postheadericon Struxness finds another NFR payday

J.D. Struxness turns his steer during his 3.7-second run to finish in a three-way tie for fourth in Friday's ninth round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

J.D. Struxness turns his steer during his 3.7-second run to finish in a three-way tie for fourth in Friday’s ninth round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

LAS VEGAS – J.D. Struxness is doing everything he can to make it work at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

On Friday night, he mounted his third horse in the last week and made it work with a 3.7-second round to finish tied for fourth in the ninth go-round. He pocketed $7,333 for the run and increased his Sin City earnings to $62,095.

But it was the first time he has placed since the fifth night of the championship.

J.D. Struxness

J.D. Struxness

“The last couple of rounds, we just had steers that I wasn’t meant to place on,” said Struxness of Appleton, Minn. “We haven’t been getting the start, so we made another horse change.”

That horse is Rusty, is owned by Dakota Eldridge, who won Round 7 with a 3.3-second run.

“We finally hit the start and made a good run, and we are back at the pay window,” Struxness said. “This is a good pen of cattle, so a fast round like that was fun. It is always fun to have a fast round like that and be able to be part of it.”

The top three times were 3.3 seconds, 3.5 and 3.6. Struxnesses was tied with Chason Floyd and Olin Hannum for the bottom three spots. It was fast and furious and probably the best round of this year’s NFR.

“Vegas is always a good time,” Struxness said. “The stuff we got going on with the horses is just something we have to deal with. We still have to come out here and bulldog and make the best runs we can.”

His good horse, Peso, became sick earlier this week. He switched to Todd Suhn’s horse, Max for a bit before leaning on Rusty. As of Friday, Peso remains ill.

“He’s done for the week and is ready for the road home,” said Struxness, who sits fifth in the average. “Tomorrow it would be great to come with a good steer. On Rusty, I know I’m going to get the start and have a good go. I want to make a good run, get some money in the round and then hang on to a spot in the average.”

Fifth in the average would pay an addition $22,846 and would help make his trip to the City of Lights that much better.

postheadericon Arena record tied

Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira just tied a Wrangler National Finals Rodeo arena record with a 3.3-second run.

postheadericon Rank horse no match for O’Connell

Reigning world champion Tim O'Connell rides Powder River Rodeo's Craig at Midnight for 85 points to finish in a tie for fourth place in Thursday's eighth round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

Reigning world champion Tim O’Connell rides Powder River Rodeo’s Craig at Midnight for 85 points to finish in a tie for fourth place in Thursday’s eighth round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

LAS VEGAS – Tim O’Connell had a gut feeling the match-up was going to happen.

The reigning world champion bareback rider had already been matched with the 2017 Bareback Horse of the Year, Virgil, in the third go-round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. The result was an arena-record tying ride of 91.5.

In his heart, though, O’Connell just knew he would be matched with the 2016 Horse of the Year, Powder River Rodeo’s Craig at Midnight. Both are powerful gray horses, athletic and extremely hard to ride.

“John Franzen would always send me videos of Craig running through the pastures and getting him beefed up and ready to go to the NFR,” he said, referring to the son of Powder River’s owner, Hank Franzen. “God has a funny way of just letting you know.

Tim O'Connell

Tim O’Connell

“I knew I was going to have Craig at Midnight at the second ‘eliminator’ round.”

That happened Thursday night during the eighth round of ProRodeo’s grand championship. The two powerhouses slugged it out across the Thomas & Mack Arena dirt for 85 points. That was good enough to finish in a tie for fourth place, worth $8,885 and increased O’Connell’s NFR earnings to $96,731.

His dance with what he dubbed as a “fire-breathing dragon” helped push his season earnings to $298,647 – just a stone’s throw from crossing the $300,000 barrier. He has ridden eight horses for a cumulative score of 683 points and leads the average race – should he stay there through the final two rounds, he will pocket an additional $67,269.

