Herrin, Apache, Okla., $101,723; 5. Jake Hannum, Ogden, Utah, $99,862.

2006 CHAMPION: Cody Ohl, qualified in seventh.

OVERVIEW: Brazile’s two event world titles are in steer roping, and he’s eager to win his first title at the NFR. Hutto will be using horses owned by eight-time world champ Fred Whitfield, who missed the first half of the season recovering from two January surgeries.

Never count out Ohl.

DESCRIPTION: Like bronc riding, calf roping is an event born on the ranches of the Old West. Sick calves were roped and tied down for medical treatment.

Success in calf roping depends largely on the teamwork between a cowboy and his horse, and the luck of the draw. A feisty calf that runs fast or kicks hard can foil a roper’s finest effort.

After the calf is given a head start, the cowboy on horseback follows, ropes the calf, then dismounts and runs to the calf. After catching and flanking the calf, the cowboy ties any three of the animal’s legs together using a pigging string he carries in his teeth. If the calf is not standing when the contestant reaches it, the cowboy must allow the animal to stand, then flank it.

When the cowboy completes his tie, he throws his hands in the air as a signal to the judge. He then remounts his horse and allows the rope to become slack. The run is declared valid if the calf is still tied after six seconds.

BARREL RACING

TOP CONTENDERS: 1. Brittany Pozzi-Pharr, Victoria, Texas, $164,521; 2. Lindsay Sears, Nanton, Alberta, $111,542; 3. Codi Baucom, Carthage, N.C., $86,421; 4. Jill Moody, Letcher, S.D., $85,409; 5. Vickie Solmonsen, Riverton, Utah, $83,562.

2006 CHAMPION: Mary Burger, did not qualify.

OVERVIEW: Pozzi-Pharr missed winning her first world title by $2,567 a year ago but won the NFR aggregate title.

This year, the 23-year-old broke the regular-season earnings record in the event with five weeks of competition remaining on Stitch, the year’s top barrel horse.

DESCRIPTION: Although barrel racing might look less harrowing than other rodeo events, it certainly is not for the fainthearted.

The contestant and her horse enter the arena at full speed. As they begin the course, the horse and rider trigger an electronic eye that starts the clock. The racer rides a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels positioned in the arena, then sprints back out of the arena, tripping the eye to stop the clock as she exits. The contestant can touch or even move the barrels but receives a five-second penalty for each barrel that is overturned.

BULL RIDING

TOP CONTENDERS: 1. B.J. Schumacher, Hillsboro, Wis., $158,752; 2. Kanin Asay, Powell, Wyo., $144,823; 3. Wesley Silcox, Payson, Utah, $111,009; 4. Chance Smart, Philadelphia, Miss., $109,610; 5. J.W. Harris, May, Texas, $109,585.

2006 CHAMPION: B.J. Schumacher, qualified in first.

OVERVIEW: Schumacher, 25, has NFR rookie Kanin Asay, 21, right on his spurs. Asay won $72,133 on this year’s Xtreme Bulls tour to earn that championship.

Schumacher and Cody Hancock (2000) are the only former world champions in the field. Matt Austin (2005) missed nearly all year with an injury, and Dustin Elliott (2004) has moved to the Professional Bull Riders series.

DESCRIPTION: Unlike other roughstock contestants, bull riders are not required to spur. It’s usually impressive enough just to remain seated for eight seconds on an animal that can weigh up to a ton and is as quick as he is big.

Upper-body control and strong legs are essential to riding bulls. The rider tries to remain forward at all times. Leaning back could cause him to be whipped forward when the bull bucks.

Judges watch for good body position and other factors, including use of the free arm and spurring action. Although not required, spurring will add points to a rider’s score. A bull rider will be disqualified for touching the animal, his body or his equipment with his free hand.

As in all riding events, half the score is determined by the contestant’s performance, and the other half is based on the animal’s efforts.

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