LAS VEGAS – It took all of 16 seconds, but Jess Pope has earned a small fortune in Las Vegas.
It wasn’t at the blackjack table, no was it rolling craps. He did it the hard way by riding bucking horses at the National Finals Rodeo, and doing it better than every other bareback rider competing at ProRodeo’s grand finale.
On Friday night, he won his second straight go-round with an 89.5-point ride on Big Stone Rodeo’s Fired Up. Along with his $10,000 bonus for qualifying, he has pocketed $63,994 in short order. He has moved four spots to No. 2 in the bareback riding world standings, trailing the leader, Texan Tilden Hooper, by just $2,300 with eight nights left in the ProRodeo season.
“It’s exciting to be in Vegas,” said Pope, 23, of Waverly, Kansas. “I’ve dreamed about it my whole life. I’m ready to keep it rolling. I like Vegas. A lot of electricity really gets me pumped up to do my job, and I’m enjoying it.”
He should. He won the average title a year ago by having the best cumulative score through 10 nights of competition. But that was in Arlington, Texas, the one-time home of the NFR because of the pandemic. It’s a different atmosphere in the City of Lights, and it’s got the young cowboy believing.
Walking into the Thomas & Mack Center, the championship’s home since 1985, is something special for Pope, who competed in intercollegiate rodeo at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Missouri.
“It’ll make the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” he said. “This is what you’ve dreamed of since you were a little kid to ride in the Thomas & Mack. When you walk down the tunnel and see all those bucking horses standing down the alley, you get pretty excited. Then you’re standing on the back of the chutes, and they run the NFR flags in, there’s not another experience like it.”
Still, he knows what he needs to do to handle business. He makes each day work toward each night, maintaining a simple approach so things go smoothly once he arrives on campus. It helps, of course, that the animal with which he’s drawn is having a good night, too, since the horse accounts for half the score based on a 100-point scale.
“I saw that horse one time at Walla Walla (Washington) with Caleb Bennett this year, and I remember leaving there thinking, ‘Oh, my golly, that thing bucked.’ When I saw (the horse’s) name by my name, I was pretty excited. I knew he was going to be one of the stronger ones in the pen.
“I just hope to keep the drawing and keep rolling, because it’s working out.”
Yes, it is.