Can Austin crush the repeat curse?


Now in its fourth year, the Xtreme Bulls Ride Hard Tour is under new ownership, new management and has an aggressive television and event promotion plan that will include at least 22 hours of coverage on ESPN and ESPN2. This means increased exposure for the cowboys and the stock, not to mention more money up for grabs as cowboys hustle toward the Xtreme Bulls title and the PRCA's world championship bull riding title.

But no matter the money, the fanfare or the pressure, it's still one cowboy versus one bull for eight seconds.

While a new season means a fresh start, there is a set of front-runners for the 2006 Xtreme Bulls title, several other cowboys not to be left out of the mix and some dark horses who might surprise everyone.

Chief among the front-runners is reigning world and Xtreme Bulls champion Matt Austin. Austin broke every PRCA earnings record, including Ty Murray's 12-year-old single season earnings record, on his championship tear. The new mark Austin set is $320,766. He broke the regular season earnings mark with $228,386 due largely to the incredible success he had on last year's Xtreme Bulls Tour (on which he earned $119,584).

So with those stats, how can he not be the favorite? He's not the least bit fazed by high-profile, high-pressure situations, he's reasonably healthy (he's got a torn ACL, but has ridden that way for over a year), he's got world championship credentials and is riding a huge wave of momentum. Don't bet against him.

While momentum plays a huge role in bull riding, Austin's not the only one with it on his side.

Steve Woolsey, who was runner-up to Austin in 2005, cemented his reputation as a top-notch bull rider after covering seven of 10 bulls at the Wrangler NFR and finishing second in the average race to Austin as well. He first burst on to the scene last June in Reno, where he won the Pace ProRodeo Chute-out. He finished seventh in the Xtreme Bulls standings in his rookie season last year, but don't expect a sophomore slump from this cowboy.

Zeb Lanham could have stolen the NFR average title away from Austin last year had he not gotten overexcited on his last bull. As it was, he still earned $83,167 at the Finals. While he didn't experience significant success on the Xtreme Bulls Tour last year, look for him to be primed for a breakout season.

Finally, Jarrod Ford is among those likely to dethrone Austin as Xtreme Bulls champion. He struggled with the mental side of the game for most of last summer, but had a huge win at the Ellensburg (Wash.) Xtreme Bulls to carry him through the fall. After winning the first round at the 2005 NFR, the rest of the week was shaky at best. Still, on pure talent, he remains a force to be reckoned with.

Don't Count Them Out
This next group of guys could easily be among the front-runners, but there has to be a line somewhere.

Leading the pack is 2004 World Champion Dustin Elliott. Last year, as Austin so completely dominated the field, he might have demoralized his competitors (though none would admit it) and perhaps no one suffered as much from Austin's success as Elliott did. Coming off his first world title, he was ready to win another eight in a row, but had to watch Austin have the season of a lifetime. How he responds this year will be a huge test of his character. Don't expect him to back down. Elliott's got too much pride and too much talent to not be a major player.

If it weren't for injuries, these next two cowboys would definitely be front-runners.

Time will tell if Mike Moore and B.J. Schumacher are healthy enough to contend. Moore is the 2003 Xtreme Bulls Champion and if it weren't for an unfortunate slap call at the Xtreme Bulls Finals last year in Reno, he would have been riding at his fourth NFR. Still the Xtreme Bulls format fits his style. He's flashy, electric and inspiring. These events could be his ticket if his groin injuries have healed.

Schumacher is in the same boat. He's the 2004 Xtreme Bulls champion but suffered a broken collarbone that kept him out of the NFR. If he can regain his '04 form, he'll be among the top when the dust settles.

Dark Horses
While the rest of the field has the potential to be counted as a dark horse, there are few cowboys who might ride in and steal the show from the above predicted. Zack Oakes has yet to get in a groove and find his form, while this could be a breakout season for Wesley Silcox. Cory Melton has rejoined the tour and Jake Littlefield has the potential to steal some of the limelight from the bigger names.

Bob Welch has covered rodeo for six years and in addition to writing for ESPN.com ProRodeo, is the managing editor of Spin to Win magazine and serves as an associate producer onsite for the Xtreme Bulls and Wrangler ProRodeo Tour telecasts. Welch lives with his wife, Kristen, and 2-year-old son, Tate, in Black Forest, Colo.