A tale of two countries

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Jake Finlay came to the United States seven years ago to compete in rodeo. Since then, he’s won four national championships – two men’s team titles and an individual bronc riding national title while at Oklahoma Panhandle State University – and the title earlier this year at the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Kissimmee, Florida.

Aussie bronc buster owns 4 U.S. national titles and a lot of rodeo fun

On U.S. soil, Jake Finlay is a four-time national champion. Funny thing is, he had to move to the United States to be such.

You see, Finlay is from Goondiwindi, a community of nearly 11,000 people on the Queensland-New South Wales border in eastern Australia. His home is roughly 220 miles from the coastal city of Brisbane and 465 miles from Sidney, the country’s most populous metropolis.

But he moved to the states seven years ago to rodeo, and he’s been pretty good at it ever since. He attended Oklahoma Panhandle State University on a rodeo scholarship and was part of two men’s team national crowns in 2017-18. That second year, Finlay’s individual achievement, the saddle bronc riding national championship, was a big reason the Aggies claimed the team title.

“I couldn’t ride a gate on a windy day when I got to Panhandle,” Finlay, 25, said in February. “They pretty much repeated the same things: Lift on your rein and get a two-jump spur out. They just drummed it into me, but they’ve got a lot of good bronc riders because of it.”

The Aussie added his fourth major championship this past April by winning the bronc riding title at the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo. It propelled him among the leaders in the world standings, where he remains as July rolls into August with about two months remaining in ProRodeo’s regular season.

“That RNCFR is a bucket-list rodeo to win, and I’m very happy that I’ve won it,” he said. “If you go into a world champion’s house or any accomplished cowboy’s house, you’re usually find one or two of those National Circuit Finals Rodeo titles around there. It’s a prestigious title to have.”

By most ProRodeo standards, it’s oftentimes considered the third most sought-after crown to win behind the world championship, then the National Finals Rodeo average title. World champions and Hall-of-Famers like Lewis Feild, Ty Murray, Charmayne James, Dan Mortensen, Fred Whitfield, Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper have all earned national titles.

For Finlay, it’s a stepping stone. He’s qualified for the Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo for several years. Last year, he won both the year-end and circuit finals average titles, enabling him to advance to the RNCFR in Kissimmee, Florida. Once there, he put in solid work. He placed in the opening round, then held tough in the second round to place in the two-ride aggregate and advance to the semifinals of the tournament-style format.

Finlay then won the final two rounds – 86 in the eight-man round, then 88 in the four-man round – to claim the top prize and walk away with $14,248, a voucher for a RAM truck, a Montana Silversmiths buckle, a championship saddle and several other prizes.

The biggest thing he was awarded, though, was a boatload of confidence. He solidified his spot among the top 15 in the world standings for several weeks. That’s big at any time of the year, but it’s biggest when the regular season comes to a close the end of September. The top 15 in the standings in each event will then advance to the NFR, rodeo’s Super Bowl and World Series wrapped up in 10 days of action in Las Vegas each December.

He’s been oh-so-close each of the past two seasons, finishing 17th in 2019 and 20th last year. Though he’s dropped a bit in the standings through a rugged summer, he’s still got his eyes on the prize.

“To be honest, I don’t need to do anything different than I am doing,” Finlay said. “I’ve been riding well, but I haven’t been drawing toward the top of the herd. That’s rodeo. I’ve got my rodeos panned out, and I’m having more fun than I know.

“I won a small check the other day, but I haven’t won a good size check since (June). It’s hard to realize that when you’re going with good guys. I ride what they put underneath me, and I’m having fun rodeoing. As long as you’re having fun, it will all fall into place.”

That’s the right attitude to have, but he has a ton of help maintaining a good mindset. He is traveling with world champion Wade Sundell, NFR qualifier Colt Gordon and Tegan Smith, a young bronc rider who has pushed himself into the top 10 in the standings. Those three are just a handful of dozens of beams that support the redheaded bronc buster, whose nickname is “Salsa.”

Throw in his girlfriend, TV personality and cowgirl Janie Johnson, and her father, world champion bronc rider Clint Johnson, and there are still many others who help stabilize the backbone of the Aussie hot shot. Finlay doesn’t even mind when he operates a camera or holds a light to make it shine brighter on his girlfriend.

“My payment is more in line of the odd cup of coffee in the mornings,” he said with a laugh. “We actually support each other very much. I’d probably fall over if I didn’t have her to lean on some days. She’s an awesome person to have in my corner.”

And her dad?

“He helps me immensely,” Finlay said of Clint Johnson, a four-time world champ and a 1992 inductee into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. “He’s changed my riding style and changed the way I ride horses. I no longer ride my saddle; I ride my horse. That’s been a huge stepping stone in the progression of my riding.

“Besides the fact of being a world champion and forgetting more about bronc riding than most guys will ever know, he’s a good person. He’s a genuine human being and still so humble.”

There are many lessons in life that happen on a daily basis. That’s why Finlay is here and why he loves rodeo. It all started with the idea of being a cowboy in Australia, and he’s carried that 8,300 miles from home to the middle of the United States and beyond. Yes, there is the heartache of not being around those he’s loved all his life, and he and his family deal with it every day.

“We get to talk on the phone all the time,” he said. “It’s pretty tough still. My mum struggles with it a little bit. It’s a hard thing, but you surround yourself with good people over here, and it seems to be OK.

“They offer me encouraging words all the time. It’s not as much just my dream; it’s an ‘our dream’ situation.”

The dream continues every day. The smile reveals it, and the way Finlay speaks says so much about loving life and having a love for the cowboy way of life.

“The best part of what we do is being a cowboy,” Finlay said. “What I love about being a cowboy is everything. I’ve had a good day every day, especially with all these rodeos opening back up. We’re going to the rodeos we’d usually go to pre-COVID.

“My sponsors have been there for me, and they always have your back. People like to think sponsors are just a patch and a check, but it’s a hell of a lot more than that. Believe I what you wear and believe in what you wear on your Cinch shirt. They’re family.”


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