That means he has a very good chance to earn more in 2017 than he did in his first gold-buckle campaign. But Thursday night was not easy. Craig at Midnight did everything he could to get O’Connell to the ground.

“My trainer and I talked about it, and we prepared for stuff like this,” he said. “The stuff that makes champions champions is when you have to dig down deep. You show up not knowing if you’re going to win or not.

“There’s a saying: ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.’ I kept telling myself that before I nodded my head (to start the ride). ‘It is not his night tonight. He can have it any other night, but not tonight. It’s my night. There is nothing that horse can do tonight to get me on the ground.’ ”

It was like a prize fight, and it’s quite fitting that it happened in Las Vegas. There were no tricks; it was just two champions going blow to blow for 8 seconds.

“I didn’t make the pickup horse; he launched me in the air,” O’Connell said. “I feel like I was 20 feet in the air before I started to come down. He had a shot to kick me if he wanted, and he chose not to. I was just very thankful that I had faith and that, now, the ‘eliminator’ pens area done.”

There are two nights remaining for the 2017 season. O’Connell has a lead of more than $93,000 over the No. 2 man, Texan Richmond Champion. But no lead is secure, especially with so much money on the table. O’Connell leads Champion by just half a point in the average race. Still, he will appreciate his ride on a big gray horse on the eighth night of the NFR.

“I had to bear down tonight,” O’Connell said. “I don’t know if my form was very great, but I just fought tonight. When you have to fight to stay on one you have to give it everything you got, and I gave it everything I had. That is a win for me. I don’t care if I would have won the round or if I would have been last, but I knew I left if all on the table.”

postheadericon Braden’s father helps out at NFR

Hardy Braden rides Outlaw Buckers Rodeo's OLS Tubs Magic Carpet for 84.5 points to place for the sixth time in Thursday's eighth go-round at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (JOSH HOMER PHOTO)

Hardy Braden rides Outlaw Buckers Rodeo’s OLS Tubs Magic Carpet for 84.5 points to place for the sixth time in Thursday’s eighth go-round at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (JOSH HOMER PHOTO)

LAS VEGAS – Hardy Braden doesn’t have to look too far to find his bronc riding hero.

It’s his dad, Butch, who rode broncs professionally for a number of years before becoming a PRCA pickup man. Hardy Braden learned everything he knows about the game from his dad before furthering his education at both Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College and Oklahoma Panhandle State University.

Earlier this week, after failing to place in the sixth round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, Braden reached out to his father for some advice. It has paid off in spades; he won Round 7 and finished fifth in the eighth round.

Hardy Braden

Hardy Braden

“I’d been sitting on my right foot a little bit and getting up in my saddle,” he said. “I called him just to verify what I had done. I take my binds up a half hole to make it a little tighter and to keep my foot from coming all the way up in the saddle.

“I asked him if that was the right decision to make and clarify what I was thinking. He agreed, and he mentioned that he thought that a couple rounds ago that I probably should have done that. Hee is always the one to call for me as far as advice or to justify my thinking.”

That’s because Butch Braden is his son’s trainer and coach and has been before the 28-year-old cowboy began riding bucking horses.

“He is my everything; he is my world,” the young Braden said.

His ride Thursday added $6,769 to his pocketbook, increasing his NFR take to $90,173.

“That is pretty unbelievable,” he said, noting that he might have to do something special for his family after the NFR concludes. “Everyone is getting special Christmas presents, I guess.”

He laughed a little, but he was serious. His family has been by his side since the beginning. While Dad serves as a pickup man, his mom, Tammy, is a PRCA timer who worked the NFR from 2013-15. He also has a sister, Tara, who has been beside her brother every step of the way.

On Thursday, he matched moves with Outlaw Buckers Rodeo’s OLS Tubs Magic Carpet for 84.5 points.

