LAS VEGAS – The Thomas & Mack Center can be an intimidating place. Those yellow bucking chutes hold thousands of stories that explain rodeo’s history.
It’s been a lot like home for Jess Pope, the defending world champion bareback rider from Waverly, Kansas. He’s won the National Finals Rodeo average title at all three of his previous qualifications to ProRodeo’s grand finale.
He’s back for a fourth straight year, and he got a good start during Friday’s first go-round, riding Wayne Vold Pro Rodeo’s True Grit for 85 points to finish third. That was worth $18,325 and moved up two spots to eighth in the world standings. In 31 NFR rounds, he’s earned more than $650,000.
“It’s comfortable, but it’s still nerve-wracking,” said Pope, 25. “I still had the first-round jitters, but the nice thing is now we’ve got one round knocked out of the way, and it’s time to get in a routine and do our job.
“Getting jitters is the way it’s supposed to be. If you’re not nervous and don’t get wound up for this, then you probably ought to just go ahead and hang it up. When you first walk down the hallway here, you see the panels stacked up there, and it just has this smell. When you get here for the first round, all the horses are standing there, and they’re looking at you. The hair on the back of your neck stands up.”
That kind of excitement pays off when matched with a top bronc.
“They’ve won piles and piles of money on that horse,” Pope said of True Grit. “I think they’ve probably won a round or two on it here, and I know they’ve won multiple rounds at the Canadian Finals. That’s just a really solid horse to have drawn, especially in this pen. It’s like having an old faithful.”
There have been plenty of emotions in Las Vegas this week. Two days ago while the contestants were in the Thomas & Mack Arena at UNLV when a man shot four people, killing three. The shootings happened just a few buildings away from the arena, so the 119 contestants and several other personnel were in lockdown for nearly two hours.
NFR organizers opted to delay the start of the 10-day championship, and that round will be made up next Wednesday morning and will not be open to the public. The contestants will still have a chance to battle for nearly $31,000 for 10 performances.
“One thing about rodeo is no matter what our circumstances are, we’re going to find a way to make something happen,” he said. “We’re going to do the job. It’s heartbreaking to even think about, especially where we were so close. You see these things on TV and think about how horrible those things are, but when you’re this close, you can feel all the emotions. It’s quite scary, to be honest, and really intimidating.
“I think Las Vegas, their police, their SWAT force, has done a great job. They do an amazing job and prepare for it, and I’m confident we’re safe.”
The show continues, and Pope will make his second-round ride Saturday night.
“This will be my third time that I’ve been on that horse,” Pope said. “It’s another old, solid faithful. It probably won’t win the round, but it’s going to give me a good opportunity.”