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Ryder Wright



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Welcome Message by Pat Christenson, Las Vegas Events 6 The Scene Pages – Experience the Wrangler NFR in Images Behind-the-scenes with Ted and Sage Kimzey, and Miss Rodeo America


Rooms with a View – Checking Out the Parties



PUBLISHER Las Vegas Events


EDITOR Brian Hurlburt


DESIGN Christopher Jones



Patrick C. Everson, Matt Jacob

Wrangler NFR competitors appear all over Las Vegas during rodeo week, including at the Monte Carlo. The Top 10 Moments of the 2016 Wrangler NFR


Cowboy Christmas and RMEF Hunter & Outdoor Expo Review/Preview


Junior NFR Stars Shine


Looking Ahead to 2017


Memories with 2016 Champs


2016 Champs Facts and Figures


LAS VEGAS EVENTS 770 E. Warm Springs Rd., Suite 140 Las Vegas, NV 89119

Copyright 2017 Las Vegas

of Las Vegas Events.

Events. All rights reserved. No re-production of any items without the express written consent

Photos: Thomas & Mack - Steve Spatafore. Monte Carlo - Tony Tran. Cover - Tom Donoghue.




in 2015. Fans were able to enjoy their favorite entertainers, get a few autographs, check off their holiday shopping list and watch a variety of live events in the Wrangler Rodeo Arena, including the inaugural Junior NFR. Also in 2016, the Thomas & Mack Center completed its multimillion dollar renovation that included new seats, a wider concourse, upgraded restrooms and more concessions stands. One of the highlights was the new 36,000-square-foot hospitality area at the northwest end of the arena dubbed The ‘Shoe, an area that will continue to evolve.



n 2016, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo celebrated its 300th consecutive sold-out performance at the Thomas & Mack Center. This was as much a fan achievement as it was a testament to the strength of the brand, the allure of Las Vegas and an opportunity to celebrate our Western heritage. Because of the absence of many established contestants in 2016, the door was open for a new generation of stars to claim go-round wins, buckets of money and perhaps even the coveted Gold Buckle. The competition saw the emergence of that next generation of stars, including Ryder Wright, Tyler Waguespack, Tim O’Connell, Zeke Thurston, Levi Simpson, Jeremy Buhler and many others. We also witnessed the triumph of 68-year-old barrel racer Mary Burger, as well as resilient tie-down roper Tyson Durfey. Then there was Sage Kimzey, who at just 22 years of age won his third consecutive Gold Buckle in bull riding. The party in Las Vegas during Rodeo Week goes around the clock, and this year was no different. During the day, the combination of Cowboy Christmas and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Hunter & Outdoor Christmas Expo once again set records at the turnstiles, bringing large crowds to the Las Vegas Convention Center. Total attendance reached 231,517, besting the previous record attendance of 216,292 set



Despite all of the successes in 2016 and the last 32 years in Las Vegas, these accomplishments conjured up powerful emotions. That is, streaks can be broken, and we can never take anything for granted and assume that success is a given. We refer to the Wrangler NFR as “The Best Ten Days of the Year” – a title we don’t take lightly. As we turn the page to 2017, our singular goal is to continue to improve the NFR Experience each and every year. This initiative includes improving the fan experience at Cowboy Christmas by adding live entertainment and new programming options, enhancing the on-site experience at the Thomas & Mack Center and building our hotel partnerships that allow rodeo fans to enjoy everything that Las Vegas has to offer. When you are the richest and most prestigious rodeo in the world, you can never rest on your laurels. You must continue to evolve and strive to make the next year even better than the last. That is our promise to you, the most loyal fans in any sport.

Photo: Steve Spatafore.



One of the unique aspects of the Wrangler NFR is the way in which the city, and our hotel partners, embraces the Wrangler NFR and its fans. Last year, there were 23 sponsor hotels, each offering a customized experience for rodeo fans. We will continue to work with each partner to guarantee that your stay in Las Vegas is always a special one.





Sawyer Brown

Craig Campbell


Jacobs Crawley



Caleb Smidt


Photos: Downtown - Tom Donoghue. Gift - David Becker.

Old Dominion

THE SCENE Flint Rasmussen and guests


Marty Yates and Sage Kimzey

Photos: Steve Spatafore.

Daryle Singletary




Inside The ‘Shoe

T&M Welcome

Charlie Daniels

NFR Plaza

The Brit Stokes Band at Cowboy Corral



Photos: Steve Spatafore. Charlie Daniels - Tom Donoghue.

Billy Etbauer and fans


The D

South Point


The Orleans Gilley’s at TI

Photos: John Plummer.

The Mirage



THE SCENE Gold Buckle Zone inside MGM Grand

Go Round Buckle Presentation at the South Point

A AF FT TE ERR PPAARRTTYI E S & C O N C E R T S National Finals Tonight at The Orleans



George Strait at T-Mobile Arena

Photos: Rodeo Vegas, Gold Buckle, Strait - Al Powers. South Point, Orleans - courtesy.