“I had seen t hat horse go; Sterling (Crawley) had it in the third round,” Braden said. “He told me what he did with the horse, and I was just trying to do the same day. She had a decent trip with Sterling, and I was just trying to match that.

“She tried a little harder than I was expecting. She almost ran me out of the back of the saddle.”

He stayed in the buggy and looked strong doing it, but he’s been doing it most of this year’s NFR. He has placed in six of eight rounds and pushed his earnings to $192,947. He sits fifth in the world standings and is excited to ride in the final two go-rounds.

After having so much success through the first eight nights, there’s no reason he wouldn’t be excited.

postheadericon Rutkowski finds redemption

Weston Rutkowski dominated his fight during the second Preliminary Round with a 90.5-point fight to advance to the final day  of the Bullfighters Only Las Vegas Championship. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

Weston Rutkowski dominated his fight during the second Preliminary Round with a 90.5-point fight to advance to the final day of the Bullfighters Only Las Vegas Championship. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

Defending champ, Inman advance to final day of BFO Las Vegas Championship

LAS VEGAS – Fifteen stitches and a bum hamstring had nothing on Weston Rutkowski.

The reigning Bullfighters Only world champion suffered those injuries a week ago, but what hurt him more was the doubt that was cast on his ability and his work ethic. He answered those doubts Thursday afternoon with a 90.5-point fight during the second Preliminary Round of the BFO Las Vegas Championship at the Tropicana Casino and Resort.

“This was about redemption,” said Rutkowski, the No. 1 man in the Pendleton Whisky World Standings and the frontrunner to repeat as the world champ. “There were a lot of people wondering if I could, if I could come in and take over.

“The Roughy Cup (last week) didn’t go as good as I wanted to, and I got 15 staples and reaggravated a hamstring injury. So, this was getting back to the basics to prove to everybody that I know how to fight bulls. This is a very dangerous sport, but in order to be a world champion, you have to battle through that and make yourself fight your fight.”

Toby Inman jumps his bull Thursday. He advanced out of his set for Saturday's championship. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

Toby Inman jumps his bull Thursday. He advanced out of his set for Saturday’s championship. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

His bout was so strong that it didn’t look like the injuries even hampered him. He admitted, though, that he had to block it out to a point.

“Winning my round today means I get a day off, another day of rehab over here at the Fit N Wise sports medicine,” he said. “It’ll be nice to have an extra day off to be able to get ready to fight at the finals Saturday.”

Trainers have outfitted Rutkowski with a specialized wrap to help protect the hamstring as much as possible. He tested it out Wednesday night to make sure everything was good to go for his round.

“I went down to the arena, and I pretended to fight bulls for 45 minutes to an hour,” he said. “I proved to myself that the wrap would hold up.”

That was all he needed to help his confidence and put on the fight necessary to advance to Championship Saturday.

“One slip or one fall, and people think you’ve lost your step,” Rutkowski said. “If you can’t get up from some bumps and bruises, then this isn’t the sport for you.

“I’m not going to bow down. The world title goes through me, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let go of it without putting up a fight.”

While he is the No. 1 man in the game, there is one man that can catch Rutkowski: Toby Inman of Davis Junction, Ill., who joins Rutkowski and Kris Furr of Hamptonville, N.C., in advancing to Saturday’s finale. Furr won his three-man bout with an 80, while Inman scored 85 to advance.

“I thought my fight went great,” said Inman, who returned to the sport in 2016 after retiring five years before. “That was maybe the happiest I’ve ever felt before a fight. Today I wasn’t overthinking stuff.

“I had a fun little red bull, and I knew I just needed to play my cards right to advance. Thankfully I didn’t have Weston in my round. I just did a simple fight and made it work.”

Weston Rutkowski, 90.5; Toby Inman, 85; and Kris Furr, 80.

postheadericon Biglow places second on Night 8

Clayton Biglow rides Beutler & Son Rodeo's South Suds for 86.5 points to finish second during Thursday's eighth round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

Clayton Biglow rides Beutler & Son Rodeo’s South Suds for 86.5 points to finish second during Thursday’s eighth round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

LAS VEGAS – Bareback rider Clayton Biglow’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is like an old truck engine: It took a little while to get warmed up, but it’s humming right along now.

