As Caleb Bennett drove to his second Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, he was calm and confident. That changed when he got to Las Vegas.
“I saw the draw and automatically got nervous,” said Bennett, who qualified for his first WNFR in 2012. “I gave it a second glance just to make sure. It was exciting.”
Bennett was paired with Pete Carr’s Classic Pro Rodeo’s Wise Guy, a bareback horse that already had seven round wins at the WNFR. It was a match made in rodeo heaven, as the 15th-ranked bareback rider and the highly decorated bucking horse combined for the Round 1 victory with 85.5 points Thursday night.
Bennett was ecstatic after earning $18,630 and cashing in on the opportunity that came his way.
“This year I felt more comfortable driving here and thought I’d be confident and relaxed,” said the 25-year-old cowboy from Ogden, Utah. “Then they throw you on top of a prestigious horse like that and my nerves and jitters came back. But I was excited to see what we could do together. I knew if I did my part, he’d do his. This was an amazing opportunity and a blessing.”
Bennett and Wise Guy were the first pairing out of the chutes and thrilled the crowd of 17,624 at the Thomas & Mack Center on the opening night of the 10-day WNFR. Wise Guy more than exceeded his expectations, Bennett said.
“When I felt him backing up, sucking underneath me, I knew it’d be in the mid-80s,” Bennett said of his score. “He was kicking hard and pulling on my riggin’. That just feels awesome.”
It also felt good to know he’d be the last cowboy to ride Wise Guy, a decision that was made shortly after the event. Wise Guy was scheduled to retire after the Finals, but bucked for the final time Thursday night.
“I was hoping they’d retire him tonight and I’d be the last one to get on him,” Bennett said. “He’s been a great horse.”
With eight round wins, Wise Guy has helped earn $228,543 for his riders at the NFR.
After posting what he knew could be a winning score, Bennett nervously watched as 14 other riders failed to match it. He was especially attentive when the top three riders in the world standings – leader Bobby Mote, runner-up Kaycee Feild and Will Lowe, who’ve combined to win nine of the last 11 bareback riding world championships – were the last three up.
“I’ve learned there are so many great riders and horses here that you can’t count on anything,” Bennett said. “It came down to Will, Bob and Kaycee, and I turned to J.R. (Vezain), my traveling partner, and said, ‘This is where the pressure hits.’ It was down to the last three wolves, but it held up.”
While basking in his victory, Bennett dared to entertain the thought of chasing down the leaders, after trimming his deficit to just less than $60,000 behind Mote.
“I think it can be done,” he said. “I’ve seen a guy come from 15th to second when he won the average. Anything’s possible, because there’s so much money to be won here. I feel very healthy, very confident. Last year I had an elbow issue. I feel like I’m in better riding shape than most guys here. I think I’m more ready now than I ever was before.
“I’m going for the gusto.”
So did Trevor Knowles, who won the steer wrestling in a lightning-quick 3.1 seconds, just one-tenth off the Thomas & Mack arena record jointly held by Steve Duhon (1986) and Bryan Fields (2001). Knowles’ time was the fastest Round 1 time in WNFR history.
“I had a good steer,” said Knowles, a 33-year-old from Baker City, Ore. “There were probably four or five of us who had good steers. I didn’t think I was going 3.1, for crying out loud. I had a feeling I had a chance to win first, second or third on the steer I had.
“I had a great start and I just kind of went through the motions. It didn’t feel like I really did anything special. It just happened fast.”
Knowles took over the world standings lead ($120,158), passing Casey Martin ($116,750), who had topped the standings for all but one week since January. Martin earned $7,813 by taking fourth place in 4.2 seconds.
In the saddle bronc riding world standings, the Wright brothers are 1-2-3 in the world standings after Jake Wright won the round with 84 points on Korkow Rodeos’ Wiggle Worm.
“I had that horse in Pendleton (Ore.) and won the first round with an 86,” he said. “It was about the same ride tonight; she didn’t cover as much ground this time, but I knew what I was getting into and it worked out.”
Jake Wright came into the WNFR in seventh place, but jumped to third behind older brother Cody, the two-time world champion, and twin brother Jesse, the defending champ of the world.
