LAS VEGAS – Several weeks ago, the top 15 bareback riders in ProRodeo convened on a conference call to decide the bucking horses to be selected to the National Finals Rodeo.
It’s a tough list to crack. This is the sport’s Super Bowl and World Series wrapped into a 10-day championship, and only the very best get a chance to perform inside the Thomas & Mack Center. It’s an opportunity to showcase the top athletes, both human and equine.
Tim O’Connell has ridden greatest horses in the world during his standout career, and he got on another outstanding bronc during Friday’s ninth round. He rode Hi Lo Pro Rodeo’s Square Bale for 86.5 points to finish second, earning $24,268; it was just his second check during this year’s championship.
“I actually fought for this horse to get here,” said O’Connell, a 10-time NFR qualifier from Zwingle, Iowa. “I’ve seen this hrose for three or four years, and she’s always been that last horse to get cut off the list. I watched both her trips in Albuquerque (New Mexico), and I thought, ‘That horse needs to at the finals.’
“I don’t know if she’s got the round win in her, but you’re dang sure going to get a top-money check, so I stuck my neck out for her. Sure enough, I’m the guy that gets her, and she blew my expectations out of the water. I finished the ride like I wanted to, and it was, by far, the best ride I’ve made at this NFR.”
It’s been a slow nine days at this championship. That’s unlike O’Connell, a three-time world champion who also has won the average title three times. He’s collected $55,564 heading into Saturday’s final go-round, pushing his season earnings to $213,891; he is sixth in the world standings.
His roughest rides have come during the NFR’s eliminator pen, the rankest broncs at the field. He was 73 points in Round 3, then made an equipment change. He was 79.5 on Night 8, well off the pace to earn money in Las Vegas.
“I’m always in the fight, but I took a bad shot on a horse (Thursday) night because he was leaning,” he said of how the animal was standing in the chute prior to the ride. “He stood up, and I nodded, then he went to go lean again and fell out of the box.
“His butt was out in the arena, and his shoulders are back in, and I was starting to think he was going to turn out backwards. All of the sudden, he jumps out and spins himself around. I got to ride an eliminator 200 degrees around the corner into my riding hand.”
It was difficult to get back into position, especially on a horse like that.
“They’re eliminators for a reason,” O’Connell said. “He threw his weight around me, and there wasn’t a whole lot of timing to get me back in front. I didn’t have the ride I wanted.”
But he rebounded well and hopes to carry that momentum into Saturday’s 10th round.
“I’m way out of the average, so I’m just fighting to get go-round money,” he said. “If I keep getting these big round checks, I might get a little check in the average.
“I’m just slinging it right now.”
That’s not the style that he has formed over his career. His controlled and aggressive spurring style is why he’s had so much success, especially at ProRodeo’s grand finale.
“Ten years ago, I was just a straight gunslinger,” O’Connell said. “I was either going to win first or I was going to go down, just go down swinging. As I’ve matured in my career, I learned how to be a little more conservative, then turn it loose when I wanted to if I needed. That’s how I took it the last six or seven years, and it’s worked out well. I’ve usually been in such a high position that I’m not going to take a chance out of going out of that big average check.
“If you go out of the average, you go out of a world-title race, and I’ve been in world-title races, so I don’t cut it loose as much as I used to.
“This old man still has some tricks up his sleeve.”