LAS VEGAS – Tim O’Connell had a gut feeling the match-up was going to happen.
The reigning world champion bareback rider had already been matched with the 2017 Bareback Horse of the Year, Virgil, in the third go-round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. The result was an arena-record tying ride of 91.5.
In his heart, though, O’Connell just knew he would be matched with the 2016 Horse of the Year, Powder River Rodeo’s Craig at Midnight. Both are powerful gray horses, athletic and extremely hard to ride.
“John Franzen would always send me videos of Craig running through the pastures and getting him beefed up and ready to go to the NFR,” he said, referring to the son of Powder River’s owner, Hank Franzen. “God has a funny way of just letting you know.
“I knew I was going to have Craig at Midnight at the second ‘eliminator’ round.”
That happened Thursday night during the eighth round of ProRodeo’s grand championship. The two powerhouses slugged it out across the Thomas & Mack Arena dirt for 85 points. That was good enough to finish in a tie for fourth place, worth $8,885 and increased O’Connell’s NFR earnings to $96,731.
His dance with what he dubbed as a “fire-breathing dragon” helped push his season earnings to $298,647 – just a stone’s throw from crossing the $300,000 barrier. He has ridden eight horses for a cumulative score of 683 points and leads the average race – should he stay there through the final two rounds, he will pocket an additional $67,269.
That means he has a very good chance to earn more in 2017 than he did in his first gold-buckle campaign. But Thursday night was not easy. Craig at Midnight did everything he could to get O’Connell to the ground.
“My trainer and I talked about it, and we prepared for stuff like this,” he said. “The stuff that makes champions champions is when you have to dig down deep. You show up not knowing if you’re going to win or not.
“There’s a saying: ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.’ I kept telling myself that before I nodded my head (to start the ride). ‘It is not his night tonight. He can have it any other night, but not tonight. It’s my night. There is nothing that horse can do tonight to get me on the ground.’ ”
It was like a prize fight, and it’s quite fitting that it happened in Las Vegas. There were no tricks; it was just two champions going blow to blow for 8 seconds.
“I didn’t make the pickup horse; he launched me in the air,” O’Connell said. “I feel like I was 20 feet in the air before I started to come down. He had a shot to kick me if he wanted, and he chose not to. I was just very thankful that I had faith and that, now, the ‘eliminator’ pens area done.”
There are two nights remaining for the 2017 season. O’Connell has a lead of more than $93,000 over the No. 2 man, Texan Richmond Champion. But no lead is secure, especially with so much money on the table. O’Connell leads Champion by just half a point in the average race. Still, he will appreciate his ride on a big gray horse on the eighth night of the NFR.
“I had to bear down tonight,” O’Connell said. “I don’t know if my form was very great, but I just fought tonight. When you have to fight to stay on one you have to give it everything you got, and I gave it everything I had. That is a win for me. I don’t care if I would have won the round or if I would have been last, but I knew I left if all on the table.”