LOCASH at Rodeo Vegas at the Mirage

THE SCENE Exceptional Rodeo is always special at Cowboy Christmas

AROUND THE NFR Something for everyone at Cowboy Christmas

Joe Beaver and Suzanne Alexander inside The ‘Shoe on the set of the CBS Sports Network pre-show telecast

Photos: Tom Donoghue, Steve Spatafore.

Tyson Durfey celebrates with family after claiming the world title

Brooks & Dunn go back stage with Ryder Wright prior to their December 8 performance

Fans check out the Cowboy Corral before the Wrangler NFR




Alexis Bloomer (center) gets ready for the Wrangler NFR on opening night


PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman spends a moment with Mike Huckabee on the concourse of the Thomas & Mack Center

Katherine Merck, Miss Rodeo America 2016, and Lisa Lageschaar, MRA 2017, at Cowboy Christmas



Ty Murray meets some friends on the concourse, (from left to right) Ryan Growney, Dale Eeles, Joe Baumgartner and Bo Gardner

Photos: Steve Spatafore.

Genevieve Allen and band pose with Daryl Singletary inside Cowboy Corral at the Thomas & Mack Center

THE SCENE Check Presentation

K.C. Jones shows his wares at the Rodeo Vegas booth at Cowboy Christmas

Arnold Schwarzenegger cheers at the Wrangler NFR on December 5

Photos: Steve Spatafore. Schwarzenegger, check - Tom Donoghue.

Members of Las Vegas Events meet at the entrance of Cowboy Christmas

Flint Rasmussen meets Allison Purcell

Randy Bloomer and Daryle Singletary at Cowboy Christmas NFRREWIND



LVE President Pat Christenson welcomes 2017 Miss Rodeo America Lisa Lageschaar The South Point’s Steve Stallworth checks out the Wrangler NFR with his family, Savannah and Stephanie

Pearl Harbor veterans wave to crowd during opening ceremonies Michael Gaughan, Harry Vold and NFR General Manager Shawn Davis

Michael Gaughan, Bennie Beutler and Berlyn Miller prior to the Wrangler NFR

RFD-TV’s Sean Cassidy and Red Steagall



Photos: Steve Spatafore. Veterans - Tom Donoghue.


Sage Kimzey

Photo: Tom Donoghue.




Go behind-the-scenes with bull rider Sage Kimzey, his legendary bullfighter father Ted Kimzey and Miss Rodeo America Katherine Merck as they immerse themselves in all things Las Vegas rodeo. By PATRICK EVERSON and BRIAN HURLBURT t’s annually 10 days of Western Utopia in Las Vegas during the epic Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. There are literally too many events, competitions, concerts, gift shows, parties, award ceremonies and other official events for any single person to attend them all. But each of those events combines to make the Wrangler NFR the one-of-a-kind event that it is both on and off the dirt. In the following pages, we tag along with three notable cowboys and cowgirls. Ted Kimzey Perhaps nobody’s Wrangler NFR perspective is as unique as Ted Kimzey. Kimzey, a renowned rodeo clown and bullfighter who hasn’t quite retired yet, spent many a night on the dirt of the Thomas & Mack Center, helping protect bull riders during the Wrangler NFR. These days, his son, Sage Kimzey, is the best bull rider on the planet, and the proud papa gets to see it all from the stands. This year Kimzey spent time as a nervous spectator, but one of the things Ted cherishes most about the Wrangler NFR is getting a chance to be around the boys during and after the rodeo. Much of that time is spent at the Thomas & Mack but Kimzey makes it to the South Point buckle presentations and other spots around town wherever cowboys and cowgirls gather.



“For the last few years, the first thing I’m here for is to watch my son ride bulls,” Kimzey said of Sage, the twotime defending world champion, who claimed a third world title and cracked $1 million in career earnings in 2016. “Second to that, this is the largest cowboy gathering of the year. Guys my age, guys even older than me, like Cotton Rosser. I get to see those guys and say hello to them. It’s the only time of the year I get to see them, and sometimes we get to visit a little bit. “That’s pretty huge to me. I always look forward to visiting with T.J. Walter, and another guy I really cherish is Harry Vold. And I’m not playing favorites. Chuck Henson means the world to me, and Mel Potter, too. My gosh, T.J. and I get to telling stories, and it’s just awesome.” Miss Rodeo America Katherine Merck, Miss Rodeo America 2016, lived the dream of a lifetime last year. She was crowned as rodeo’s queen during the 2015 Wrangler NFR and fulfilled her duties throughout 2016, culminating with a “crazy and amazing” few weeks in December in Las Vegas. Among her duties was crowning the new Miss Rodeo America, Lisa Lageschaar, but that was only one of seemingly hundreds of appearances and requests Merck deftly handled during her final week as Miss Rodeo America.

