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No white flag or Ellensburg, Wash., for Craig

8/18/2006

As an eternal optimist, Clint Craig harbors much hope in producing something positive out of his stop-and-start 2006 season. However, the Mena, Ark., bull rider didn't do himself any favors when he lost track of time and didn't enter Ellensburg, Wash., the next stop on the Dodge Xtreme Bulls Ride Hard Tour, presented by B&W Hitches.

"Every morning, I call the PROCOM (the PRCA's central entry system) to see what books are closing," Craig said. "Everybody who knows me knows I keep up on them daily. I called at 9:10 a.m. one morning (Aug. 1), and Ellensburg had just closed, 10 minutes earlier. I really had meant to go to that one."

Craig, 23, knows first-hand how premiere events can pad a guy's wallet. In 2003, he bagged more than $20,000 by winning the bull riding title at the Pace Picante ProRodeo Tour Finale in Las Vegas. Although he didn't qualify for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the quick payday fueled his breakout year that ultimately laid the foundation for a Wrangler NFR appearance the following year.

"Doing good at big events can carry you for a while," Craig said, recalling his marquee win in 2003. "It just builds your confidence."

That type of payoff just won't be happening Sept. 2 in Ellensburg.

That's not to say the rest of the season's worth of rodeo is a dry well, either. The 12-city Wrangler ProRodeo Summer Tour has just hit its halfway mark, and Craig is just a handful of points away from the top 12 and qualifying for a spot in the ProRodeo Summer Tour Finale in Omaha, Neb., at the end of September.

Then there are two more stops on the Ride Hard Tour — Oct. 7 in Kissimmee, Fla., and Oct. 27-28 in Indianapolis.

Despite sitting in 42nd place in the current world standings, Craig isn't throwing in the towel. As long as he's having fun, the Mena, Ark., bull rider won't be distracted by his current rank in the world standings, his run of bad luck on this year's Ride Hard Tour, presented by B&W Hitches, or his near-constant battle with nagging injuries.

The first half of Craig's 2006 season was one bump, literally, after another. He sat out all of March with an elbow injury. Then, a cracked bone and torn ligament in his wrist, suffered in February in San Antonio, caused Craig to entirely lose function of his left thumb after another tumble two months later, requiring surgery.

Although Craig rides with his right hand, he is left handed.

"It wasn't affecting my riding," Craig said. "But it's the hand I write and eat with. If affected everything else I did."

So Craig basically scanned the calendar and looked for the most advantageous time to miss six weeks while the thumb and wrist recovered from surgery. Since he was already riding with the injury and was entered through Clovis (Calif.), Craig decided on an early-May surgery, hoping to be back to full strength by the Reno (Nev.) Rodeo, which started June 16.

Now that he's back to full strength — and has an opposable left thumb again — he figures there still enough of the season remaining to make up a rather large deficit in the world standings and somehow find himself in Las Vegas for the Wrangler National Finals, which starts Nov. 30.

With $25,402 won, and he'd have to double that just to sneak into the No. 15 hole. And his season would have to seriously improve based on his track record so far: Only one win at a top 50 rodeo (Deadwood, S.D.), no Winter Finale and an uphill climb to reach the Summer Finale.

That uphill climb started on a good note at the last Ride Hard Tour stop in Lexington, Ky., on June 30. He earned $1,316 after scoring 86.5 points on Classic Pro Rodeo's I'm Dirty in the first round — his lone qualified ride on Tour this season. Although he failed to register a qualified ride the following night, he looks back on that ride possibly serving as a turning point toward a much successful second half of the season.

"I was taking things way too seriously," Craig said. "I asked myself why I ride bulls. And it's to have fun. I rode my bull for 86.5 points and got it started again."

Since then, he won his event title at the Deadwood (S.D.) Days of '76 Rodeo ($3,548); won a round at the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo in Colorado Springs, Colo. ($2,964); placed second in Spooner, Wis. ($2,015); and turned in money-making rides in Rock Springs, Wyo., and Abilene, Kan., to boot as well.

"I feel good about the rest of the year," Craig said. "With the Summer Tour and Xtreme Bulls, I can really do myself some good there. Before, I was putting too much pressure on myself. If you have fun, things will come to you and good things will happen."

That being said, he acknowledged his clerical mistake that cost him a berth at the next Ride Hard Tour stop in Ellensburg. To him, it's just another hurdle.

"I've had a tough year, but I need to take care of my business," Craig said. "It slipped my mind once, and I won't let it happen again. You've got to pay attention."