LAS VEGAS – Jess Pope started the 2021 National Finals Rodeo the same way he closed out the championship a year ago: No. 1.
Pope, the 2020 NFR average champion for having the best 10-round cumulative score, rode Pickett Pro Rodeo’s Night Crawler for 90.5 points to win the first go-round of this year’s finale. It was a great way to kick start his second trip to the NFR, his first in its natural home of Las Vegas.
“It was a great horse I got on, which is exactly what I planned when I left the house, to come do that right here and win the first round,” said Pope, 23, of Waverly, Kansas. It worked out. She fit my style and had a lot of up and down. I really enjoyed it, and I’m ready for the next nine days.”
He’d better be. He entered the NFR fifth in the world standings. He also earned a $10,000 for qualifying for this year’s championship and has pocketed $36,997 in just one day of work. He has moved up one s pot to fifth in the world standings with $147,021.
Bareback riders selected top 100 horses in the game to be in Las Vegas, so he will be matched with some of the greatest bucking horses over the next nine night.
“This is our super bowl,” he said. “This is where we make our money. I’m going to take it one horse at a time. We get on these horses all year long. My goal is to try to win every night. I’m going to look at each one as the same and see where everything ends on the 10th night.”
The horse has a great history. Richmond Champion was 91.5 to win the opening round in 2019, the last time the NFR took place in Las Vegas before its one-year, COVID-induced hiatus to Arlington, Texas.
“I knew I had a good shot to win,” Pope said “I watched two videos of him in the hotel room before I came over here. Everybody was telling me how nervous the rookies are supposed to be, but it’s just another rodeo. It pays more and it’s the finals, but my job is to ride bucking horses, and that’s what I showed up to do, and I’m going to continue to do that.”
During his first qualification, Pope competed inside Globe Life Field, which seated more than 40,000 people but was limited to just 20,000 because of the pandemic restrictions. There’s definitely a different feel inside legendary Thomas & Mack Center.
“To win a round here was so electrifying. Texas was so big, and the fans were far away, and you don’t feel the electricity that you do here,” he said. “It benefits me and is going to work out for me.”
And winning on his opening night in Sin City?
“It’s a big deal,” Pope said. “I’m excited to be here.”