“It honestly takes a scheduling coordinator to put together Miss Rodeo America’s time in Las Vegas for the Wrangler NFR,” Merck said. “It’s crazy and amazing all at the same time. I love every second of it but sometimes I’m like, ‘OK I’m running through the MGM right now to get to my next appearance’ and it’s a little overwhelming. “Our pageant actually kicks off just after Thanksgiving and we have everything from horsemanship to a fashion show to the actual competition. But we also have rehearsals, autograph signings and promotional events for the NFR all over the place in Las Vegas. We also worked with the Clark County Commission to receive an official proclamation and we went to the children’s hospital and so much more. “As Miss Rodeo America, I’m a part of the Grand Entry, but then I run and change and switch outfits into my flag girl clothes and carry the Wrangler flag during the sponsor run. Then I run and change clothes again and get back into Miss Rodeo America gear for the rest of the evening. After the rodeo we have the buckle presentations at South Point, which is so much fun but it makes for very late nights and very early mornings. Also, as the official representative, the PRCA includes me in so many things. Handing out the buckles at the PRCA awards was one of the coolest things I’ve done, and being a part of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame Gold Buckle Gala honoring Neil Gay was very special.” Sage Kimzey Bull riding is the final event each night during the 10 go-rounds of the rodeo. Sage Kimzey made it count for a lot on the very first night, and once more on the last night, as he claimed his third consecutive world championship. On that opening Thursday, Kimzey hopped aboard Aftershock and rode the brawny bull to a score of 86.5 points, nabbing $26,231 as he won the first go-round. By the end of

Photos: Ted Kimzey - Patrick Everson. Miss Rodeo - Brian Hurlburt. Sage Kimzey - Steve Spatafore.

Ted Kimzey (second from left) loves spending time with family and friends at WNFR

Miss Rodeo America in the WNFR press room

those 10 days, that check proved to be just about the margin of victory, as Kimzey moved to a perfect 3-for3 in gold buckle pursuits, adding the 2016 season title to his 2014 championship as a rookie and his successful defense in 2015. “I’ve kind of had some slow starts at the NFR,” Kimzey said. “It was great to get the ball rolling right out of the gate. It was a tough week, but what do you expect? You’re at the top level of competition. It’s not gonna be easy. I had to really bear down and show what I was made of, for sure. I left the

It was a sweet 3-peat for Sage Kimzey

door open, and it was down to the wire for me to shut it.” Not only did Sage get the “ball rolling” on the dirt with his first goround win, the first night was just the beginning of a furious schedule away from the arena for the legendary bull rider. Among the beyond-the-dirt appearances for Sage during the week were taking swings at Topgolf Las Vegas during the filming of “Adventures with Alexis”, accepting buckles at the South Point during the buckle presentations, signing

autographs at the Bloomer Trailers and Polaris Ranger booths at the RMEF Hunter and Outdoor Expo in addition to the Wrangler booth at Cowboy Christmas, taking over the Wrangler Network Snapchat, attending the Elevation Sunday worship at MGM and speaking with Donnie Gay, Dan Miller and Joe Beaver during National Finals Tonight at The Orleans. Kimzey ended the 10 days by celebrating his third world title at the Gold Buckle Zone at MGM Grand, one of the largest nightly Wrangler NFR after parties.



each go-round, followed by a rocking country concert. There’s even a dance floor in front of the stage, so patrons can kick up their heels.

[ V I E W I N G PA R T I E S ]

Byron Louwagie was in town for the 2016 Wrangler NFR with wife Keisha and several other friends who made the trip from Minnesota. All of them were impressed with all aspects of the viewing party. “The atmosphere is great, the broadcast is right on time, in actual time, with no commercials,” Louwagie said. “You’re close behind the chutes. They got big screens. You don’t have backdrop noise from the TV announcers.” Indeed, the live feed employs the arena’s rodeo announcers.

ROOMS WITH A RODEO VIEW Las Vegas knows how to throw super big parties. By PATRICK EVERSON ne thing you can literally bank on each night of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is that the place will be sold out, with 17,000-plus fans packing the Thomas & Mack Center. However, thousands upon thousands more – even tens of thousands – make the annual trek to Las Vegas for the Super Bowl of rodeo. So where do they go each night? Work your way around Fremont Street, or many properties on or near the Las Vegas Strip, and certainly at the South Point Hotel and Casino, and you’ll find them all, riled up and having a rocking good time at the countless Wrangler NFR viewing parties. The D Las Vegas has one of the bigger



downtown viewing parties, with a huge enclosed tent that seats hundreds, two massive big screens facing each direction from the center of the room, and a full bar between those two screens. Sharon Salvator and husband Jamie, from Wright City, Mo., were with a huge group that made The D’s party a regular stop in 2016. “This is by far the best viewing if you’re not actually there,” Sharon said. “Live television broadcast, great bar, big glasses, good ice, rock on!” When even the ice is drawing compliments, it’s gotta be a good party. In the middle of the Strip, The Mirage offers one of the more unique options, as its sportsbook – already equipped with massive TV screens – hosts a huge viewing party during

