LAS VEGAS, Nev. To say that Round 10 of the 49th Wrangler National Finals Rodeo will be an interesting and nerve-racking affair is much more than an understatement. Tight races, made even tighter by clutch performances in the ninth performance by contestants in nearly every event, will go down to the wire at the Thomas & Mack Center. There won't be a dry palm in the house.
For the 17,608 in attendance at the Thomas & Mack Center for Friday night, Round 9 wasn't too shabby either.
Simply put, no contestant has been hotter than barrel racer Lindsay Sears at this year's Wrangler NFR. Sears, of Nanton, Alberta, won for the third straight night and for the fourth time in five rounds to overtake Brittany Pozzi-Pharr atop the Crusher Rentals PRCA World Standings heading into Round 10. Sears, who has won five of nine rounds in Las Vegas, rode her horse Martha through the cloverleaf pattern in 13.81 seconds to eclipse $100,000 in Wrangler NFR earnings and take Round 9 by nine-tenths of a second ahead of Terra Bynum.
Sears has earned $104,712, second only to five-time World Champion All-Around Cowboy Trevor Brazile, at this year's Wrangler NFR and bumped Pozzi Pharr from the No. 1 spot in the world standings. Sears enters Round 10 with $216,253, with Pozzi-Pharr, of Victoria, Texas, in second with $210,795.
The key, Sears said, has been Martha's increasing confidence level.
"Martha has just been on fire and has gotten stronger," Sears said. "She has a spark in her that is indescribable, and it's really her, she is doing it every night. I'm just trying to show up and stay out of her way every night. She has just been awesome, and I'm so thankful for her. She has really gotten confident, and I can feel it inside of her that she has a fire in her and that she wants to go out there and win and she loves it. It's such a neat feeling to have her feeling great, and for her to be doing that for me is just unbelievable."
Sears came into this year's Wrangler NFR trailing Pozzi-Pharr by more than $52,000, but has erased that deficit thanks to the five wins. Pozzi-Pharr leads the average race, and since the Wrangler NFR average champions earn $42,043 for that accomplishment, Pozzi-Pharr can virtually guarantee her first world title by staying atop those average standings.
Another contestant who greatly improved his chances of stepping on the world champions' stage was saddle bronc rider Taos Muncy, who became the first cowboy in his event to win three rounds at this year's Wrangler NFR. Muncy, of Corona, N.M., rode Burch Rodeo's Blood Brother for 86.5 points to win Round 9 and move to second in the world standings behind Cody Wright. Cody DeMoss finished second with an 84-point effort on Kesler Rodeo's Shady Cat and is third in the world standings heading into Round 10
Muncy, a Wrangler NFR rookie, has $167,022 and trails only Wright ($173,081), who finished fifth in the ninth performance, with one round to go. DeMoss, who has finished second in the world standings the last three years, ranks second in the Wrangler NFR average behind Canada's Rod Hay, with Wright seventh and Muncy fourth in the average race. Hay, of Wildwood, Alberta, has locked up his first Wrangler NFR average title for all intents and purposes and could only be supplanted by DeMoss if he were to be bucked off in the tenth round and DeMoss set a PRCA world record with a 98-point ride.
Muncy's approach to Round 10 will be a simple one, and he knows he still has work to do.
"I'm just going to stay calm about it and get on another bronc, I guess," said Muncy, who also won Round 5 and Round 7. "I try to treat all the horses the same way, and it's just another horse."
Three-time and reigning World Champion Bareback Rider Will Lowe joined 2002 World Champion Bobby Mote and Justin McDaniel as two-time winners at this year's Wrangler NFR, taking Round 9 with an 86-point ride on Calgary Stampede's Gorgeous Connie. Lowe, of Canyon, Texas, won the round by 2.5 points over Jason Jeter, who rode Cervi Championship Rodeo's Multi-Chem Hostage for 83.5 points.
Lowe's ride put another $16,394 in his pocket to move him to fourth in the Crusher Rentals PRCA World Standings and kept him in the Wrangler NFR average lead. Lowe was happy to draw the Calgary Stampede horse, one he was riding for the first time.
"They usually do really well on that horse, and she's a lot of fun," Lowe said. "She feels good and really sends your feet flying and helps you a lot. Some of those hoppers are tough to get things rolling on because they don't have enough to really send your feet to your rigging, but she really helps a guy out a lot. She's just as honest as they come."
Mote, of Culver, Ore., continues to lead the world standings with $190,128 and stands $38,181 ahead of Justin McDaniel heading into the final round. Mote ranks fifth in the average, while McDaniel is second behind Lowe, setting up a dramatic finish on Championship Saturday.
