LAS VEGAS – With a world champion-vs.-world champion matchup, Tim O’Connell came away the big winner.
“To have the world champion bucking horse and me, being the reigning world champion, to go head to head with an amazing animal athlete is just incredible,” said O’Connell, who tied a Wrangler National Finals Rodeo arena record 91.5 points on the 2017 Bareback Horse of the Year, C5 Rodeo’s Virgil.
“The beauty of that animal is that you don’t know what he’s going to do. He was going to do whatever it took to get me off his back.”
It didn’t work until after the 8-second horn sounded. By that time, he had managed to reel in another NFR payout worth $26,231. It was his first go-round victory of the 2017 championship, and it pushed his Las Vegas earnings to $62,885.
He came in No. 1 in the world standings and has extended his lead. Now with $264,800, O’Connell leads the No. 2 man, Tanner Aus, by $94,662. A big part of that, though was being matched with the greatest bucking horse this year.
“He is an amazing, large animal that gives it everything he’s got,” he said of Virgil. “I’m so blessed to have the opportunity to get on him on the biggest stage in the world, to tie the record with future hall-of-famers of our game under the biggest and brightest lights.
“I don’t know what it was like to be a gladiator back in the day, but with that crowd roaring, I think I felt a little bit of it.”
It’s an experience unlike any other in the sport. The Thomas & Mack Center holds more than 17,000 fans per night for 10 rounds, and virtually all of them are into the action. They understand what they see when a great matchup happens.
“When I double-grabbed (after the ride), he said, ‘Get off,’ so I did,” O’Connell said of Virgil. I was by the roping end (of the arena, opposite of the bucking chutes), and I could see everybody in my section going nuts. To be 90 at the NFR … what more could you want?”
He would like seven more rounds to continue. He has place the first three nights of the 2017 championship, and he’s well on his way to defending his Montana Silversmiths gold buckle.
“My confidence is through the roof,” he said. “I feel like I’m on my game. I feel like everything’s working, and I’m just looking forward to tomorrow. I don’t want to underestimate any horse in the game. Everything can be taken away just like that.
“I love this arena, I love this atmosphere, the guys in that locker room and the horses that we brought here. We’re seeing the best bareback riding in the history of the NFR.”
And Tim O’Connell is right in the middle of it.