LAS VEGAS – Defending Tie-down Roping World Champion Caleb Smidt had a nightmarish first four rounds at the 2016 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Polaris RANGER.
The 27-year-old from Huntsville, Texas, placed fourth in Round 2, but had double-digit times in Rounds 1 and 3, and took a no-time in Round 4.
Everything turned around with a blistering 6.7-second run Monday night.
“I knew I won the round when I threw my hands up, but I didn’t think I was 6.7,” Smidt said. “I thought maybe I was 7-flat or 7.1, but I don’t ever give myself the benefit of the doubt. I’m always faster than I think I am. I just kind of threw caution to the wind; I went as fast as I could, and I got the job done.”
The run was the fastest Round-5 time in WNFR history, breaking the previous best time in the round by two-tenths of a second. It was also two-tenths of a second off the WNFR arena record of 6.5.
It was Smidt’s second WNFR round win, as the other came in Round 3 last year, when he split the round and then went on to win the world championship and the WNFR average.
“It’s always good to win a round, and it’s just awesome to come here and rope,” Smidt said. “To be 6.7 is great. That’s the fastest time I’ve ever had since I’ve nodded my head.”
Saddle bronc rider Jacobs Crawley came into the WNFR with a $41,000 lead over the entire field, and looked to be on his way to his second straight world title. However, things hadn’t gone according to plan, and he needed a big boost to get back on track.
Luckily for the 28-year-old, he drew the best saddle bronc on the planet and took full advantage.
Crawley was 89 points on Frontier Rodeo’s Medicine Woman, the reigning and four-time PRCA Saddle Bronc Horse of the Year.
“The last couple of nights were slow, so I was excited to have a dancing partner,” Crawley said. “I had her last year, and it was close to the same (score). It was weird, it was a pressure – but a different kind of pressure. So, it was nice to get that monkey off my back and look forward to the next five rounds.”
Crawley, whose world standings lead shrunk to $1,000 after the first four nights, pushed his advantage over second-place Ryder Wright back up to about $27,000.
“My goal when I came here was to win a bunch of money, and I haven’t thought about the world title,” Crawley said. “I’m excited to see what the draw is for Round 6.”
J.D. Struxness is making a serious push for a gold buckle at his first WNFR. The 22-year-old steer wrestler took his third-straight victory lap in Round 5, and moved to second in the world.
He’s putting together quite a WNFR, and is doing so on a horse he’s owned for only a few months.
“I’m on Peso – he’s 13 years old and I just bought him in October,” Struxness said. “He was a finished bulldogging horse before I got him, and I knew he was going to be really good and pay for himself. He dang sure has this week. He just keeps getting stronger out here, and if he keeps working like this he will be good for many years to come.”
After splitting the win in Round 3, Struxness has won the past two outright, and has already earned $91,442 at the WNFR.
“A bad day bulldogging is better than a good day working,” he said. “But when you can win money like this doing it, it just puts icing on the top.”
Team ropers Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira entered the WNFR in the top spot in the world standings. They placed in the first three rounds before going out of the average with a no-time last night, but hadn’t flashed the talent that put them in that top spot.
It was on full display in Round 5, when the pair stopped the clock in 4.0 seconds to split the victory with Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler.
“We’ve made some good runs, but on the low end for times,” Driggers said. “Tonight, we had a decent steer – the one that Luke Brown and Jake Long won Round 2 on.”
It was Nogueira’s first-ever round win at the WNFR, and it meant more to the two cowboys than just a big check and a buckle.
“Kaleb’s grandmother is in remission from cancer, and my grandfather, who taught me how cowboys never give up, just passed away from it,” Nogueira said. “So, to win on Pink Night is really special to us.”
“We needed this amazing morale-booster,” Driggers added. “If it’s God’s will that we continue to win, we hope for that. And if not, we’ll try again next year.”
Simpson and Buhler are the first all-Canadian team roping duo in WNFR history, and have made their home country proud. In addition to their split of the win in Round 5, they also won Round 1 outright.
