Rodeo’s best crowned at NFR

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Five Cinch team members earn gold buckles while in Las Vegas

Cinch bareback rider Keenan Hayes set many records en route to his first world championship.

In the revolving world of Cinch endorsees in professional rodeo, the two weeks in Las Vegas to kickstart December proved to be electric and influential.

The culmination of the National Finals Breakaway Roping and the National Finals Rodeo was an exclamation point of excellence, with five individuals claiming world championships and many others cumulatively reeling in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

From a couple of young guns claiming their first Montana Silversmiths gold buckles to veterans just adding to their collections of the most cherished prize in Pro Rodeo, this year’s championship events were a spectacle many will remember for a long time.

“It’s an amazing experience to be able to come back and be able to get on top of the world,” said Keenan Hayes, 21, of Hayden, Colorado, the first rookie to win bareback riding’s gold in the sport’s history. “It’s the coolest thing. I can’t thank everybody enough, like the guys in that (bareback riders) locker room. They kept me (driven) this whole week.

“It’s just been a fight, and that’s what I’m here for.”

He’s been in the fight for a couple of years. He first set a standard a year ago, when he established the single-season earnings record for a cowboy still competing on his permit. He upped the ante in 2023, first setting the regular-season earnings mark, then breaking the single-season earnings record with $434,050.

He closed out his year by pocketing nearly $110,000 on the final day of the season; he won the 10th round with a 90-point ride on J Bar J’s Straight Ringer to collect $30,706, then clinched the aggregate title, worth $78,747. He placed in just five rounds but earned $168,155 during his stay in the Nevada desert.

He was dominant most of the season, evidenced by his final points total; Hayes finished with $119,000 more than the runner-up, 2022 titlist Jess Pope.

“I’m not surprised at all,” he said about his success through the season. “I’m sure blessed that God gave me this ability and that I get to show it to everyone. It’s just an amazing experience that I wanted to get done my whole life.”

Cinch tie-down roper Riley Webb was dominant through the regular season and did enough at the National Finals Rodeo to clinch his first Montana Silversmiths gold buckle.

The same can be said for 20-year-old tie-down roper Riley Webb, who had a season to remember. While he placed in just five NFR go-rounds, including the Night 3 victory, he was second in the aggregate race to the 2019 world champion, fellow Cinch teammate Haven Meged. That was worth $63,889 and pushed Webb’s NFR payday to more than $172,000. He finished the year with $452,852, nearly $42,000 ahead of Meged.

“I just want to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for everything He’s given me,” said Webb of Denton, Texas. “I’m so blessed to be in this situation that I’m in at 20 years old. I’m fortunate to have the support system I have … the horses, the family and all the other.

“It’s a dream come true.”

The NFR is a boiling pot of pressure packed into the storied Thomas & Mack Center, the finale’s home since 1985. Competing inside those yellow panels and chutes for the second time helped alleviate some of the build-up that can happen when the competition rises.

“I was fortunate that I had a great year and a great finals so I didn’t have to go out and win the 10th round to make it happen,” he said. “I was able to just go knock (the calf) down. That came from all the runs and all the miles we’ve gone.”

Breakaway roper Shelby Boisjoli-Meged – the wife of the tie-down roping aggregate titlist – also clinched her first gold buckle in record-breaking fashion. She set the regular-season earnings record with $164,549, the breakaway finals earning mark at $33,157 and the single-season earnings standard at $197,706.

“This is the first year that I’ve dedicated my whole season to just trusting God’s plan, and I feel like that’s all I did all season,” said Boisjoli-Meged of Stephenville, Texas. “I think that’s the reason I’m standing right here.

“It’s been one of those things where my whole family was (in Las Vegas), which was special to me. We lost my uncle two years ago, so my grandparents haven’t been able to really come watch the finals, but they were there this year. I also went through a lot of stuff at the National Finals in 2021 dealing with other things, so to have my whole family there and all the people that have really helped me get there meant a lot to me.”

She accomplished her lifelong goal with a special partner, Onna, an 8-year-old sorrel mare that was named the 2023 Nutrena Horse of the Year presented by the AQHA.

She is really special, and I owe all this to her,” she said. “I rode her at every single rodeo, so this is hers as much as it is mine.”

Cinch steer wrestler Tyler Waguespack celebrates more success at the Thomas & Mack Center, where he produced just enough magic to win his fifth world title, his third straight.

It wasn’t just newbies holding gold for the first time. The trio of titlists were joined by steer wrestler Tyler Waguespack, who earned his fifth world championship, and saddle bronc rider Zeke Thurston, who clinched his fourth gold buckle.

“I come from a great family,” said Waguespack, 33, who scored his third straight title to match the ones he collected in 2016 and 2018. “My dad’s always been there, helping me drive, pushing me to do better and better. We go to the practice pen, and we work hard. We’ve got a lot of trust in the Lord, just pushing us on our way and getting us where we need to be.”

The Gonzales, Louisiana, cowboy entered the finale third in the world standings, and he had a little 10th-round magic to pull off another world title. He shared the round title with friend Will Lummus after both made 3.8-second runs. That was worth $27,487; he also moved up one spot to third in the aggregate race, worth $50, 517, to surpass Dalton Massey for the championship.

Waguespack also beat his single-season earnings record with $303,576.  

“I can’t wait for January to come around,” he said. “Let’s get rolling, and let’s do it again.”

Cinch saddle bronc rider Zeke Thurston rides Calgary Stampede’s Xplosive Skies, the 2023 Bronc of the Year, on his way to a fourth world title.

Thurston might feel the same way, winning the NFR average for the third time in a career that’s seen him play on the biggest stage of the sport nine straight years. He earned $234,437 to finish second in the Ram Top Gun Award rankings for money earned in a single event inside the Thomas & Mack; bull rider Ky Hamilton earned about $5,000 more to win that honor.

Thurston finished the year with $456,356 and beat the runner-up, Sage Newman, by nearly $60,000. That helped Thurston surpass the single-season earnings mark he established last year. By scoring his fourth title, he joined Clint Johnson, Brad Gjermundson and Pete Knight with the fourth-most gold buckles. Dan Mortensen and Casey Tibbs have six titles, and Billy Etbauer has five.

“That’s a big deal for me,” said Thurston, 29, of Big Valley, Alberta. “It’s what I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a little boy. It’s just proof that if you work hard enough and chase your dreams, it’s possible. I worked really hard to get here. There’s a lot of people that win one, maybe two, but there aren’t very many people that win more than three. That’s pretty special.”


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