Further south on Las Vegas Boulevard, the South Point hosts a massive nightly viewing party, taking over three of its upstairs ballrooms. Then after each go-round, the party moves back to the main casino floor and to the showroom for the nightly goround winners buckle presentation. For Britni Harrington, in with a bunch of family from Ellensburg, Wash., the Wrangler NFR serves as a de facto extended birthday party each year, as her birthday is on Dec. 12. She turned 26 in 2016 and did it up right at the South Point viewing party. “It’s way more laid-back, there’s free food, alcohol is cheap and close, and I’m with my family,” Harrington said. Coltyn Rope Carlson, also part of that Ellensburg bunch, agreed that the viewing party is perfect, but he really enjoyed the awards ceremony in the showroom. It’s a chance to get up-close and personal with the contestants. “You see them at a far view, but once you come here, they’re real people. You realize they’re just like you, humble and as friendly as can be,” Carlson said. “They’ll reach out and shake your hand and thank you for your support.”

Photo: John Plummer.

The D

“It’s like you’re actually there,” Louwagie said, while noting the drinks and service are great, too. “Nine out of 10. I can’t complain.”

Who’s wrangled enough renewable energy to power 750,000 homes at once?



Photo: Tom Donoghue.




Ryder Wright

Ride along as we look back at the top moments from the 2016 Wrangler NFR.



s is the case every year, the 2016 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo was chock-full of memorable moments. Following are the top 10, in no specific order, as they were all significant in their own ways.

Ryder Wright, son of two-time saddle bronc world champion Cody Wright, reached the Wrangler NFR in his rookie season and immediately made his presence felt. The 18-year-old won the first four go-rounds — something no other NFR contestant has ever done, in any event — and won the ninth goround, as well. He entered the NFR 14th in the saddle bronc world standings, narrowly qualifying among the top 15, but finished at No. 4 with season earnings of $211,758.




Photos: Burger - Tom Donoghue. Larsen - Tom Donoghue.

Mary Burger



Orin Larsen

Shane Proctor gave Sage Kimzey a run for his money in bull riding over the 10-day rodeo. Proctor successfully rode his first seven bulls, cashing checks in every goround and winning two of them, including a three-way split for first in the seventh round. Although he finally got thrown off on the eighth night, Proctor pocketed more than $192,000 for the week, moving from 15th to third with season earnings of $272,365.

Barrel racer Mary Burger, at 68 years old, won the seventh go-round in 13.58 seconds. The $26,231 check she earned for that victory proved pivotal in her winning a second world title and becoming the oldest world champion in history. Burger, with star horse Mo, finished the year with $277,554 to nab the gold buckle, less than $11,000 clear of second-place Amberleigh Moore. Oh Canada! This is a triple-take for our friends north of the border.

Round 8 of the NFR was Canada Night, and Manitoba bareback rider Orin Larsen made it pay with an 87.5-point ride aboard Full Baggage. Two nights later, after the 10th and final go-round, Alberta team ropers Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler became the first all-Canadian tandem to win the world championship. And fellow Alberta cowboy Zeke Thurston held off what seemed like the entire Wright family, among others, to win the saddle bronc gold buckle. NFRREWIND


Tim O’Connell

Tie-down roper Caleb Smidt posted two extremely impressive go-round



wins, clocking 6.7 seconds on the fifth night and a blazing 6.6 on the 10th night. The two fastest times of the week helped Smidt finish the season sixth in the world, with $183,777.

O’Connell finished the season with a whopping $374,272, with more than half of that – $195,308 – coming during the 10-day NFR, as the Iowa cowboy won his first gold buckle.

Bareback rider Tim O’Connell set a PRCA record for money won in any event in one year, lapping the field on his way to the 2016 world crown.

Bull rider Brennon Eldred, like Shane Proctor, also made a huge run at Sage Kimzey. Eldred won the fourth, sixth and ninth go-rounds, with the latter

Photo: Tom Donoghue.

[TOP TEN] Tanner Aus rode Good Time Charlie to a score of 88.5 points in the ninth go-round of barebacks. His best score of the 10-day NFR helped him claim his third first-place check of the event, as Aus also won the first and third go-rounds.

win courtesy of a huge 94.5-point ride aboard SweetPro’s Bruiser. That was the highest score in NFR bull riding since J.W. Harris’ 94.5 in 2010, and it helped Eldred earn more than $184,000 over the 10 days as he finished second in the world standings at $287,803. Steer wrestler Tyler Waguespack earned the Ram Top Gun Award as

the NFR contestant who took home the biggest haul during the 10-day rodeo. Waguespack collected $213,218, propelling him to the steer-wrestling world championship. The first go-round might not seem like the most important, but with 10 days of hindsight, it sure proved that way for Sage Kimzey. The bull rider,

who came in as the two-time defending world champ, opened up with a score of 86.5 points on Aftershock for a first-place check of $26,231. After the 10th go-round, Kimzey’s season earnings totaled $311,451, putting him ahead of second-place Brennon Eldred ($287,803) by $23,648 – just shy of that first-place money Kimzey won in the first go-round! NFRREWIND



rom Celine Dion to Cirque du Soleil and from massive conventions to mega prizefights, Las Vegas has hosted more than a few successful events over the past three decades.

