LAS VEGAS – It took just one night at the National Finals Rodeo for Jess Pope to jump into the No. 1 spot in the bareback riding world standings.
That may be exciting to some, but it’s not to Pope. He can’t control that, so he focuses on the things he can, and that is riding each bucking horse through the 10-round championship the best he can. He definitely did that with an 87-point ride on J-Bar-J Rodeo’s Straight Stick to finish second in the opening go-round.
“That’s a young horse of Sparky Dreesen’s, but I thought it was good,” said Pope, 24, of Waverly, Kansas. “There are a lot horses out there like that, and you have to win on all of them. I just showed up and had to do my job. It was a little bit tougher than some of the other horses I’ve been on, but it was still just riding a bucking horse.”
He did it better than most. Only six-time world champion Kaycee Feild scored higher, but Pope’s ride was worth $22,851. Those earnings propelled into the lead and past Cole Reiner, with whom Pope has been battling for the top spot through much of the season.
“This is a great way to start the NFR,” said Pope, who competed on a rodeo scholarship at Missouri Valley College. “I’ve got nine more rounds, nine more days. I’m just going to keep my head down and keep doing my job.”
That tunnel-visioned focus on his own tasks has helped Pope excel every year he’s made the NFR. He is a two-time average champion, the title that goes to the cowboy who posts the best 10-ride cumulative score. This year, the average champion will earn more than $74,000, so it’s a valuable prize.
It also enables him to enjoy the rides made by the other 14 competitors as they battle for the Montana Silversmiths gold buckle.
“That’s one special thing about the bareback riding is the companionship between us all,” he said. “I love all those guys like they are my brothers. I want to see them all win. I’d be super happy to see them win. I’m competing against the animal that I’m there to get on. I can’t control what they’re doing.
“I can clap and smile and be happy for them when they get to succeed, and I expect the same thing from them.”
He travels the country with fellow bareback riders Tim O’Connell and Cole Franks, both of whom also placed on opening night.
“It is fixing to be a good week,” Pope said. “I love my traveling partners to death all year long. They are taking care of me; I’m taking care of them. It is good to feed off each other. It is a good start to the week with all three of us starting strong. Now we just want to build with each other.”