NFR rookies are ready for Vegas

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Cinch has seven newcomers eager to show off talents in Sin City

The 2023 National Finals Rodeo will again have an international flavor.

Rodeo isn’t just America’s game; it’s been established on a worldwide stage. This year’s grand championship will feature a hefty dose of Americans, but there are also contestants from Canada, Australia and Brazil in the mix for those elusive world championships.

Among them are seven Cinch-endorsed cowboys and cowgirls all competing in Sin City for the first time. From 20-year-old bareback rider Keenan Hayes of Hayden, Colorado, to 30-year-old Stephen Culling of Fort St. John, British Columbia, the NFR rookies are making their mark on ProRodeo.

“It’s pretty cool just making the finals,” said Bradi Good, 21, a National Finals Breakaway Roping qualifier from Abilene, Texas. “We go all year, and we get to compete with everybody else, so it’s just cool to make the finals because breakaway hasn’t been included in the ProRodeos for as long, and it just started getting added four years ago.

“It’s great to be part of something that’s still continuing to grow and we’re just trying to get better.”

In many cases, Ryder Sanford would be considered a veteran. He’s 25 years old and has been riding broncs for several years. He just held off becoming a full-fledged member of the PRCA until this season, and it paid off in a big way. He’s not only qualified for the NFR for the first time, but he’s also clinched the Saddle Bronc Riding Resistol Rookie of the Year award.

“That was a knife fight the entire year to win that,” said Sanford of Sulphur, Louisiana. “Q Taylor gave me a run for my money, and I was able to get into the finals. I wouldn’t have minded if he would have made the finals, too. It would be just like bareback riding, and we would have had to have waited until the 10th round of the NFR to see who’d win the rookie.”

Instead, Sanford concluded the regular season with $125,388 to finish in that magical 15th spot to earn the trip to Sin City. NFR veteran Isaac Diaz was just $2,000 behind but missed the finale by one spot. Taylor, who finished second in the rookie race, was $9,300 behind Sanford.

“I don’t think I could have planned it out any better,” said Sanford, who waited to start his rookie season while obtaining his civil engineering degree at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. “I had a lot of big wins, wins in some places that guys go their whole career without achieving, so it’s been quite a blessing.”

The biggest was at the Cheyenne (Wyoming) Frontier Days, one of the most storied rodeos in the sport’s grand history.

“That’s just an iconic rodeo,” he said. “Even people who are not involved in rodeo know about Cheyenne, and to not only get the win but to set the arena record while doing it is pretty special, too.”

Hayes has set a new standard in bareback riding. A year ago, he set the earnings record while competing on a permit with nearly $109,000. This year, he more than doubled his annual income, finishing with $265,896; that is a new bareback riding regular-season earnings record. He not only leads the bareback riding rookie race, but he’s the No. 1 man in the world standings. He has a $103,000 lead over the field of the top bronc busters in ProRodeo.

Nothing is set in stone, yet. He’ll have to battle through the final 10 nights of the year during the NFR, set for Dec. 7-16 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. He leads the pack, but there are other rookies in the mix.

Sanford is joined in bronc riding by fellow Cinch endorsee Damian Brennan, who won the rookie title last year and is making his first NFR. Brennan, of Injune, Queensland, Australia, is 13th in the world standings.

In tie-down roping, Beau Cooper of Stettler, Alberta, and Brushton Minton of Witter Springs, California, will make their debuts roping inside the Thomas & Mack. Cooper is 11th and Minton 12th in the world standings.

Stephen Culling’s rookie season in ProRodeo was seven years ago, but he is involved in likely the most competitive event in all of rodeo. He’s been climbing the charts the last few years and has launched himself among the top 15 steer wrestlers for the first time. He will enter the competition 10th in the world standings.

“Making the NFR is a dream come true, something I’ve been working on since I first started bulldogging in high school,” said Culling, who won the National High School Finals Rodeo and the Canadian High School Finals Rodeo in 2010. “I feel like in the early days, I was almost just doing it for fun. As the years went by, I just kept working at it.

“This is a huge accomplishment for me. That was one of the things I set out to do, and I’m really excited to show up in Vegas.”

For Good, she’s a third-generation roper. Her grandfather, Billy, and father, Shay, have competed in steer roping. She’s not just carrying on a family tradition; she is taking her game to a different level.

“I’m looking forward to the environment and everybody that’s going to be out there,” she said. “We’re going to rope five (calves) a day, and I’ve never really been in a situation like that unless it was a jackpot.

“The (officials) are stepping it up a lot. We get to sign autographs for people, and we get the luncheon for our back numbers. There are just a bunch of things that really make this exciting, and most of all, we get to back in the box and run five a day for two days.”

While still a big part of ProRodeo, the breakaway finals is separate from the NFR. It will take place Tuesday, Dec. 5-Wednesday, Dec. 6, at the South Point Equestrian Center. It will still feature 10 rounds and big payouts, but the first WPRA champion will be crowned a day before the NFR begins.

Once the action starts at the Thomas & Mack, the newcomers will understand what it’s like to rope, wrestle or ride inside the yellow bucking chutes and gain a new fascination of what it’s like to compete before nearly 18,000 people a night who loudly express their appreciation for rodeo.

“I’m looking forward to all of it, making sure throughout this whole process to just really enjoy the experience and not take anything for granted,” Sanford said. “The first experiences I’ve had have been the coolest thing I could have imagined.

“I feel like I’ve already ridden there 100 times in my head. I’ve put in the work, and I’m a real faithful guy, so that’s where I draw a lot of my confidence. I know if I lay it in His hands that He’ll get me through it.”

Faith, a strong mental approach and an incredible amount of talent have been beneficial to each of the seven Cinch newcomers eager to battle for the most coveted prize in the game: A world champion’s gold buckle.


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