None, though, have experienced the kind of sustained success as the annual 10-day Wrangler National Finals Rodeo … unless you count its opening act. While the Wrangler NFR has produced 300 consecutive sellouts at the Thomas & Mack Center—making it the toughest ticket to get in the Entertainment Capital of the World over the past 30 years—the annual Cowboy Christmas event that has run concurrently in early December at the Las Vegas Convention Center has proven to be just as popular an attraction. And that was never more true than in 2016, when total attendance to the free, 10-day event reached 231,517, shattering the record of 216,292 set

the previous year. Not only that, but five daily attendance records were set in 2016, as fans flocked to check out the latest wares at the official gift show of the Wrangler NFR, as well as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Hunter & Outdoor Christmas Expo. In addition to browsing offerings from about 350 vendors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, attendees to the 2016 Cowboy Christmas and the RMEF Hunter & Outdoor Christmas Expo enjoyed a variety of entertainment. Flint Rasmussen returned once again to host his popular “Outside the Barrel” show each day on the Rodeo Live Stage, while singer Daryle Singletary debuted the new interactive, all-acoustic “Keepin’ It Country” show with a rotating cast of country music artists. Perhaps the highlight of the 2016 Cowboy Christmas was the inaugural Junior NFR in the new 1,200-seat Wrangler Rodeo Arena that was built into the second-floor footprint of the RMEF Hunter & Outdoor Christmas Expo. More than 320 youngsters competed for 12 championship buckles in eight events, including mini bucking bulls and team roping. “The addition of ‘Keepin It Country’ with Daryle Singletary was a huge success, and of course Flint Rasmussen continued to bring in his large crowds on the Rodeo Live Stage presented by Rodeo Houston,” said Bo Gardner, Vide President of Corporate Marketing for Las Vegas Events, which operates Cowboy Christmas. “Our most exciting new event was the inaugural Junior NFR, which drew large crowds and awarded 12 champions with a Montana Silversmith custom buckle and added prize money.”



Photos: Steve Spatafore.


Cowboy Christmas and RMEF’s Hunter & Outdoor Christmas Expo roped in record numbers of rodeo fans in 2016 and provided, as always, the perfect lead up to the Superbowl of rodeo.

The Junior NFR was such a hit—the 1,200-seat grandstands were filled to capacity—that Gardner says it’s possible the event will expand in 2017. “We are hoping to add two new events – junior steer wrestling and mini saddle bronc – which will push our total contestants to 500 and make the Junior NFR a ten-day event in 2017,” he said. “The challenge is accommodating all the livestock and contestants within the limited arena space and the available parking for all the rigs at the convention center. “There were times during the Junior NFR when the grandstand seating capacity was full, and standing room only was limited. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do with the space restrictions, but we will be look at offering a live viewing area.” The expanded Junior NFR and “Keepin’ It Country” weren’t the only new additions that proved successful in 2016. Subtle changes to the exhibit hall footprint helped to enhance the fan experience, including wider aisles for better crowd flow and improved parking.

“They offer a unique experience that cannot be duplicated in Las Vegas during the Wrangler NFR, and they bring additional value to our hotel partners that cannot be matched.”

“Some things may be on the operational end and thus not as visible to the eye of our event goer, but we hope will add to the betterment of the overall event experience.”

Given how wildly popular Cowboy Christmas and the Hunter & Outdoor Christmas Expo have been with rodeo fans who descend on Las Vegas each December, you’d think event organizers would be content to maintain the status quo and not bother to tweak a successful blueprint.

Said Gardner: “We all work hard to provide a great experience for the customers and fans during the Wrangler Nationals Finals Rodeo, but each year our leader, [LVE President] Pat Christenson, challenges each of us to critique our accomplishments and make improvements.

Well, think again. The cowboys and livestock were barely pulling out of town when the Las Vegas Events team began working on added enhancements for 2017—and beyond.

“We set new goals and work all year to achieve them so that we can make the next year even more successful. We also know that without our exhibitors, sponsors, entertainers, contestants and support staff, Cowboy Christmas and Hunter & Outdoor Christmas would not be the elite shows that they have grown to be. Thanks to all of you!”

“It is our goal to improve on our events from year to year,” said Anne Aznarez, Director of Show Operations and Exhibits with Las Vegas Events.

