Wesley Thorp, the 2019 world champion and NFR average champion, enters the NFR as the No. 1 heeler in the world. – PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Phil Doyle
By Lane Karney
The lights are set to shine a little bit brighter at this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Teton Ridge, which will run December 7-16 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. In addition to the guaranteed $10,000 shelled out to every contestant upon arrival, they will also be vying for their share of a record-breaking, shiny, new $11.5 million payoff.
Relative to last year’s payout, when the rounds paid $28,914 and the average was worth $74,150 per man, each go-round will this year pay $30,706 a man, with $78,747 apiece to the winners of the all-coveted 10-head average. More money means more drama in the quest for the gold buckles. As the Top 15 headers and heelers in the world strap in, here’s some insight on the brink of the most exciting 10 days in the business.
For the second straight season, Kaleb Driggers leads the charge of headers into Vegas with $160,144 won on the year. Though the regular-season title may not be as glorious as strapping on the gold buckle at year’s end, it might be just as fulfilling to those who accomplish the feat. It says a lot to be standing on top of the mountain at the end of a 75-rodeo-count season under all possible conditions.
Kaleb Driggers has won back-to-back team roping heading world championships.
– PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Click Thompson
While Driggers, who has won the last two world titles with Junior Nogueira, is once again the heading leader coming in, this is the tightest the team roping standings have been prior to the NFR in recent memory. The No. 15 header, Luke Brown, is just $62,392 behind Driggers. That’s less than what the average will pay, and the sidenote kicker is this—Brown is a three-time NFR average champion.
On the heeling side, Wesley Thorp, who roped with Tyler Wade for most of the year, will ride into the Thomas & Mack ranked No. 1. This is Thorp’s eighth consecutive NFR, and the 2019 world champion and NFR average champ enters the NFR with $172,152 won in the regular season.
“The feeling of winning the regular season hasn’t quite sunk in yet. It’s something that I always looked up to since I first started rodeoing. To be able to come out on top against the competition there is today is definitely something I don’t take for granted,” said Thorp, who edged out six-time regular-season-leading heeler Nogueira by a little over $12 grand.
Thorp and Wade will do NFR battle for the first time together, and are looking forward to it.
“My partnership with T Wade has been great. We think similarly and get along great. We’ve been taking turns traveling to each other’s houses a couple days a week to build our run for Vegas. We have been riding the better end of our horses, and running 15 to 20 quality practice steers in the NFR set-up. The remainder of our sessions will be more jackpot style to work on our fundamentals,” said Thorp, who will make a game-time decision on which horse to ride at Rodeo’s Super Bowl. He’ll decide between his 9-year-old sorrel Juice and his 14-year-old faithful black, Ray Jay. “I feel it’s a good problem to have, because I’m confident in both. I just have more experience on Ray Jay, but I feel as if Juice is very close to earning his spot.”
There are three men with five gold buckles between them on the head side, with Driggers being the two-time and reigning champ. Erich Rogers won the world in 2017, and Clay Smith has a pair of gold buckles from 2018 and 2019.
Luke Brown will rope at his 14th NFR in 2023, at the age of 49.
– PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Clay Guardipee
Luke Brown, the oldest team roper in the bunch at 49, has been to more NFRs than any other header in the field, and those three NFR average wins are the most of any header who will rope at NFR ’23. After 13 consecutive trips to the Finals from 2008 to 2020, Brown is back after a two-year hiatus. He will rope with young-gun Hunter Koch.
Brown’s three NFR average titles and 14 NFR qualifications tie him for the most in both categories with Patrick Smith. Smith is undeniably the most veteran of the heelers at the age of 43, and with those 14 back numbers, three average buckles and a pair of gold buckles dated 2005 and 2010 has won and done it all. Fellow return heeling world champions are Jeremy Buhler (2016), Paul Eaves (2018 and 2020), Thorp and Nogueira, who also sports the all-around world championship from 2016.
