LAS VEGAS – When Richmond Champion arrived the Nevada desert to compete at his eighth National Finals Rodeo, he just wanted to keep climbing.
He snuck his way into the top 15 in order to compete at the 10-round championship and wants to make a statement about his place among the elite bareback riders in the sport. He’s off to a good start, riding Andrews Rodeo’s Cash & Carry for 83.5 points in Friday’s first round to finish in a four-way tie for fourth place. That was worth $6,438 and moved him up one spot to 14th in the standings.
“I was just so excited to get this thing started off electric and fun for all the guys, especially after missing this for a year,” said Champion, who had neck surgery in March 2022 and missed the rest of that year. “I was just pumped to be back in the locker room and on the yellow bucking chutes again.
“This was the first time for that horse, a younger one that Cole Reiner rode a couple of times and won a pile of money on her. She’s got a really good head on her, and she handled the fireworks and everything really well. We figured we could still trust her, and, yeah, she was awesome.”
There are a lot of emotions that go into playing the game at this level. It takes talent, hard work and a little bit of luck to earn qualifications to the NFR, which features only the top 15 contestants in each event at the conclusion of the regular season. Champion first qualified for Sin City nine years ago when he was just 21 years old.
Returning to the world’s richest rodeo brings back all those feelings.
“There were nerves, but they were all good nerves,” said Champion, 30, of Stevensville, Montana. “There was definitely part of my brain that was wanting to make things more complicated than they needed to be for a minute, but being the first guy out … there’s no time to think. There’s no time to be really nervous.”
A bulging disc in the middle of his neck had been causing problems for Champion for longer than he realized. Once surgery repaired the ailment, he had to learn how to ride in a way that not only gave him a good shot at winning, but also helped him keep his neck healthy. The result was a return to Las Vegas and renewed energy.
“I didn’t know how much I was hurting before, but I feel really good and am just excited for the next nine,” he said.
There’s been a lot of pain in Las Vegas this week. Two days ago, a man walked into a building on the UNLV campus and fired shots. He killed three members of the faculty and injured another before police ended the rampage by killing the shooter. All 119 contestants and many others were at the Thomas & Mack Center just a few buildings away form the shooting when it happened. They were all placed on lockdown for nearly two hours.
The first NFR performance was delayed by a day, and officials opted to add morning performance next Wednesday to make sure there are still 10 rounds of competition.
“It seems selfish to say it robbed a little bit of the excitement of check-in day, but this was just a bad thing that affected a lot of people,” Champion said. “Something on a massive scale had just gone on outside of where we were. The first-responders made sure we were safe and the building. We’re thankful for that.”