Kaleb Driggers and Brady Minor sign autographs

Also, incorporating the Hunter & Outdoor Christmas Expo into Cowboy Christmas for a second consecutive year was a smashing success. The Expo once again featured top hunting and outdoor industry leaders exhibiting everything from firearms and archery equipment to hunting apparel and Western lifestyle gear. There were also live wild-game cooking demonstrations and tastings, plus enhanced interactive activities, including a live archery range. “Las Vegas Events could not be happier with our partnership with RMEF and their Hunter & Outdoor Christmas Expo,” Gardner said. “They have signed multi-year deals with the Las Vegas Convention Center and Las Vegas Events, and they have the same mindset to improve and grow together.




t’s a simple saying, but the future is truly now for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. For more than 30 years, some of the most legendary cowboys and cowgirls in history have displayed their talent and guts on the dirt of the Thomas & Mack Center each December. Qualifying for the Wrangler NFR is the feather in the Resistol for any cow poke plying his trade in rodeos throughout the United States. The current Wrangler NFR stars grew up watching and attending the world’s greatest rodeo, dreaming of one day making it to the bright lights of Vegas and a chance to earn their piece of the largest purse in the sport.


Now, with the emergence of the Junior National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas during Wrangler NFR week, the stars of tomorrow have a chance to compete during the same week in Las Vegas and get an up close glimpse at what the WNFR is all about.


The annual Junior National Finals rodeo is growing in stature each year, and showcases the future champions of the Wrangler NFR.

“The future of rodeo is what the Junior NFR embodies,” said Bo Gardner, vice president of corporate sponsorships for Las Vegas Events and a key mover and shaker who is making the Junior NFR a true happening. “These contestants, with the support of their families, are the future of rodeo and we appreciate them putting it on the line and living their dream of competing at the top level of rodeo.”



In 2016, the Junior NFR took a major leap forward from the previous year with several competitions including barrel racing, team roping,13-under girls breakaway, mini bull riding, mini bareback and tie-down. In 2017, plans are to add junior steer wrestling and mini saddle bronc. About 320 contestants, chosen based on results from rodeos throughout the summer, went through two days of qualifying rounds in each of the three-

Photo: Steve Spatafore.


2016 Champions Mini Bareback World Champions Pee Wee - Kash Loyd - Burleson, Texas Junior - Bradlee Miller - Huntsville, Texas Mini Bull Riding Weekend One Champions Pee Wee - Tucker Willis Juniors - Braxton Thompson Seniors - Brady Turgeon Mini Bull Riding Final Weekend Champions Pee Wee - Gavin Firnekas Junior - Brock Poulin Senior - Bradlee Miller Boys & Girls Breakaway 10 & Under World Champions Rendon Powledge - Grandview, Texas Lucy Richards - Hereford, Texas Girls Breakaway 14 & Under World Champions Jordi Edens - Gatesville, Texas Josie Conner - Iowa, Louisiana day sessions, and those who advanced competed in the finals on the third day. Bigger plans are in store for 2017 and the reputation of the junior event is growing across the country and becoming more prestigious by the day. “We hope that this is just the beginning for the Junior NFR,” Gardner said. “It has the potential to be something really special for the youth and future of rodeo. It takes dedication on many levels to market and produce quality rodeo events and Las Vegas Events will continue to make the necessary changes to bring the fans and sponsors a bigger and better Junior NFR each year.” The 1,200-seat arena, located in the heart of Cowboy Christmas and the RMEF Hunter and Outdoor Expo at the Las Vegas Convention Center, was filled to capacity during many of the events and there was a major buzz surrounding the event. Just like their Wrangler NFR idols, each junior champion receives a gold buckle from Montana Silversmiths, which also makes the buckles for the PRCA champs. Plus many Western lifestyle companies

Boys Tie down 13 & Under World Champions Joel Braden Harris - San Angelo, Texas Riley Webb - Denton, Texas Boys Tie down 19 & Under World Champions Ty Harris - San Angelo, Texas Sy Felton - Dublin, Texas Team Roping Average World Champions Caleb Butler and Coleby Payne Barrel Racing 11 & Under World Champions Allison Storts Barrel Racing 12-16 World Champions Emma Smith

are embracing the younger competition and sponsoring the event, allowing it to attain new levels each year. “These companies involved in the Western lifestyle, they want to get involved with the youth of rodeo,” Gardner said. “We have the PRCA’s support. They understand that the youth of today will be our champions of tomorrow. The future is now.”



Steven Peebles


BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN Those well-known competitors were among several big names missing from 2016 event. But provided the 2017 season goes well for those aforementioned riders and ropers, fans will see them next December at the Thomas & Mack Center.



A protracted dispute between the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the recently formed Elite Rodeo Association has been resolved at least to enough of a degree to get those top contestants back in the PRCA fold.

