California cowboys bring NFR-caliber steer wrestling to National Championship
OKLAHOMA CITY – Sometimes the chase is more memorable than the catch.
That’s the case with Luke Branquinho and the 2011 ProRodeo season, one in which the California cowboy clinched his third steer wrestling world championship in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
“It’s great that it came down to the 10th round,” said Branquinho, who was in a dogfight for the Montana Silversmiths gold buckle with Jason Miller and Shawn Greenfield heading into the final night of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. “It’s unfortunate that Jason and Shawn had some bad luck, but it was a great race.”
It was just one of a couple races Branquinho was involved in last season; the other involved the California Circuit, where fellow NFR qualifier Ethen Thouvenell won the year-end championship. But Branquinho won the average title at the Ram California Circuit Finals Rodeo. That qualifies both cowboys for the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo, set for Thursday, March 29-Sunday, April 1, at Jim Norick Arena at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds in Oklahoma City.
“Making the (national) circuit finals means a lot,” said Branquinho, who also won world titles in 2004 and ’08 and won RNCFR championships in 2009 and ’10. “It’s a great rodeo with a lot of money added. It’s a rodeo that has the top circuit cowboys from all across the country, so that makes it great, too.
“You have to qualify for this, so that makes it pretty special.”
This is ProRodeo’s National Championship, where the very best competitors in the sport earn the right to play for one of the largest purses in the sport, more than $525,000. The event pits the top cowboys and cowgirls from the 12 regional ProRodeo circuits against one another for the prestigious national title. Contestants will compete in seven traditional rodeo events: bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, tie down roping, team roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing and bull riding.
“Making it there is something I’ve wanted to do,” said Thouvenell, who has qualified three times for the RNCFR. “In my circuit, it’s kind of a tough bulldogging. It’s a nice thing when you’ve got guys like that in your circuit, because you know you’re going up against the best all the time.
“The California Circuit has always been one of those circuits where we’ve had some real competitive steer wrestling. I think it shows.”
Now the Californians will test their mettle against the top players from the other 11 circuits. Branquinho has an advantage that comes with being crowned the world’s best three times; Thouvenell qualified for the 2010 NFR and finished that season ninth in the world standings. And both know what it means to be on top of the bulldogging standings – Branquinho has those gold buckles, and Thouvenell parlayed big wins in San Antonio and Tucson on the same weekend in late February to move to the No. 1 spot early in the 2012 season.
“When you get there, you get to go up against 23 other guys instead of 50 or so like you do at a lot of big rodeos that add that kind of money,” said Branquinho, who is making his seventh trip to the RNCFR. “It’s a prestigious rodeo, and it’s one you want to do well at.
“This is my first chance to go to it in Oklahoma City, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Thouvenell was part of the 24-man field at State Fair Arena last spring, so he knows the feeling of backing his horse into the timed-event box in that storied building, which hosted the NFR from 1965-1978.
“What’s great about it is they take the 12 circuits, and they bring the two best from each circuit,” Thouvenell said. “That makes for an elite field of guys. It makes for a great rodeo.”
Of course, having ProRodeo’s National Championship on the line is also a big incentive. It’s a dream both California cowboys will chase, and they’ll remember every step along the way.