Biglow, 22, of Clements, Calif., failed to catch a check in the first five rounds of this year’s 10-round finale. Since the second half began, he hasn’t missed a lick. He’s placed in three straight rounds, including a second-place finish during Thursday’s eighth go-round on Beutler & Son Rodeo’s South Suds, worth $20,731.

Clayton Biglow

Clayton Biglow

“It was déjà vu,” he said. “I actually got on him here last year in the same round, except today I feel like I rode him better. That’s a rank son of a gun, the rankest horse I got on last year and so far the rankest horse this year.”

He must like powerful bucking horses. Thursday’s bareback riding featured the “eliminator” pen, the hardest-to-ride horses in the sport.

“That is what you want to do,” Biglow said. “That is why we are bareback riders. Getting by the hoppers (the easiest-to-ride broncs) is fun and all, but this is what you live for, to slay the dragons.”

He has pushed his NFR earnings to $72,404, with all but $10,000 coming in the last three nights. He now sits fourth in the world standings with $200,577 in season earnings. What’s more impressive is that the group of bareback riders has worked like a team.

“We are feeding off each other,” he said. “We are all brothers in that locker room. We are all pulling for each other. Everyone wants to win first, and it would be cool if we could all win first. No one is against each other. We are not here to beat Tim (O’Connell) or Richie (Champion). We are there to beat our horses, and that is all we are worried about.”

Now Biglow has just two more chances to cash in during his Vegas tenure this season. He’ll do everything possible to make it work.

postheadericon Results from Round 8

Bareback riding: 1. Richmond Champion, 88 points on Hi Lo ProRodeo Pretty Woman, $26,231; 2. Clayton Biglow, 86.5, $20,731; 3. Jake Brown, 86, $15,564; 4. (tie) Tim O’Connell and JR Vezain, 85, $8,885 each; 6. Bill Tutor, 84.5, $4,231.

Steer wrestling: 1. Chason Floyd, 3.7 seconds, $26,231; 2. Rowdy Parrott, 3.8, $20,731; 3. (tie) Jon Ragatz and Dakota Eldridge, 4.1, $13,327 each; 5. (tie) Tanner Milan and Ty Erickson, 4.4, $5,500 each.

Jake Long

Jake Long

Team roping: 1. (tie) Luke Brown/Jake Long and Clay Tryan/Jade Corkill, 4.1 seconds, $23,481 each; 3. (tie) Dustin Egusquiza/Kory Koontz and Erich Rogers/Cory Petska, 4.2, $13,327 each; 5. Chad Masters/Travis Graves, 4.3, $6,769, 6. Garrett Rogers/Jake Minor, 4.7, $4,231.

Saddle bronc riding: 1. Ryder Wright, 92 points on Powder River Rodeo Show Me Again, $26,231; 2. Jake Wright, 88, $20,731; 3. Clay Elliot, 87.5, $15,654; 4. CoBurn Bradshaw, 87, $11,000; 5. Hardy Braden, 84.5, $6,769; 6. Heith DeMoss, 84, $4,231.

Tie-down roping: 1. (tie) Caleb Smidt and Cory Solomon, 7.6 seconds, $23,481 each; 3. Marty Yates, 8.4, $15,653; 4. Marcos Costa, 8.5, $11,000; 5. (tie) Trevor Brazile and Cade Swor, 9.1, $5,500 each.

Barrel racing: 1. Amberleigh Moore, 13.54 seconds, $26,231; 2. Tillar Murray, 13.73, $20,731; 3. Ivy Conrado, 13.86, $15,654; 4. Nellie Miller, 13.87, $11,000; 5. Lisa Lockhart, 13.93, $6,769; 6. Kellie Collier, 13.95, $4,231.