“Cody and I have been in some battles at the last couple of rodeos we’ve been to,” Jake Wright said. “It seems like we’ve been going one and two at every rodeo and it’s been fun. I just wanted to go out there and try to win tonight, and Cody and Jesse are doing the same.”
Wright said sharing the win and the WNFR experience with family – even though they are his competitors – is fun.
“Today I got a little bored, so I went over to Cody’s hotel and hung out with him and his kids,” Jake Wright said. “It’s fun and helps me stay relaxed to have family here with me. Having them around keeps us grounded and it’s nice to be able to spend time with them.”
Another winning family on opening night was the Minors, as header Riley and heeler Brady won the team roping in 4.6 seconds, three tenths of a second better than Justin Van Davis and Clay O’Brien Cooper. Davis is competing in his first WNFR while Cooper is making his 27th appearance.
“It’s pretty cool to win the first round, and get off to such a good start,” Riley Minor said. “My plan this week was to just try to take smart throws, and try to turn every steer (for Brady). If we were fast enough to win something, great. If not, I wanted to just stay in the (10-round) average. Tonight, I kind of reached a little further than I wanted to, but it worked out for us.”
Brother Brady Minor said, “I was just wanting to get some times under our belt. We could have been half a second faster tonight, but I kind of got to the inside, so I had to take an extra swing.
“But considering the fact that I thought Riley broke the barrier, I’m very happy right now.”
They were also thrilled to be back on rodeo’s biggest stage.
“We couldn’t wait to get back here, after not making the Finals last year,” Riley Minor said. “We’re pretty happy to be here again. It’s been 720 days since our last run in Vegas (in 2011). I’m just thankful to be here, really. Winning the first round is a big bonus.
Their last NFR showing was less than stellar, Brady Minor said.
“The last time we were here, we had a bad NFR,” he said. “We won one check, so it was really a bummer. Then we didn’t make it last year. We were kind of behind all year long this year (during the regular season), and got here by having a really good fall and coming through right there at the end.”
Tie-down roper Shane Hanchey edged runners-up Ryan Jarrett and Stetson Vest by one-tenth of a second to claim the top prize of $18,630.
“I knew I had a good calf and I knew if I missed the barrier a little bit, I could run him quite a ways down there and still be fast,” Hanchey said. “There’s something about 7.6 in this arena. I have been that a lot and it has ended up winning me some go-rounds.”
Hanchey said he didn’t expect to win, even after posting a good time.
“With nine guys left to go, nine of the best ropers all year, I didn’t think I was going to win first,” he said. “You know I have a special angel looking over me this year, my grandma, and I figured that was all her.”
Hanchey’s grandmother, Lola McBride, passed away June 12, 2013. He said getting off to a fast start was satisfying.
“It’s feels good,” he said. “I won second here last year in the first round and things kind of went south for a few rounds. I want to kind of stay on top of that momentum and keep going and not stop.”
Shane Proctor won the bull riding with 89 points on Rafter H Rodeo Livestock’s News Flash. Chandler Bownds was second with 87.5 points. Proctor said he meshed well with News Flash.
“He jumped out and went to the left hard and I got out good on him,” he said. “Then he started fading down the arena and he really kept me on my rope. He felt awesome, and then at about six seconds he went back around to the right and I should’ve stayed on a little bit better, but I couldn’t ask for a better bull and it felt good to get one covered.”
Proctor said he’s confident heading into Round 2.
“I wanted to come in here relaxed and I feel like I’m in the zone I need to be,” he said. “I won the 10th round here last year and now I won this round, but it’s always one bull at a time. I want to stay on as many bulls as I can and have a lot of fun out here. Might as well have some fun in Vegas.
“I always feel like I’m the baddest man on the planet. In bull riding if you don’t feel like that, you’re not going to make it very long. It’s a long 10 days, so I wanted to get this one covered, then go and have some fun tonight and get ready for another one tomorrow night.”
Barrel racer Sherri Cervi was the only world standings leader to win Round 1. Her run of 13.77 seconds edged Sydni Blanchard by three tenths of a second.
“It gets the momentum going,” said Cervi, who won world championships in 1995, 1999 and 2010. “It feels awesome every time you win a round, but it is a long week and there are 14 other girls with just as good an opportunity to win.
