LAS VEGAS – The 2018 National Finals Rodeo fires up Thursday in Las Vegas. Between Montana and Wyoming, there are nine contestants to keep an eye on.
The 10th would have been Melstone bareback rider J.R. Vezain. The rodeo community continues to show an outpouring of support for Vezain, who suffered a broken back in September. He’s still in the long recovery process down in Texas, so he’ll miss his sixth NFR trip, but he’ll be on everybody’s minds all week.
Montana turns its bareback rooting interest to a new Treasure Stater. Caleb Bennett, No. 2 in the world, recently moved to Corvallis. The Utah native is at his seventh straight NFR, and comes in just $15,000 behind world leader Tim O’Connell.
Another young rider gunning for a world title is Wyoming saddle bronc rider Brody Cress. Last year, a 21-year-old Cress came out of nowhere and almost won the world title, coming up half a point short in the final round. Now he’s a grizzled veteran at 22, without any college finals to worry about this time.
On the other end of the saddle bronc spectrum is first-time NFR qualifier Chase Brooks. The Deer Lodge cowboy got the 15th and final spot by just $367. Now, he has a chance to make life-changing money.
Montana has another first timer in steer wrestling, and Butte bulldogger Bridger Chambers has his eyes on more than paychecks. The Stevensville native comes in eighth, but just $25,000 behind first, and he knows how to win titles. He won the Montana Circuit Finals crown this year.
One guy he’ll have to beat is Helena’s Ty Erickson. The Montana State Bobcat had last year’s world title in his grasp until Round 9 when he could grab only the steer’s tail as it drug him out of contention. Erickson is entering his fifth straight NFR just more than $16,000 behind world leader Curtis Cassidy.
As has been the case so many times at the National Finals, there are two Tryans in team roping this year. Three-time world header champ Clay is back for the 16th time and will be a force, less than $20,000 behind No. 1. Heeler cousin Chase Tryan, meanwhile, is back for his second NFR, and first since 2012 when he finished fourth in the world. Chase comes into the Finals in 12th, but again, a good start will vault him right into the title race as he’s less than $50,000 behind the leader.
Don’t ever count Lisa Lockhart out of the running. She and her horse Louie set the all-time NFR average time record back in 2016, and she’s back for her 12th straight Finals. The eastern Montana cowgirl comes in fourth this year, about $70,000 behind Hailey Kinsel, so there’s work to be done, but she is one who can do it.
Finally in bull riding, we find the richest Montanan so far this season: Edgar’s Parker Breding. He’s already won $185,000 to put him second in the world, but amazingly is still $112,000 behind four-time defending champion Sage Steele Kimzey. The only bull rider to ever win five straight? Jim Shoulders out of Henryetta, Oklahoma, from 1954-59.
The NFR runs for 10 nights at the Thomas & Mack Center.