Don’t forget, it was last year when Smith returned to the NFR with rising superstar and Finals freshman Tanner Tomlinson after a seven-year absence from the NFR, and the duo set a brand new NFR average record of 53 seconds flat on 10 head. Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins, who beat Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper’s long-standing 59.1-second NFR average record in 2021 with a 10-head total of 54.7 seconds, will ride into gold-buckle battle again this year as well.
“Jake and Clay’s record stood almost three decades, then got broken twice back-to-back. Averaging 5.3 seconds on 10 steers is hard to do at home. Kudos to Tanner. He did beyond amazing at his first NFR,” said Smith, who will again ride his now two-time and reigning Nutrena Heel Horse of the Year presented by AQHA, Turbo. “It’s just so unpredictable anymore when it comes to records. That record could stand for a long time, but then again it only takes one team getting hot to break it. Just ask Andrew and Buddy.”
Speaking of Tomlinson being incredible in his first trip to town last year, there are three first-timers this year. Jake Clay, Marcus Theriot and Cole Curry are the 2023 freshman National Finalists. Theriot and Curry will rope together, while Clay will spin for three-time NFR heeler Tyler Worley.
“I’m looking forward to running that first steer, and all 10 of them,” Clay said. “This is something I’ve dreamed about my whole life. Worley and I started roping together at Puyallup (Washington in September), and neither of us were in the Top 15 at the time. We won enough for both of us to get in, so we have some good momentum going.”
In terms of team building, there are two teams that will rope together at the Thomas & Mack that paired off due to their partners missing the cut. Clay Smith, whose heeler Colby Payne narrowly missed his first NFR, will head for 2020 NFR average champ Paden Bray. Bray’s regular-season header, Brenten Hall, just missed out, finishing 16th. World No. 3 header Nelson Wyatt will rope with Floridian Jonathan Torres. Ironically, it was Bray who finished 16th in the heeling in 2022.
“There are no words to explain the situation of Brenten finishing 16th. I was there last year. I’m devastated he didn’t make it, but I am very grateful to him for helping me make it,” said Bray, who will rope at his third Finals. “Clay is an amazing header, and a two-time world champ. We got together to break the steers in, and we’ll meet up and practice until the Finals.”
Sentimentally, Colter Todd’s qualification heeling for his best friend and 10-time NFR header Derrick Begay has to be keynote conversation. After heading at three straight NFRs of his own for Cesar de la Cruz from 2006 to 2008, Todd retired from full-time rodeo competition to raise his family. Fast forward to today, and he’s roped his way into contention for a gold buckle, and joins the exclusive list of NFR switch-enders that now include Bret Beach, Trevor Brazile, Quinn Kesler, David Motes, Walt Rodman, Mark Simon, Clint Summers, Speed Williams and J.D. Yates.
“I’m going to say the most special part of all of it is the Begay part. In my mind there are a bunch of guys who could do it (make it heading and heeling), like JoJo (Lemond) and (Colby) Lovell. I could go down a list in my mind, but to get to do it with Begay is really special. It wasn’t something we dreamed up to make it work, we just wanted to have some fun and see where it went,” said Todd, who ranches around Wilcox, Arizona with his wife, Carly; 18-year-old daughter, Madilyn; 14-year-old son, Colter Lee; and 13-year-old son, Traven. “I never dreamed this would happen. When I was young, this is what I worked for, and even out of high school I dreamed of heeling at the NFR. But I never thought there was even a chance I’d rope at the NFR again after my last one (in 2008). We’re older now, and enjoyed it. I probably understand the dynamics of the game better now than I ever did then, after evaluating it from the couch. It’s a miracle how it worked out.”
Patrick Smith will once again be aboard Turbo, his two-time Nutrena Heel Horse of the Year presented by AQHA. – PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Phil Doyle
Tanner Tomlinson, pictured, set a new NFR average record of 53 flat on 10 head with Patrick Smith in 2022.
– PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Clay Guardipee