LAS VEGAS – Three-time world champion Tim O’Connell was standing at the South Point Hotel and Casino awaiting his time to go on stage and receive his ninth-round go-round buckle.
His phone indicated a message, one that revealed the 10th-round draw for bareback riders. He peaked down, scrolled for a second and saw he’d been matched with Frontier Rodeo’s Gun Fire, the 2022 PRCA Bareback Horse of the Year.
“I was so excited, I might have said some profanity when I got the draw,” said O’Connell, originally from Zwingle, Iowa, now living in Marshall, Missouri, with their two sons. “To see you got Gun Fire for the last horse of your 2022 season to get through this, get on 12 head, going 12 up (and) 12 down, coming off a major surgery … I couldn’t be happier with my performance.
“I left it all in that arena. There wasn’t an ounce of me that held back. I owned my mistakes. When it worked, it worked.”
It worked well. He and Gun Fire danced across the Thomas & Mack Center dirt for 88.5 points to finish in a tie for third place in the go-round; that was worth $14,690. He also finished sixth in the NFR aggregate standings, riding 10 horses (and two re-rides) for a cumulative score of 838.5 points. That was an additional $17,188 payday.
When adding up his week and a half in the Nevada desert, it came to just shy of $105,000. He ended the 2022 campaign sixth in the world standings with $234,232.
“I really had to rally these last two rounds,” he said. “I had to pull myself out of a slump of trying too hard and remember that there is a lot of money to be won out here. (Friday) night, I took advantage of that, and it set me up into this situation to draw the bucking horse of the year on the 10th night. To go out there and let it all hang out, man, she gave me everything she had tonight.”
Bareback riding was spectacular on Saturday night. At most rodeos, scoring 88.5 points typically means a cowboy has won. During the 10th round in Las Vegas, it’s tied for third. Six-time world champion Kaycee Feild won with a 92, while 2019 champ Clayton Biglow was 90.
“Talk about guys going out there and leaving everything on the table for eight seconds,” O’Connell said. “That’s a year’s worth of work with the very best horses in the world and the very best guys in the world. I’m glad we got to start this 10th round off with a bang.”
As he celebrated his own place this season, he also celebrated with his traveling partners. Jess Pope won the NFR average for the third straight year and won his first world championship. Cole Franks finished second at the NFR and finished fourth overall. All three finished among the top 10.
“(Jess) is like a little brother to me,” O’Connell said. “If I couldn’t win it and Cole couldn’t win it, I wanted him to win it. He kicked our butts all year long. He kicked our butts out here.
“He deserved to have a gold buckle around his waist. It just makes me really proud. We’ve got another world champion sitting in our rig.”
Yes, there is, but O’Connell owns the first one, and there’s a reason why he’ll continue to be a contender for more.