WNFR Journal: Pre-Round 1

Ladies and gentlemen, start your horses! It is Wrangler National Finals Rodeo showtime.

Will Lowe is proof positive that dynamite comes in a small package. It is impressive that he won all three Pace Picante ProRodeo Tour Finales, but what truly captivates you is his boyish charm and endless enthusiasm. And can he ride? If you have been watching for the heir apparent to legends like Bruce Ford and Marvin Garrett, he may have just arrived.

Where's the beef? It is in steer wrestling. These guys love a photo finish. Where the Wrangler NFR average title goes the world championship usually follows. Heading into the first round (Dec. 5), just $36,736 separates No. 1 from No. 15. Terry Don West has almost that big of a lead over No. 2 in bull riding. The bulldogging x-factor may be which horse scores the best.

Does anyone have a heel of a chance to beat Speed Williams and Rich Skelton? I am not discounting the chances of the other team ropers who have world championship aspirations for 2003, but Williams and Skelton are breathing rare air. They have a chance to win seven world championships in seven years joining legends Jake Barnes and Clay O'Brien Cooper in the record books. Keep in mind that it took Barnes and O'Brien Cooper a decade to score their seven world titles.

Dan Mortensen could add an exclamation point to his career in the next 10 days.

If he can win his sixth saddle bronc riding world title he will join Casey Tibbs as the most decorated bronc rider of all time. He already has an 18-foot bronze of his likeness in front of the rodeo arena in Billings, Mont., and of course he is the first cowboy in history to win $2 million in a single roughstock event. In watching him in the Pace Picante Finales in Omaha (Challenge) and Dallas (Classic), it is pretty obvious he's still got it.

The top of the tie-down roping standings could make a good article in The Journal of American Medicine. Cody Ohl is set to make his long-awaited return to the Wrangler NFR since seriously injuring his knee in the ninth round two years ago. Fred Whitfield is a new father. Blair Burk recently recovered from an appendectomy that kept him out of the Pace Classic. And those are just a few of the story lines. Stay tuned.

In tie-down roping it pays to be an insider. In 11 of the last 12 years the power trio of Joe Beaver, Whitfield or Ohl has won the world championship.

Charmayne James retired this fall after one of the greatest runs in the history of the sport. Ten straight world championships on Scamper, an 11th gold buckle in 2002, and this year she says goodbye. There are still 15 who are willing to roll up their shirt sleeves and fight it out for the '03 barrel racing world championship.

Leading the way is Brittany Pozzi, who is playing hooky from Texas A&M this fall in hopes of fulfilling a cowgirl's dream.

Bull riding can be summed up in just three letters: TDW.

At the Pace Challenge, Blender Head Snuff (Burns Rodeo) just about put West out of commission. A concussion and an injured shoulder put the kibosh on the rest of his fall. I went to West's ranch last week on ESPN business and West assured me he is 99 percent healthy. It has taken three doctors to get him ready: One for his shoulder, one for his head, and of course the acupuncturist who has helped him turn back the clock.

Who will still be on top when it is all said and done in Las Vegas on Dec. 14? Well that is what makes the Wrangler NFR so darn interesting. Tune into ESPN and ESPN2 or surf over to ESPN.com ProRodeo over the next 10 days and we'll find out together.

Jeff Medders will provide insight and analysis during the Wrangler NFR.