“We just missed the (WNFR) field last year,” Simpson said. “This year, we worked harder at it, put in more practice time, and prepared mentally for every situation in the arena so we’d be programmed to react to it, because unconscious thought is faster than conscious thought.”
Buhler is sporting what looks like a hockey playoff beard, and “fear the beard” has become a rally cry for him.
“The steers don’t care, but Levi’s little girl sure doesn’t like it, which is a bummer, because I like kids,” Buhler said. “It started as a bet – if I could stand to grow it for three months, I got to pick the hat another guy wore at the Canadian Finals. But if I shaved, he got to pick my hat. I won. And then I just grew attached to it.”
Jake Vold won the first WNFR round of his bareback riding career in Round 4 with an 89-point ride. In Round 5, he duplicated that performance, and earned a large check which also matched his previous night’s haul.
Vold was 89 on Hi Lo ProRodeo’s Wilson Sanchez to top a field littered with big scores. Nine of the 15 riders scored at least 84.5 or more points Monday night – something that amped Vold up before he took his turn.
“That’s how I’ve always based my riding style – I want someone to jump out there with a 90, so I can go get them,” Vold said. “Seeing big rides before me fuels my fire. I love being down the list a little bit and seeing some guys ride before me. All the guys and all the horses in that pen tonight were just phenomenal.”
Vold is feeling great after collecting two straight go-round buckles and moving from 10th to fifth in the world standings. But he knows there’s plenty of work left to be done.
“I feel good, but we’re only at the halfway mark, and we have five more to go,” he said. “I’m looking forward to these next five rounds. You can’t get carried away with a few big rides, because this is a marathon. But I’m having a lot of fun, and getting into a rhythm here.”
Scottie Knapp hadn’t stayed on a bull the first four rounds of his inaugural WNFR. The 25-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M., didn’t get discouraged, and it paid off in a big way in Round 5.
He rode for 87 points on Rafter H Rodeo Livestock’s Breaking Bad and earned the first WNFR check – and win – of his career.
“I just let it happen, but I was beat up and stressing about my shoulder (it was dislocated during Round 2),” Knapp said. “But I came back, and that was the ultimate test. You let it happen, and if you try too hard, it doesn’t work out in your favor. That’s a learning experience – only took me 21 years to learn that.”
The win was a big mental boost for Knapp, who is also dealing with two sets of stitches above his left eye, a concussion and a sprain/strain on his spine at this WNFR.
“It gives me more confidence,” Knapp said of the victory. “Now I know my shoulder is holding up and I don’t have to worry about it and can just give 120 percent and have fun. That’s why you do it, to have fun.”
Barrel racer Amberleigh Moore has been the most consistent of anyone in her event at this year’s WNFR, placing in every round.
The Keizer, Ore., native took it to the next level in Round 5, winning the first WNFR go-round of her career with a time of 13.62 seconds.
“It is simply overwhelming,” she said. “I hadn’t planned on this at all. I didn’t start the season with the NFR as a goal. I was just traveling the circuit hoping to win enough money to qualify for the big rodeos. I didn’t make it to the Top 15 until the very last rodeo. So, this is just a dream come true.”
She’s now moved into the WNFR average lead, and up to fourth place in the world standings.
“I don’t even think about it,” Moore said. “My motto all year long has been, ‘Living the dream, one run at a time.’ There is still a lot of rodeo to go here.”
The 58th annual Wrangler NFR continues Tuesday with the sixth round at the Thomas & Mack Center. The action will be televised live and in HD on CBS Sports Net (DirecTV channel 221 and DISH Network channel 158) from 7-10 p.m. PT.
Kimberly Zierlein lives in the great state of Wyoming, owns her own photography business and keeps rodeo fans updated on rodeo results. Kimberly is also a Rodeo Fame blog post updater. She helps the Rodeo Fame team post great information to keep you up to date. She has a sweet smile and bold spirit.