Prognosticating the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Polaris Ranger gets more difficult every year. There is so much money up for grabs—$10 million—that no lead is safe. We’ve done our best to figure out who’s got the hot hand coming in, whose dominance will continue, and who is due for a breakthrough performance, but in Vegas anything can happen.

Bareback Riding
The Pick: Tim O’Connell
World Titles: 0
Wrangler NFRs: 3
Biggest Win of 2016: Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo

One thing is for sure: the bareback riding will be a wide-open, wild race to the finish. There’s not one former world champion in the field, but most of the riders are former NFR qualifiers—and all are exceedingly young. More than likely, as a rodeo announcer might say, these cowboys will be letting it all hang out. Look for J. R. Vezain, Winn Ratliff, and Caleb Bennett to be among the nightly contenders at the 10-day contest.

Tim O’Connell, however, is the rider that should emerge when the top 15 have run the Las Vegas gauntlet. He’s been to the NFR twice before, battling through injuries. Last year, he finished fourth in both the average and world standings, winning two rounds. During the 2016 regular season, he won rodeos from Gerry, N.Y., to Fort Worth, Texas, to St. Paul, Ore. From February to August, his name continually showed up on leaderboards. The one that might point toward his world champion potential, however, was his win in Kissimmee, Fla., at the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo.

Steer Wrestling
The Pick: Ty Erickson
World Titles: 0
Wrangler NFRs: 3
Biggest win of 2016: Red Bluff (Calif.) Round-Up

Each year, the steer wrestling proves to be the event with the most parity. This year is no different, with only $35,000 separating first from 15th. That said, the best way to pick a winner is by looking at who’s been able to out-muscle the competition during the regular season grind most often.

This year, that man was Ty Erickson. Looking further, he seems poised for a breakthrough season. This will be his third NFR. At the first, he finished seventh in the world. Last year, he was fourth after placing in seven of the 10 rounds. This steady rise—and his rank in the regular season world standings despite only a handful of outright wins—means he’s going to be in the mix both for round placings and the all-important average jackpot.

Team Roping
The Pick: Colby Lovell & Travis Graves
World Titles: 0
Wrangler NFRs: 6, 8
Biggest win of 2016: Caldwell (Idaho) Night Rodeo

The team of Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira is probably the favorite—but for this column, they don’t feel like the safe pick. Clay Smith and Paul Eaves finished the regular season hot, while Luke Brown and Jake Long might be the steadiest pairing in the field—which boasts only one world champion: Matt Sherwood.

But there’s something about the run that Colby Lovell and Travis Graves have put together that makes them the dark horse pick. They’re both riding horses that they love and have a ton of confidence in (Lovell: Fast Time, Graves: Manny), and that makes a huge difference in this sport. They have the right blend of youth, experience, risk-taking, and consistency to win money in both the rounds and the average—which is what it’ll take to come away with the gold buckles.

Saddle Bronc
The Pick: Jacobs Crawley
World Titles: 1
Wrangler NFRs: 6
Biggest win of 2016: Cheyenne Frontier Days

The saddle bronc riding has increasingly become a family affair. Between the Wrights of Utah (Cody is the eldest brother of Jake and Jesse, and father of Rusty and Ryder); Crawley brothers (Jacobs and Sterling); and DeMoss brothers (Cody and Heith), nine of this year’s NFR qualifiers have a relative riding, too. This year, Cody, Jake, Jesse, Ryder, and Rusty Wright have qualified, while both Crawley and DeMoss brothers have, too.

It’s the eldest Crawley brother, Jacobs, however, that has the inside track to the 2016 world title. Not only is he the defending world champion, he’s the leader going into his sixth Wrangler NFR and has the hot hand. Not only did he win “The Daddy of ‘Em All” in Cheyenne this year, he took top honors at 17 other PRCA rodeos. Winning somewhere around one out of every five rodeos he entered. That momentum, combined with his experience and prime-of-his-career approach, should see him wearing his second consecutive gold buckle. 

Tie-down Roping
The Pick: Caleb Smidt
World Titles: 1
Wrangler NFRs: 3
Biggest win of 2016: San Angelo (Texas) Rodeo

World Champion Shane Hanchey, veteran Hunter Herrin, phenoms Cory Solomon, Timber Moore, and Marcos Costa will all be among the legitimate contenders for the world title at some point or another during the 10-day Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. In fact, look for this race to be muddled, with no one cowboy dominating during the week.

And on the final day, chances are good that defending World Champion Caleb Smidt will come out ahead. Last year, he entered the NFR in sixth place some $45,000 behind the leaders. Smidt only won one round—and he tied in that one—but he placed in seven others and won the average title while all those ahead of him faltered. This year, he’s in almost the identical situation. Smidt’s win last year wasn’t a fluke, and a second gold buckle will prove it.

Barrel Racing
The Pick: Mary Burger
World Titles: 1
Wrangler NFRs: 4
Biggest win of 2016:Calgary Stampede

While there’s no such thing as a sure bet in Las Vegas, 68-year-old Mary Burger might be the closest thing to it. Entering the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, she leads the field by around $85,000.

What’s more, her credentials are unequaled. She set the record as the oldest world champion in Women’s Professional Rodeo History in 2006, winning the world at 58. Now 68, Burger will be the oldest NFR qualifier ever. Riding wins in Calgary ($72,000) and Houston ($54,750) she broke the regular season earnings record.

Needless to say, she rises to the occasion when the lights are brightest. Really, the only question mark is how her young horse, Mo, will fare in the small Thomas and Mack Arena. If she falters, Mary Walker and Lisa Lockhart will be nipping at her heels, but with the cushion she’s built, this horsewoman won’t be denied.

Bull Riding
The Pick: Sage Kimzey
World Titles: 2
Wrangler NFRs: 2
Biggest win of 2016: San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo

Bull riding, usually the most exciting and action-packed among the traditional seven rodeo events, has been made mundane by one rider.

Sage Kimzey’s rookie year in the PRCA was 2014. He made the NFR that year and won the world title. Then last year, he made the big show again and won his second consecutive gold buckle. This year, he leads the field by more than $55,000 heading into the NFR. There’s nothing easy about riding a bull for eight seconds, but Kimzey has been head-and-shoulders above the competition for almost three years.

Cody Teel, Shane Proctor, Joe Frost, Scottie Knapp, and 10 other bull riders, won’t just give it to him, but barring injury, there’s no reason in the world to pick against Kimzey.

The Pick: Caleb Smidt
World Titles: 1
Wrangler NFRs: 2
Biggest win of 2016: San Angelo (Texas) Rodeo

This year, there are nine qualifiers going to the Wrangler NFR who are eligible for the all-around. All of them have only qualified in one event. They will enter within $50,000 of each other—not an insurmountable sum given the mega-payouts at the NFR. So—as in all the events—it will come down to who has the best 10 days in Las Vegas. Junior Nogueira, Josh Peek, Dustin Bird, and Ryan Jarrett can each make their case as the favorite, but we’re going with the dark horse. Reigning Tie-Down World Champion Caleb Smidt will shock the field. Even if he doesn’t win enough to defend his individual event world title, he’s learned what it takes to amass some serious dough in Las Vegas, which is what he’ll need to do to overtake the favorites. 

Share this:
Posted In

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

"*" indicates required fields

American Cowboy is the cultural chronicler of the West, covering history and heritage, travel and events, art and entertainment, food and fashion delivered to your inbox once a month.

Additional Offers

Additional Offers
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Related Articles