Bull riding: 1. Jordan Hansen, 86 points on Corey & Lange Rodeo Tequila, $28,981; 2. Ty Wallace, 84, $23,481; 3. Guthrie Murray, 82.5, $18,404; 4. Joe Frost, 81, $13,750.

postheadericon Champion earns 2nd round title

Richmond Champion celebrates after his 88-point ride Thursday to win the eighth round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

Richmond Champion celebrates after his 88-point ride Thursday to win the eighth round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

LAS VEGAS – Richmond Champion’s phenomenal week in the Nevada desert just keeps getting better.

Champion rode Hi Lo ProRodeo’s Pretty Woman for 88 points Wednesday night to win the eighth go-round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. That $26,231 pushed his NFR earnings to $103,853 and moved him past the $205,000 mark in his annual pay.

“It’s all part of the plan, but it is also so unexpected at the same time,” said Champion of The Woodlands, Texas. You always dream about the victory lap and to throw your arms up in the arena with big numbers on the board. To be able to do it this week as many times as I have has just been a blessing, and it’s humbling at the same time.

Richmond Champion

Richmond Champion

“I just can’t wait for the next two rounds.”

He should be excited about what the final two nights hold for him. He shared the second-round victory and has placed on six of eight nights so far. Thursday’s round featured the “eliminator” pen of bareback horses, the hardest-to-ride broncs in the game.

“Yeah, that’s a lot of bronco,” he said of the western Kansas-raised bucking horse. “It is her first trip out here. I asked the guys, the 15 best bareback riders in the world, and nobody knew what that horse was, which is ironic, because we voted them there.

“It worked out, and she deserved to be here. I was happy to have her.”

The NFR is a rugged test of endurance, mental toughness and physicality. Champion is handling it all quite well. After all, this is his third qualification in four years.

“Rounds 1 through 4, you wake up feeling like you’ve been hit by a bus,” he said. “It seems like after that, your muscles are awake again, and you are used to it. Your hand stops hurting, and you might need some Advil, but, no, I feel great.”

Part of that is the work he put in ahead of time. His brother, Doug, owns a crossfit gym in Huntsville, Texas, so Champion is reaping the rewards that come with that.

“The training that leads up to this is huge,” Champion said. “It helps with your recovery; it helps your ability, your balance. Connecting your mind with your body any time you are working out and pushing yourself, it pays off. It’s a marathon, and it’s hard.”

Yes, it is, but it’s also very rewarding.

“You want to expect things to happen, but when they do, you are never ready,” he said. “I’m star struck every night.”

Actually, he’s playing the role of superstar in Las Vegas this week.

postheadericon Scooter puts Pearson back on track

Tyler Pearson closes out a 3.6-second run during Wednesday's seventh round of the National Finals Rodeo. He earned another $18,192 and pushed his NFR income to nearly $101,000. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

Tyler Pearson closes out a 3.6-second run during Wednesday’s seventh round of the National Finals Rodeo. He earned another $18,192 and pushed his NFR income to nearly $101,000. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

LAS VEGAS – If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a big team to care for one of the greatest horses in rodeo.

That’s what happens with Scooter, the 2017 Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year owned by Tyler Pearson and Kyle Irwin. He’s also being ridden this week at the National Finals Rodeo by the reigning world champion, Tyler Waguespack, and Ty Erickson, the No. 1 man in the standings.

“It’s been unreal,” said Pearson, who placed for the fifth time Wednesday night during the seventh go-round, stopping the clock in 3.6 seconds to finish in a tie for second place with Irwin. “Ty’s fiancé, Sierra, has been packing his feet at night. We’ve been letting him out during the day to stretch and roll, making sure he’s comfortable.

Tyler Pearson

Tyler Pearson

“We have (veterinarian) Dr. Marty Tanner on him every day, checking him out making sure that if he needs anything he gets it. It’s a whole team deal, for sure.”

