LAS VEGAS – Tim O’Connell was in a bit of a different situation at the National Finals Rodeo; he didn’t earn any money in the opening two rounds of this year’s championship.
A three-time world champion who has battled for that coveted Montana Silversmiths gold buckle for most of his seven previous qualifications to ProRodeo’s grand finale, he knows how things roll.
“I don’t have much to complain about,” said O’Connell, 30, of Zwingle, Iowa, now living in Marshall, Missouri. “I’ve been riding good; I haven’t been riding great. I’ve been drawing good; I haven’t been drawing great.
“It’s been a slow start. It hasn’t been bad, but it’s been a slow one.”
Things changed a bit during Saturday’s third go-round when he rode Frontier Rodeo’s Ace of Spaces for 85.5 points to finish fifth on the night, pocketing $6,967. It may be just the spark to get his championship engine revving. He pushed his season earnings to $173,023. He’s fourth in the bareback riding standings and has seven more nights to really cash in.
“I think I’ve been trying to do a little bit too much and take matters into my own hands instead of just letting things happen, so I’m a little tight, and I take responsibility for that,” he said. “I was a little more freed up (Saturday), and I made a rigging change to something different, and it worked better.”
The third round featured the “Eliminator Pen,” the toughest-to-ride bareback horses at the NFR, and Ace of Spades proved to be perfect for the night.
“I didn’t now much about her, other than she’s been around forever and might be older than I am,” O’Connell said with a laugh. “She’s a small, black horse and bucked a lot harder than what I gave her credit for. She was good and fired out of there. I could have handled her better off the wall, but I was pretty happy overall with the performance.
“It’s also my first check of the week, so I’m pretty happy about it. I’ve just been quiet, unfortunately. I’d rather be a lot louder out here than I am, but the well finally opened up and it’s time to drink. There are still seven rounds to this thing.”
While the first couple of rounds were slow, it’s starting to heat up. The days go by faster in the Nevada desert over the next week of competition, and O’Connell hopes to be plugging right into the electricity that builds in Las Vegas.
“This is honestly where the finals start flying by,” he said. “You get past the first eliminator pen, then it starts over and the fun ones come back around. It starts back over, and the next thing you know is it’s gone.”
Added to that was the fact that Saturday’s ride marked just the seventh time he’s been on a bucking horse since August. He suffered an injury that sidelined him for the final two months of the regular season, and he didn’t return to action until mid-November. While some of the top 15 bareback riders are sore after three rounds of riding, he is as strong as ever.
“I went to sports medicine to do some maintenance, but other than that, I feel pretty dang good,” O’Connell said. “I had a four-month break. I feel like I’m still getting back into form and, unfortunately, it’s at the finals. We’re coming back now.”