“It was a fast barrel race tonight. The ground is very important to barrel racers. I was at the bottom of the ground and it felt fast. We are lucky to have the best in the business here to take care of the ground.”
Wrangler National Finals Rodeo: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, Dec. 5
Bareback riding: First round: 1. Caleb Bennett, Morgan, Utah, 85.5 points on Pete Carr’s Classic Pro Rodeo’s Wise Guy, $18,630; 2. Clint Cannon, Waller, Texas, 85, $14,724; 3. Jessy Davis, Power, Mont., 84.5, $11,118; 4. (tie) Kaycee Feild, Payson, Utah; Ty Breuer, Mandan, N.D., and Casey Colletti, Pueblo, Colo., 83.5, $5,208 each; 7. Will Lowe, Canyon, Texas, 83; 8. Austin Foss, Terrebonne, Ore., 82; 9. Steven Dent, Mullen, Neb., 81; 10. Bobby Mote, Stephenville, Texas, 80; 11. Steven Peebles, Redmond, Ore., 79; 12. Ryan Gray, Cheney, Wash., 78.5; 13. J.R. Vezain, Cowley, Wyo., 77.5; 14. Wes Stevenson, Lubbock, Texas, 77; 15. Jared Smith, Cross Plains, Texas, 71.
Steer wrestling: First round: 1. Trevor Knowles, Mount Vernon, Ore., 3.1 seconds, $18,630; 2. (tie) Stan Branco, Chowchilla, Calif., and Dakota Eldridge, Elko, Nev., 4.0, $12,921 each; 4. Casey Martin, Sulphur, La., 4.2, $7,813; 5. Jason Miller, Lance Creek, Wyo., 4.3, $4,808; 6. Dean Gorsuch, Gering, Neb., 4.5, $3,005; 7. (tie) K.C. Jones, Decatur, Texas, and Jule Hazen, Ashland, Kan., 4.6 each; 9. Bray Armes, Ponder, Texas, 4.8; 10. Matt Reeves, Cross Plains, Texas, 4.9; 11. Tyler Pearson, Louisville, Miss., 5.0; 12. Wade Sumpter, Fowler, Colo., 5.5; 13. Hunter Cure, Holliday, Texas, 5.6; 14. Luke Branquinho, Los Alamos, Calif., 7.1; 15. Straws Milan, Cochrane, Alberta, 7.2.
Team roping: First round: 1. Riley Minor, Ellensburg, Wash./Brady Minor, Ellensburg, Wash., 4.6 seconds, $18,630; 2. Justin Van Davis, Madisonville, Texas/Clay O’Brien Cooper, Gardnerville, Nev., 4.9, $14,724; 3. (tie) Clay Tryan, Billings, Mont./Jade Corkill, Fallon, Nev., and Derrick Begay, Seba Dalkai, Ariz./Cesar de la Cruz, Tucson, Ariz., 5.0, $9,465 each; 5. Dustin Bird, Cut Bank, Mont./Paul Eaves, Lonedell, Mo., 5.1, $4,808; 6. Trevor Brazile, Decatur, Texas/Patrick Smith, Lipan, Texas, 5.3, $3,005; 7. Nick Sartain, Dover, Okla./Rich Skelton, Llano, Texas, 5.6; 8. Luke Brown, Stephenville, Texas/Kollin VonAhn, Blanchard, Okla., 5.7; 9. Erich Rogers, Round Rock, Ariz./Cory Petska, Marana, Ariz., 9.7; 10. Drew Horner, Plano, Texas/Buddy Hawkins II, Columbus, Kan., 10.1; 11. Turtle Powell, Stephenville, Texas/Dugan Kelly, Paso Robles, Calif., 10.3; 12. Charly Crawford, Prineville, Ore./Ryan Motes, Weatherford, Texas, 10.7; 13. Kaleb Driggers, Albany, Ga./Travis Graves, Jay, Okla., 17.8; 14. (tie) Brandon Beers, Powell Butte, Ore./Jim Ross Cooper, Monument, N.M., and Colby Lovell, Madisonville, Texas/Martin Lucero, Stephenville, Texas, NT.