Brazile, the 13-time all-around world champion cowboy from Decatur, Texas, is certainly glad to be back. “I’m just looking forward to seeing a lot of the people and places I didn’t get to see last year. They become like family,” said Brazile, who along with his unprecedented number of allaround titles has 10 additional gold


buckles in tie-down roping, team roping and steer roping. “And as far as the NFR goes, it’s just got its own feel. There’s nothing like it, so that’s something to look forward to.” Peebles, a bareback rider, earned his first PRCA world title in 2015, thanks to a strong week at the Wrangler NFR. It was the seventh consecutive year that the cowboy from Redmond, Oregon, qualified for the NFR, a streak that obviously ended in 2016. “To be honest, it was very hard to watch the NFR on TV last year. My goal was to make the NFR consecu-

Photo: Larry Smith, PRCA.


hen the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo rolled back into Las Vegas during the first 10 days of December, some fans might have been alarmed by what they didn’t see. Namely, familiar faces such as Luke Branquinho, Trevor Brazile, Tuf Cooper, Fallon Taylor and Steven Peebles.

Brazile, Branquinho among several rodeo stars eager to ride back into Las Vegas after sitting out 2016 Wrangler NFR.

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tively throughout my career,” Peebles said. “I’m really excited to be able to get back to rodeos, get back to the NFR and ride for another world title. It’s gonna feel good this year to get back on board.”

Tuf Cooper

Branquinho echoed those sentiments. The five-time world champion steer wrestler, whose most recent gold buckle came in 2014, would love for 2017 to end in Las Vegas with a sixth championship. “I’m going as hard and as fast as I can to do what I can,” said Branquinho, from Los Alamos, California. “I’d say I’m more determined than ever. The goal is to become a world champion. Anybody who missed out last year, that’s their end goal this year.

Taylor, of Collinsville, Texas, nabbed her first barrel racing gold buckle in 2014, bolstered by a strong yearend showing at the NFR. She’s not planning to run a full schedule this year, but hopes to compete and do well enough to earn a return trip to Las Vegas. “I am only traveling to a limited amount of rodeos this year, but I am hopeful with the amazing rodeos I get to compete at, that I may be able to get back to the NFR in 2017,” said Taylor, who added she’ll be in town whether she qualifies or not. “I will be a presence at all the events Las Vegas has to offer and wouldn’t miss the chance to hang out with all the fans in December.” Cooper, a three-time tie-down roping world champion from Decatur, Texas, will also be pressing hard in 2017 to qualify for a trip to Las Vegas. Cooper earned the gold buckle in 2011 and 2012, then added his third in 2014.



As much as he wants a fourth title, he—like Taylor—also longs for that fan interaction. “I can’t wait to get to all the rodeos, so that I can do what I love every day and at the end of the year in Las Vegas,” Cooper said. “I’m a huge rodeo fan myself. I love interacting and meeting fans at every rodeo, every chance I get. It’s very important to me to be able to spend time with the

fans and give back, because they give us so much. “I meet fans from countries all over the world, countries I didn’t even know existed. That’s what Vegas does for us.” Those big rodeo stars also do a lot for Vegas. So here’s hoping they’re all back in the saddle at the 2017 Wrangler NFR.

Photos: Cooper - Mike Copeman. Brazile - Tom Donoghue.

Trevor Brazile

“I’m excited to try to get back and run at those $27,000 go-rounds,” he added, alluding to the first-place prize money that’s up for grabs each night of the NFR. “And I’m excited to try to get back and compete for 10 nights in Vegas, That’s about the only place where our sponsors get to see us, and see their logos on TV. It’s important to get back there to show sponsors and fans how much they mean to us.”



LIVING THE DREAM First-time Wrangler NFR champions O’Connell, Waguespack savoring their shiny gold buckles.

Tim O’Connell

By BRIAN HURLBURT or Tim O’Connell and Tyler Waguespack, the 2016 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo turned out to be the moment in time when their childhood dreams became reality. O’Connell, from Missouri, captured the bareback world title, while Waguespack, from Louisiana, won the overall steer wrestling crown. We caught up with the first-time champs to relive their memories and see how their lives have changed. What went through your mind when you realized you had become a world champion? Tim O’Connell: Winning was a dream come true. I think that it’s something anyone involved in sports can relate to, whether it’s a football player winning the Super Bowl or a pitcher winning the World Series. That’s what winning the NFR means to us. Right after I hit the dirt after I got off from the pick-up man after the 10th round was over, it was like a big sigh of relief, and I remember thinking, “Man, I really just did it.” It hit me that I had just accomplished everything I had ever wanted in one fell swoop. Tyler Waguespack: We all worked for this since we were little, and I thought back to all of the steers in the practice pen and all the rodeos along the way that allowed me to accomplish my goal.



About halfway through the ninth round it really hit me that I could win when I realized all I had to do was successfully throw the final steer to win the world title. I felt a lot of pressure going into the 10th round, but once I got my hands on ‘em, I knew it was over. How did you get to this point, and what are you doing to stay on top? O’Connell: I take goals very seriously, and I write them down at the start of each year. Each year I have the goal to be a world champion, and I see that every day. I brought my goal sheet out to Las Vegas with me and hung it up in my hotel room. It’s a constant reminder of what we’re out here for. My wife,

Tyler Waguespack

Photos: Tom Donoghue.


