LAS VEGAS – When he’s not on the rodeo trail, Jess Pope is quite comfortable working around his own place in eastern Kansas.
He has a cow herd and also offers up his services for day work for other ranchers in the area. He’s a cowboy who knows the importance of handling his business. He’s also the reigning world champion bareback rider competing at the National Finals Rodeo for the fourth straight year. In each of the previous three years he’s played on ProRodeo’s biggest stage, he’s won the average championship, the second-most valuable title in the sport.
He’s closing in on a fourth. Pope rode J Bar J’s Blessed Assurance for 85.5 points to finish in a tie for third place during Friday’s ninth go-round, adding $15,601. He has earned a bareback riding-best $124,158 through nine nights in Las Vegas and is fourth in the world standings with $251,206. Most importantly, he owns a seven-point lead in the average race heading into Saturday’s final round.
“There’s still one night,” said Pope, 25, of Waverly, Kansas. “We’ve done it for nine nights in a row, so I’ve just got to show up, do the same thing one more time, and we’ll see what happens.”
NFR go-rounds issue nearly $100,000 per day, which is divided into six spots. The average purse is nearly $300,000 and will be issued to eight cowboys. The winner will collect a $78,748 bonus when the curtain closes Saturday night. That can make up a lot of ground in a hurry when chasing another Montana Silversmiths gold buckle.
Pope trails the leader, Colorado cowboy Keenan Hayes, by $73,000, so every dollar counts for Pope, who attended Missouri Valley College on a rodeo scholarship. With round winners earning nearly $31,000, Pope has a chance to close out his NFR with a $109,000 payday on the final night of the 2023 campaign.
“I like being in chase mode,” he said. “I enjoyed being in the position I was last year, and the worst thing I had was all the phone calls and everybody telling me that all I had to do was not miss the horse out (the punishment for which is a no-score). I think that just added pressure.”
There’s still pressure, because the NFR can be a steam bath. The money that’s up for grabs can play with competitors’ minds. Pope has remained consistent throughout his first nine days in Las Vegas, and it’s paying off. He’s placed in all but two rounds.
“It’s a marathon and not a sprint,” he said. “Consistency is everything here. You just show up, try to enjoy the process and just take it day by day, no matter what happens the night before. You’ve got to forget about it and look at what’s right in front of you for the day. You can’t worry about tomorrow until it’s here.”
Riding bucking horses is his business, but it’s also fun. He had that with Blessed Assurance.
“Those are the kind of horses a guy wants to get on all the time,” Pope said. “They’re fun. I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re easy, but they’re not an eliminator like we got on (Thursday). With that horse, it was a lot of, ‘Go fast and rip them as hard as you can,’ but I was still trying to do everything correctly.”
That’s just one thing that helps define a champion.