THE WOODLANDS, Texas – As a bareback rider, having the right balance is important to Richmond Champion.
As the horse jumps and kicks, Champion needs to have that perfect rhythm if he hopes to have the scores needed to make a living in the game. When all goes well, it’s like a symphony in concert. But there’s more to balancing life as a rodeo cowboy than just staying on and riding well, and the Texas cowboy knows that as well as anyone.
“My mom said it best,” said Champion, 23, of The Woodlands. “She said I needed to balance things out. In 2014, I couldn’t do anything wrong. In ’15, I couldn’t do anything right. I could never put it together. I could never put it together. This year I felt like I had balance.”
He returns to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, set for Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas, where he will be chasing the biggest purse in the game. Go-round winners will earn more than $26,000 a day for 10 December nights. He last played on ProRodeo’s biggest stage two years ago and had plenty of success: He earned more than $108,000 at the NFR and finished the year third in the world standings with $198,075.
This year he enters the finale with $69,169, good enough for 13th place on the money list; only the top 15 contestants in each event at the conclusion of the regular season advance to the NFR. But the money available in Las Vegas is even greater than it was two years ago.
“Every single night is life-changing money, and you get to do that 10 nights in a row,” he said. “That’s insane. When you’re at those yellow bucking chutes, you’re going to let it all hang out. Everybody’s put in that work and has gone up and down the road all year long to get to that point.
“With that much opportunity, there’s no looking back. You just step on the peddle and go.”
It worked well at the ’14 NFR. Champion placed in six go-rounds, including wins in the fifth and seventh rounds. While there is a big carrot (more than $67,000) for winning the average by having the best cumulative score through 10 rounds, he plans to chase every round dollar available.
“The fact that there’s that much money every single night up for grabs, you can sit around and play it safe for the average check if you want, but that just sounds dumb to me,” he said.
He didn’t play it safe through the season. He made a business decision to focus on other things early in the campaign. When he chose to hit the road hard in early May, he knew he would have to push if he wanted to return to Sin City in December.
“It was a goal of mine to make the NFR when I made the decision to come back the beginning of May,” Champion said. “It took me a couple of weeks getting back into the swing of things.”
Then in mid-June, he realized there was still enough time to capitalize.
“Right around Reno (Nev.), it hit me that if I keep going at them, take every re-ride they give you, take every chance you get that I could make this deal,” he said. “I had enough time, but I had to do certain things in that time to make it a reality.”
His simplified plan to his rodeo approach was to find the good in everything that could happen. Because animals are selected through a random draw, he made a weekly outline of how he would handle each one he had been matched with.
“I would look at the list and say, ‘There is my standout, now how am I going to win on animals that normally just get placed on?” he said. “It seemed like that if I went in there and did my job and helped some of those horses as much as I could, I ended up winning money. I was fighting for those little checks that make the difference.”
That meant strapping himself to horses that he didn’t necessarily care to because he needed every penny. In rodeo, dollars equal points, and the contestants in each event who finish the season with the most money are crowned world champions. In order to reach those goals, though, cowboys must qualify for the NFR.
Champion traveled the rodeo trail with Mason Clements and Jessy Davis, and they were all making up ground.
“Jessy got hurt last December, and he came back the same week I did,” Champion said. “We all had to go. We all had the same game plan. I’ve never entered so crazy all my life. There were three weeks I know of that we got on at least seven horses in seven days.”
Davis qualified for his seventh NFR by finishing just behind Champion in 14th place. Clements finished 18th, missing the coveted 15th spot by less than $7,000. And even though they trail world standings leader Tim O’Connell by about $110,000, there’s still a grand opportunity awaiting Davis and Champion once they get to the City of Lights.
A year ago, Oregon bareback rider Steven Peebles earned $224,055 in Las Vegas in route to his first world championship.
“My goal is I want to leave Vegas as the world champion,” Champion said. “My game plan for that is to go in and enjoy every single second that I’m there and keep it simple. It’s always different getting on there, but my game plan will not change. I will be more nervous on the back of those yellow bucking chutes.
“There’s a ton of ground to make up on the top three, but it would be dumb to say it’s impossible. You can’t worry about the guys ahead of you or the guys behind you. You just have to take care of what you’re doing.”
He also wants to take care of those closest to him, including his parents, Greg and Lori, and his older brother, Doug, a former bareback rider. All have supported him from Day 1, including Doug, who had to quit riding because of a serious back ailment. Now Doug Champion owns CrossFit HVille in Huntsville, Texas, and serves as one of his brother’s trainers.
“My dad looks at my draws every single week,” Richmond Champion said. “He loves looking at the numbers, and he’ll guess where I’ll be just based off the horse score. That’s fun, but it’s amazing to have them so involved. My mom and dad flew up for Cheyenne, and they both came to Calgary. Doug is busy at the gym, so he doesn’t get to come as much.
“Words can’t express what it means to me that they take time out of what they’re doing to come see me, especially since I can’t go home. Doug’s on me about working out every day. He has no pity for me, but it works.”
That support is great, but so is that of his sponsors – Chevy, Nocona Boots, Roughy and Yeti – who help make sure his needs are met as he travels down the rodeo trail. Now he can head to ProRodeo’s grand championship with his mind focused.
“My confidence is through the roof,” he said. “Me in November of ’14 didn’t know what to do and didn’t know what he was getting into. I was under-prepared in some areas, over-prepared in others. I went last year and watched, and I’ve got a bigger fire this year. I’m probably more focused, more focused on the riding and making the rides I want to make every night.
“It’s the coolest thing. It doesn’t matter what horse you have; it doesn’t matter if you’re first out or last out, because that level of energy inside that building is insane. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.”
And it starts next week.