LAS VEGAS – It didn’t take Justin McDaniel long to announce his presence among bareback riding’s elite.
He qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for the first time in 2007, when he was just 21 years old. He earned a world champion’s gold buckle the next December, aided greatly by winning the NFR average championship. He added another average title at the 2010 NFR, the second-highest honor in ProRodeo.
So don’t mind McDaniel if his sights are set high for his fifth trip to the NFR; he expects to perform well there. The NFR is set for Dec. 6-15 in Las Vegas; live broadcasts will air at 9 p.m. on GAC.
He qualified for ProRodeo’s championship four straight seasons, then missed the finals last December when injuries put him on the sidelines through much of the 2011 campaign. He had shoulder surgery that September and finished well down the money list.
His 2012 season was just as rocky. He returned from injury in March, but quickly returned to the sidelines.
“I came back too early,” he said. “I needed a little more time to heal.”
He returned with a vengeance in May. Over the course of the season, McDaniel earned titles at six rodeos. More importantly, he placed well at some big money rodeos at the right time of the year. He heads to Las Vegas 14th in the world standings, thanks in large part to a big push as the 2011 regular season came to a close.
“When I was forced away from it for so long this time, I remembered why I ride bucking horses – because I love it,” McDaniel told the PRCA earlier this year. “I came back in the middle of the season in 2010, and had one of my best years. I’m not satisfied with one championship. I’m looking for another gold buckle in the bareback riding.”
That’ll take some work, but the NFR is the right place at the right time. The purse is $6.5 million, and go-round winners will pocket $18,000 each of the 10 nights of the championship. In addition, the bareback rider with the best cumulative score when the NFR concludes will win the coveted average title, which will pay nearly $50,000. It all adds up to a huge opportunity in Las Vegas.
“Once you’ve stepped into that Thomas & Mack and you’re about to nod your head at the National Finals Rodeo, every mile you didn’t get that sleep makes it all worth it,” McDaniel said.
Just qualifying for the NFR is half the battle. Now McDaniel will be in an inclusive field of the best 15 bareback riders from the 2012 season, which includes three other world champions: four-time winner Bobby Mote, three-time champ Will Lowe and reigning titlist Kaycee Feild. It’s also an experienced crew, accumulating 64 NFR qualifications among them.
“To win a world championship takes the right mindset,” said McDaniel, who credits his partnership with Carr Pro Rodeo, Ariat, W-W Livestock Equipment and James Hodge Ford of Muskogee for allowing him to succeed on the rodeo trail through their sponsorships. “I’ve won the world championship a million times in my head growing up.
“I rode in that 10th round a million times before I even got there. In my opinion, winning is a choice; you can either know you’re going to win or you can hope you’re going to win, and I usually expect to win.”