Luke Branquinho, the 2004 World Champion, had only placed in two of the first eight rounds heading into Friday's performance, but he made a big move in Round 9. The Los Alamos, Calif., bulldogger stopped the clock in 3.2 seconds to tie the fastest steer wrestling run of the rodeo (Sean Mulligan, Round 6) and win the ninth performance and $16,394. Branquinho finished four-tenths of a second ahead of Matt Reeves, who was competing for the first time since sitting out two rounds with a concussion, and Round 1 winner Wade Sumpter.
The race for the steer wrestling gold buckle is up in the air with one round to go, and Branquinho made sure he was in the world title mix thanks to his Round 9 victory. He discounted the theory that bad luck was the source of his troubles in Las Vegas prior to Round 9.
"People kept saying I was drawing bad and not having any luck," Branquinho said. "As far as I'm concerned, luck is for rabbits. My poor performance this week has been self-inflicted; I hadn't done my job. I was just trying to get in too big of a hurry, but something clicked tonight and it felt outstanding. I just wish I'd done it a little earlier in the week. I feel confident now, and everything felt really good."
Lee Graves, the 2005 World Champion, leads the world standings with $150,600, and Sumpter is second with $135,326, but at least a half-dozen bulldoggers have legitimate shots at becoming world champion.
Team roping is another event that will go down to the wire in Round 10. The team of Colter Todd and Cesar de la Cruz won Round 9 with a 4.1-second run to stay in the gold buckle hunt, with de la Cruz taking over the world standings lead from 1981 World Champion Walt Woodard thanks to the win and $16,394 first-place check. Todd, of Marana, Ariz., remained third in the standings thanks to the win, and the team ranks eighth in the average through nine rounds.
They know that Round 10 will be a nailbiter.
"I just have to rope one more round, and that's all I have to think about, let the chips fall where they may," said de la Cruz, of Tucson, Ariz. "There are a lot of good guys still in the average deep, so we have to put on a lot of pressure tomorrow. I'm just hoping for a two-foot catch. My heroes, like Allen Bach, Clay Cooper and Walt Woodard, they're still in the mix, and it's pretty awesome (to be there with them)."
Todd was nervous about the run for a bit when it ended.
"I actually thought I broke the barrier tonight and was hoping that I didn't," Todd said. "He (the steer) did what he was supposed to, kind of broke slow and then eased to the left. He cleaned up well, and Cesar did a great job of finishing. My daughter was here in the stands tonight and so was my grandpa, and I won the round last year when he was here. I love to do good when he's around – he taught me good, hard work ethics and to work for what you get."
Todd and de la Cruz finished a single tenth of a second ahead of Keven Daniel and Jhett Johnson to earn the crucial first-place check heading into the final round. Todd is third in the world standings with $145,694 and trails Chad Masters by just $3,297 with one round to go. De la Cruz tops the heelers with $145,694, just $2,408 ahead of Woodard.
Tie-down roper Stran Smith became a multiple-round winner at the 2007 Wrangler NFR by stopping the clock in 7.2 seconds, two-tenths of a second ahead of Blair Burk. Smith, who also won the second round, moved to third in the Wrangler NFR average standings and eighth in the world standings with the win and $16,394 first-place check.
"When I got here, I saw that I had drawn the calf that I wanted," Smith, of Childress, Texas, said. "I didn't think that calf was the very best one in the pen, but he was the one I wanted because he was a little bigger, faster and stronger. When I came in and saw what I had tonight, I knew I would have a good opportunity to move up in the average and maybe win the round."
Brazile, who clinched his fifth career all-around world title in Round 8, continues to lead the tie-down roping with $175,641 and ranks second in the Wrangler NFR average, while Houston Hutto is second in the world standings with $156,027 and dropped to fifth in the average after missing with his first loop in round nine. Reigning World Champion Cody Ohl is also in the hunt, standing third in the world standings with $141,074 and leading the Wrangler NFR average by 9.5 seconds ahead of Brazile.
A pair of bull riders made big moves in Round 9, putting pressure on reigning World Champion and world standings leader B.J. Schumacher. Wesley Silcox rode J-J Rodeo's Vertical Exit for 86.5 points to win the round, while Kanin Asay finished second with an 80-point effort on Korkow Rodeo's Mortachi. The win kept Silcox, of Payson, Utah, in third place in the world standings with $170,669. Asay, the 2007 Dodge Xtreme Bulls Tour National Champion, earned $12,957 for second place to move to $178,669 on the season, just $2,824 behind Schumacher, who was bucked off Bar T Rodeo's Rewind in Round 9.
Silcox is excited to be in the hunt for the coveted gold buckle.
"Hopefully I'll be the world champ, but I've got one more bull, so we'll see what happens," said Silcox, who also won Round 2. "It's going to be a tough round tomorrow. Everyone has been riding well, and it's been a riding contest all year. I figured it would come down to a riding contest, and it has. We'll see what happens."
Silcox, Asay and Chance Smart were the only three bull riders out of 15 to make the eight-second whistle in Round 9.
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