Saddle bronc riding: First round: 1. Jake Wright, Milford, Utah, 84 points on Korkow Rodeo’s Wiggle Worm, $18,630; 2. Sterling Crawley, Stephenville, Texas, 82.5, $14,724; 3. Cort Scheer, Elsmere, Neb., 80.5, $11,118; 4. (tie) Cody Wright, Milford, Utah, and Heith DeMoss, Heflin, La., 79, $6,310 each; 6. (tie) Wade Sundell, Boxholm, Iowa; Taos Muncy, Corona, N.M., and Chet Johnson, Sheridan, Wyo., 78, $1,002 each; 9. (tie) Chad Ferley, Oelrichs, S.D.; Tyler Corrington, Hastings, Minn., and Bradley Harter, Weatherford, Texas, 76.5 each; 12. (tie) Jesse Wright, Milford, Utah, and Jacobs Crawley, Stephenville, Texas, 76 each; 14. Cole Elshere, Faith, S.D., 75.5; 15. Isaac Diaz, Desdemona, Texas, 68.
Tie-down roping: First round: 1. Shane Hanchey, Sulphur, La., 7.6 seconds, $18,630; 2. (tie) Ryan Jarrett, Comanche, Okla., and Stetson Vest, Childress, Texas, 7.7, $12,921 each; 4. Sterling Smith, Stephenville, Texas, 7.8, $7,813; 5. Caleb Smidt, Bellville, Texas, 7.9, $4,808; 6. Scott Kormos, Teague, Texas, 8.0, $3,005; 7. (tie) Trevor Brazile, Decatur, Texas, and Randall Carlisle, Baton Rouge, La., 8.1; 9. Shane Slack, Idabel, Okla., 8.4; 10. Tuf Cooper, Decatur, Texas, 9.0; 11. Cody Ohl, Hico, Texas, 9.4; 12. Tyson Durfey, Colbert, Wash., 9.7; 13. Timber Moore, Aubrey, Texas, 9.8; 14. Clif Cooper, Decatur, Texas, 10.7; 15. Justin Maass, Giddings, Texas, 11.0.
Barrel racing: First round: 1. Sherry Cervi, Marana, Ariz., 13.77 seconds, $18,630; 2. Sydni Blanchard, Albuquerque, N.M., 13.80, $14,724; 3. Fallon Taylor, Whitesboro, Texas, 13.83, $11,118; 4. (tie) Sabrina Ketcham, Yeso, N.M., and Trula Churchill, Valentine, Neb., 13.88, $6,310 each; 6. Jane Melby, Burneyville, Okla., 13.91, $3,005; 7. Brittany Pozzi, Victoria, Texas, 13.94; 8. Lisa Lockhart, Oelrichs, S.D., 14.06; 9. Michele McLeod, Whitesboro, Texas, 14.11; 10. Christy Loflin, Franktown, Colo., 14.13; 11. Kaley Bass, Kissimmee, Fla., 14.37; 12. Shada Brazile, Decatur, Texas, 14.44; 13. Taylor Jacob, Carmine, Texas, 18.73; 14. Jean Winters, Texline, Texas, 18.90; 15. Mary Walker, Ennis, Texas, 19.03.
Bull riding: First round: 1. Shane Proctor, Grand Coulee, Wash., 89 points on Rafter H Rodeo Livestock’s News Flash, $18,630; 2. Chandler Bownds, Lubbock, Texas, 87.5, $14,724; 3. Steve Woolsey, Payson, Utah, 86.5, $11,118; 4. J.W. Harris, Mullin, Texas, 85.5, $7,813; 5. Elliot Jacoby, Fredricksburg, Texas, 82.5, $4,808; 6. Josh Koschel, Nunn, Colo., 78.5, $3,005; 7. Trey Benton III, Rock Island, Texas, 76; 8. (tie) Trevor Kastner, Ardmore, Okla.; Cody Campbell, Summerville, Ore.; Cody Teel, Kountze, Texas; Cole Echols, Elm Grove, La.; Parker Breding, Edgar, Mont.; Tyler Smith, Fruita, Colo.; Cooper Davis, Jasper, Texas, and Tyler Willis, Wheatland, Wyo., NS.