Rodeo cowboys know how important it is to care for their horses. The mounts are a big key to their success, and their care is vital. What’s more impressive with Scooter is that he’s guided his four cowboys to $281,276 in earnings in just seven nights. Most of that has come from Pearson.

On Wednesday night, Pearson cashed in for another $18,192 to push his NFR earnings to just shy of $101,000. He is No. 2 in the standings with $210,880.

“It’s amazing and surreal to me,” said Pearson, 32, of Louisville, Miss. “It’s hard to believe, and every time we lay on over, it’s just another blessing. It’s kind of a blur right now. Maybe a couple of weeks after it’s over I will realize what we’re experiencing.

“I’m trying not to look at the numbers, and I’m trying not to look at the average. I just want to finish these 10 days. If at the end and I’m on the victory-lap horse and they’re giving me the gold buckle, I’ll celebrate then. But right now, I’m just having a blast.”

He certainly had a blast Wednesday. He knew the steer was going to try, but Scooter got the bulldogger into position to make a solid run. Canadians Tanner Milan and Scott Guenther had both run the steer in previous rounds, and they gave Pearson some insights on the animal.

“I knew I got a good start, and I knew Kyle (as his hazer) was there,” he said. “Once I got my hands on the steer, I knew he’d be good on the ground.

“None of this would be possible without Scooter. There are a lot of great horses out there, and for Scooter to be in a group of horses like that, it’s really special for us to have him in that same category.”

Now there are three nights remaining in the 2017 ProRodeo season. That means three more chances to cash in. Not only does the money help take care of bills and cover expenses, it’s also how championships are won. In rodeo, dollars equal points, and the contestants with the most money won in each event at the conclusion of the season will be crowned world champions.

“We’re just going to stay hungry and not stay where we are,” Pearson said. “We want to get over a half million in earnings on Scooter. We never came in with a number like that, but after the start we’ve had, we decided to get over $500,00 because we have a chance.”

postheadericon Clements enjoying his Vegas run

Mason Clements rides Calgary Stampede's Stampede Warrior for 83.5 points Wednesday to place for the third time at this year's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

Mason Clements rides Calgary Stampede’s Stampede Warrior for 83.5 points Wednesday to place for the third time at this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

LAS VEGAS – Mason Clements can’t stop marveling about his first experience at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

He shouldn’t. This is the grandest event in the sport, a 10-round affair that features only the very best in the game from the 2017 season. He’s one of the 120 contestants competing this week at the Thomas & Mack Center in front of more than 17,000 a night.

Mason Clements

Mason Clements

It doesn’t hurt that he’s done pretty well. He’s placed three times and earned just shy of $57,000. He has moved up six spots to ninth in the world standings with $143,005.

“Holy cow,” he said. “I’ve never done that in seven days.”

It’s been pretty remarkable for the Utah cowboy, who was born in Las Vegas. He added to his total Wednesday night with an 83.5-point ride on Calgary Stampede’s Shadow Warrior. That was good enough to finish in a three-way tie for fourth place, worth $7,333.

“It’s a good night’s work,” he said. “I knew that was a good stud of Calgary’s and that everyone liked him. I was just happy to draw a Calgary horse and have something that fits my style. I’m super pleased with what I had done.”

He’s been taking it all in. This marked the third time in seven nights that he earned an NFR paycheck. He finished in a tie for third place on opening night, then won the fifth go-round. He has plenty of reasons to enjoy every moment.

“I’m having a great time in Vegas,” Clements said. “I’m having more fun than I thought I was going to have. I’m going to enjoy ever night and everything Vegas has to offer.

“I get to hang out with my family. My dad’s here, and I get to hang out with him every night. Normally he has to go back to work but it is cool that I get to hang out with my old man and family and see them after the rodeo. I don’t get to do that at every rodeo, so this is awesome.”

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