Sami, is very influential, and she reminds me that this is what God put on us to do. I felt very blessed to be out there and to have the support that I had. Waguespack: We’re doing the same thing we’ve always done. We’re working hard in the practice arena, and we’re entering the right rodeos and making sure we get the right amount of horsepower at each rodeo we go to. There’s always a lot of pressure, but it definitely makes you breathe a little easier to have been there before and won. With the NFR, I just try to treat

it like any other rodeo; it just happens to be a really big one. How has becoming a world champion impacted your life? O’Connell: I don’t think it’s really changed my life so much. It’s changed my goals again. Obviously, the money we won out there is life changing. We’re not in debt anymore, and we’ve paid off our major bills. That was a life-changing moment right there at the age of 25. But I don’t think it’s changed me as a person; it just drives me to do it again. Now that I’ve experi-

enced what it’s like to be a world champion, I don’t ever want to lose that. My goal now is to be the first bareback rider ever to win six titles, and I’ve written that down. I can’t accomplish that this year, so my first goal is to become the back-to-back champion in 2017, and that’s what I am working toward. Waguespack: Since winning [the title], it’s pretty much been the same. We went back home and got right back in the practice pen. Once you get on top, you have to do whatever it takes to stay there, and we’ve already been practicing hard for this year.

Check Out the 2016 Champs ALL-AROUND Junior Nogueira became the first Brazilian in PRCA history to win a world championship gold buckle. The team roper, who in 2016 added enough earnings in tie-down roping to qualify for the all-around race, cashed in six of 10 gorounds at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, splitting first on the fifth night and taking second in the ninth go. His sixth-place effort in the 10th and final go-round, worth $4,230, allowed him to edge steer wrestler Clayton Hass by less than $3,600 for the all-around title. Nogueira, who team ropes with Kaleb Driggers, finished the year with earnings of $231,728.

also included the average title, worth $67, 269. O’Connell’s season total set a PRCA record for most money won in any event in any year, besting bull rider Sage Kimzey’s $327,178 in 2015.

BAREBACK RIDING Tim O’Connell blistered the field by finishing with $374,272 in 2016 earnings, more than $195,000 of which came during the 10-day Wrangler NFR. O’Connell cashed in eight of 10 gorounds, including a win on Night 2, a tie for second on Night 4 and solo second on Night 7. His NFR winnings

TEAM ROPING Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler became the first all-Canadian duo to qualify for the NFR in team roping, then became the first Maple Leafs to win the world championship. Header Simpson and heeler Buhler pocketed $186,000 each over the 10 days, an NFR team roping record. Simpson took the header gold

STEER WRESTLING Tyler Waguespack won the average with a stellar total time of 41.9 seconds on 10 head. Waguespack cashed in eight of 10 go-rounds, splitting first on Nights 1, 3 and 6, taking second outright in the ninth go and splitting second in the fourth go. He led all Wrangler NFR contestants with $213,218 earned during the 10-night run and finished his season with $298,676 to claim the gold buckle.

Marcos Costa as Durfey nabbed the gold buckle.

SADDLE BRONC RIDING Zeke Thurston edged 2015 world champ Jacobs Crawley by less than $3,000 in the final count, with Thurston at $265,449 and Crawley at $262, 618. Thurston had only one go-round win, on the sixth night, but he won the average with 747.5 points on nine head to claim $67,269. He needed almost all of that average cash to claim a tight victory over Crawley.

BARREL RACING Mary Burger, at 68 years young, entered the 10-day NFR with a healthy lead in the world championship chase, but had to hold off a very hard charge from Amberleigh Moore to claim her second career gold buckle. Burger cashed in six go-rounds, none more important than her firstplace check on Night 7, and finished the season with $277,554. Moore was second at $266,760 after winning the fifth, eighth and ninth go-rounds among other cashouts.

TIE-DOWN ROPING Tyson Durfey came out on top on a wild final night of the NFR. Durfey entered the last go-round in eighth place in the world standings, but he split third in that round to pocket $13,327, and that effort allowed him to tie for second in the NFR average for an additional $54,577. The nearly $68,000 night moved his season earnings to $212,445 – a scant $3,500 or so ahead of second-place

BULL RIDING Sage Kimzey won his third straight world championship, fending off strong challenges from former world champ Shane Proctor and Brennon Eldred. Kimzey won the first go-round and cashed in four more rounds. That one first-place check, worth $26,231, barely covered the difference between him and second-place Eldred, with Kimzey’s 2016 earnings totaling $311,451 and Eldred capping out at $287,803.

buckle with season earnings of $249,133, while Buhler claimed the heeler title at $258,311.

















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More than 231,000 people attended Hunter & Outdoor Christmas and Cowboy Christmas in 2016!

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Make sure Hunter & Outdoor Christmas is on your to-do list for the 2017 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo!





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