For thrills, chills and spills, saddle up and ride on over to the 43rd annual Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, WNFR, Dec. 7-16.
The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, PRCA, sanctions the rodeo, held for the 13th consecutive year in Las Vegas’ Thomas and Mack Center. The top 15 cowboys in each event square off against rodeo’s rankest horses and bulls in a 10-round, 10-day shootout before a packed house of 170,000. In addition, millions of television viewers will watch breathlessly as the contestants vie for an estimated $4.5 million in prize money.
The “buck” doesn’t stop in the arena. Las Vegas is flooded with rodeo fans anxious to spend money and be a part of the “toughest ticket of the year in the Entertainment Capital of the World.”
Pat Christenson is celebrating his first year as president of Las Vegas Events, the company responsible for putting on the WNFR.
According to Herb McDonald, the organization's past president, Christenson came to his job with the reputation as an “innovative thinker, the perfect candidate to take the WNFR into the new millennium."
“There is no better person to handle the finals than Pat,” McDonald said. “The rodeo is more important to Las Vegas than it was 17 years ago when I was at the helm. This became especially true in light of the horrifying events of Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center,” McDonald said. “The fall-off of air traffic into our city has been tremendous, resulting in a huge loss of revenue. Fortunately, Pat has the vision to understand the demographics of the average rodeo finals fan. By and large, these folks live within driving distance of Las Vegas, and Pat fully expects Las Vegas to be ‘booked solid as usual’ come rodeo time.”
Christenson said the time that has elapsed between the tragedy in New York and WNFR should help as well. “I believe the rodeo’s timing is just right,” Christenson said. “The WNFR will be even more meaningful this year because it is scheduled so close to the Christmas season. Hopefully, people can take time out to enjoy the wonderment of both.
“The WNFR and Las Vegas are a perfect match and everyone associated with it, from restaurants to hotels to casinos, will work hard to ensure the highest quality of service for the performers, their families and friends as well as fans of professional rodeo.”
PRCA saddlebronc rider and Texas resident Tom Reeves is a 17-year veteran of the finals. Reeves agrees Las Vegas is the best site for the WNFR. “As a competitor, without a doubt I want to see the finals remain in Las Vegas,” Reeves said. “Las Vegas is where the money is at and to me, that offers cowboys the best chance of watching the prize money climb even higher than it is today. The contract to keep the WNFR is up in 2007, but personally, I don’t ever see the finals leaving Las Vegas.”
The payoff for cowboys qualifying for the WNFR, however, was not always so large. Rodeo’s roots can be traced back to 1864 when two groups of buckaroos from neighboring ranches met at a Deer Trail, Colo. railhead to put to rest a long-standing dispute over who was best at performing everyday ranching tasks. That get-together was the first rodeo, and thus began the metamorphosis of an authentic American sporting tradition.
In professional rodeo, competition falls into two categories: roughstock events and timed events.
Roughstock contests consist of bareback riding, saddlebronc riding and bull riding. A synchronized performance by both animal and rider is pivotal to a contestant's score. To tally a qualifying score, a cowboy, using one hand, will remain astride a bucking bull or horse for eight seconds. A rider is disqualified if his free hand comes into contact with the animal.
In saddlebronc and bareback riding, the cowboy must “mark out” their horses. The rider is declared ineligible if he fails to exit the bucking chute with spurs set above the animal’s shoulders and hold them into place until the horse’s front feet hit the ground after its first leap out of the chute.
Bull riders, on the other hand, are not required to mark out their animals. While spurring a bull may add points to a cowboy’s score, judges tend to view the riders by their skill at remaining astride the one-ton whirlwind. Cowboys, fans and judges believe in a combination of coordination, balance and flexibility as the winning formula for an accomplished bull rider.
Timed events in a rodeo are calf roping, steer wrestling, team roping and steer roping.
Successful calf ropers work in harmony with their horses. The calf is given a head start. The horse and rider give chase. After roping the calf, the contestant, using a “pigging string,” a short, looped rope clenched tightly between his teeth, ties any of the animal’s three legs together. After the cowboy completes his tie, he throws his hands in the air as a signal to the judge. Remounting his horse, the rider allows the rope to become slack and waits six seconds to see if the calf remains tied.
Steer wrestlers are generally the biggest and strongest competitors at any rodeo. The steer wrestler, on horseback, begins behind a barrier and starts his chase after the steer has been given a head start. As the steer wrestler’s horse draws even with the steer, the cowboy slides off the right side of his horse and grasps the steer’s horns. After grabbing the horns, the cowboy digs his heels into the arena dirt, slowing the animal. The cowboy then lifts up on the right horn and pushes down on the left horn in an effort to turn the steer on its side.
Team roping pairs two cowboys--a “header” and a “heeler”--working together to rope a steer in the swiftest time possible. The header is the first rider out of the chute. After roping the steer around the head or horns, he “dallies” or wraps the end of his rope around the saddle horn. The heeler then moves in and ropes both hind legs. The clock stops after the slack has been taken out of each rope and the cowboys’ horses face each other with the steer in the middle.
In steer roping, the only legal catch by a cowboy is to snake the rope around the animal’s horns. After making the catch, the cowboy tosses the slack rope over the steer’s right hip and rides to the left, bringing the steer to the ground. As the steer lies on its side, the rider dismounts and attempts to tie any three of the steer’s legs.
Although today’s professional rodeo cowboy is a bit different from his 1800s predecessor, the ideals and showmanship of long ago are still valued by present-day competitors.
Cowboys will travel to as many as 125 rodeos per year, covering up to 100,000 miles, seeking to qualify for the
WNFR. Though the road is long, demanding and sometimes filled with cracked bones and a broken heart over a lost entry fee, it is every cowboy’s dream to see Las Vegas as the last stop in a lengthy ride.
So grab your hat, join the herd and hit the trail for the most explosive action in America’s most punishing sport--Rodeo.