Champs are ready to repeat

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12 Cinch contestants would love to add more gold to their resumes

The National Finals Rodeo and National Finals Breakaway Roping are not just the grand championships for the sport; they also are host this year’s greatest ProRodeo stars, who will play the game at the highest level.

There are a dozen Cinch-endorsed cowboys and cowgirls who epitomize that as well as anyone; they are world titlists and cumulatively account for 25 Montana Silversmiths gold buckles. Five of them will defend their 2022 championships, and the others will try to add to their trophy cases. That’s what makes the National Finals such a special event to those elite athletes.

“I grew up watching all my heroes and dreaming about having one gold buckle,” said Louisiana steer wrestler Tyler Waguespack, who last year tied Everett Bowman, Jim Bynum and Ote Berry for third place in the record books with four world championships; only Homer Pettigrew (6) and Luke Branquinho (5) have more. “Ote Berry is one of my biggest role models and biggest supporters and helped me out so much.”

Waguespack will enter this year’s NFR third in the world standings and will be in contention to repeat during this year’s finale, set for Dec. 7-16 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. He will be joined by four other reigning champions, tie-down roper Caleb Smidt, who also has four gold buckles; saddle bronc rider Zeke Thurston, who has two; header Kaleb Driggers, the two-time defending titlist; and breakaway roper Martha Angelone, who snagged her first title last December.

“I wasn’t going into the finals trying to win the average,” said Angelone, who will compete at the breakaway finals Dec. 5-6 at the South Point Equestrian Center and will be joined by another Cinch titlist, Erin Johnson, a three-time WPRA champion. “Since our finals pays $5,000 a go-round, I was going in there to see how much money I could win in the rounds.”

That’s some impressive money, but it’s even greater across town. Inside the Thomas & Mack, the NFR’s home since 1985, go-round winners will earn nearly $31,000 for 10 December nights. A year ago, Thurston won more than $256,000 to not only secure another world title but also win the RAM Top Gun Award, given to the contestant who earned the most money in a single event in Las Vegas.

“Just coming in here, I knew I was in the world-title hunt,” he said. “There’s so much money to be one; anything’s possible here.

“I knew if I just aced every horse that I got on and rode them as good as I could that at the end of the week, I’d give myself a chance, and that’s just what I did.”

Driggers earned his second straight world championship and will return to Sin City as the No. 1 header in the 2023 world standings. He leads a contingent of five Cinch team ropers that have claimed rodeo’s gold who will be in the mix starting in just a few days: Clay Smith, a two-time champ in heading; Erich Rogers, the 2017 titlist; heeler Paul Eaves, who won his titles in 2018 and 2020; and Jeremy Buhler, a heeler who claimed the crown in 2016.

Shane Hanchey, the 2013 tie-down roping world champion, and Haven Meged, who won the buckle in 2019, round out a solid class of Cinch world titlists who will have excelled again in 2023 and will have another shot at winning the most cherished prize in rodeo.

There are many factors that go into winning the crowns. Whether they ride bucking animals at rodeos across this land or travel North America with athletic horses in their specially designed, living-quarters trailers, it takes fortitude and skill to make it through the rigors of the regular season and earn a spot in the exclusive field at the National Finals.

All 12 have proven that multiple times. Combined, they account for 102 qualifications to the greatest two weeks in rodeo. Once they arrive in Las Vegas, the pressure mounts, and the competition level increases.

The timed events will get fast, and the roughstock cowboys will score high. That’s what it takes to win rodeo’s gold in the Nevada desert.


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