LAS VEGAS – Tim O’Connell is on a mission.
The reigning world champion bareback rider has another Montana Silversmiths gold buckle on his mind, and he is taking advantage of every opportunity he can to gather a second one. On Friday night, he matched moves with Calgary Stampede’s Y Not Cyrstal for 87 points to finish in a tie for third place for the second straight night at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
“I needed to bare down,” said O’Connell, 26, of Zwingle, Iowa. “I did, and I feel like I made the very best I could on that horse.”
It was the second time in just a few months that the Iowa cowboy had been matched with Y Not Cyrstal. The two danced across the arena dirt three months ago in Puyallup, Wash., for 85.5 points, so he knew what to expect.
“I’m not sure if I could have done much more on him tonight,” he said. “I felt like it was a dog fight the whole time. I held my own, and he held his own. It combined for another great score and another place. That horse bucked harder than what he did with me in Puyallup.”
He added another $13,327 payday to his bank account. He has pushed his NFR earnings to nearly $37,000 and his season total to $238,270 – he leads the world-standings race by more than $68,000 over the No. 2 man, Tanner Aus of Minnesota.
“At the end of the day, all I can do is my job and focus on what I have underneath me,” O’Connell said. “I split third and fourth (place) with an 87. That shows the caliber of horses that are out there … the caliber of the horses that we brought to the NFR and the caliber of competitors.
“It’s an amazing event, and these are probably the rankest guys going down the road. I’m very blessed to compete against them. I’m very blessed to get on these animals.”
He has eight more chances, beginning with Saturday’s eliminator pen, which features the hardest-to-ride horses in the game. He will be matched with C5 Rodeo’s Virgil, the 2017 Bareback Horse of the Year. It should be a solid test of both athletes’ abilities on the sport’s grandest stage, but O’Connell knows as well as anyone that he must tend to the business at hand.
“Whatever you get on is going to send a little shiver down your spine,” he said of the 15 horses that will be in Saturday night’s performance. “I’m looking forward to it, however it shakes out. I know it’s going to be a heavyweight matchup, and I’m ready for a fight.”
Like any other prize fight in Vegas, there are dreams of cashing in. The difference between rodeo and boxing, though, is that there are no guarantees. Paydays are important, especially for O’Connell and his wife, Sami, are expecting a baby boy in March.
“Knowing that I have a wife and child on the way is always on my mind,” he said. “It really puts life into perspective. When it’s time to climb in there, you have to put that away. You can’t think about other things than riding a bucking horse.
“Everyone has their own reasons for competing, but at the end of the day, we all climb in there, and we know what our job is and what we need to do.”
O’Connell does it pretty well.