The cold and rain in Oklahoma City was no match for the heat of competition going on inside the Jim Norick Arena during the 47th Annual International Finals Rodeo.
Contestants numbering at 127 from across the U.S., Canada and even Australia competed in the rodeo events of bareback and saddle bronc riding, team, calf and breakaway roping, barrel racing, steer wrestling and bull riding, all in the quest for a gold buckle and world championship.
Round One of competition began Friday night with the bareback riding. The world standings leader from Anniston, Alabama, Trey Moore, would take the round win with reigning 2015 World Champion from Quebec, Canada, Philippe Harvey coming in second.
Steer wrestling was up next, and Oklahoman, Tanner McElhaney, took the win in a lightning fast 3.7-second run, but the rookie who held the world standings lead coming into the finals, J.W. Ery of Tennessee was close behind McElhaney with a 4.1, as were multi-time world champion Justin Thigpen and Cord Spradley, both of Georgia. In the team roping, it was the veteran paired with the rookie team of Stephen Britnell and Cody McCluskey who won their round. Saddle bronc rider, Austin Joseph rode his horse for 86 points and first place in Round One. Tie-down roper, Zach Hall won the first night of his event in 8.7 seconds, but Cody Mousseau of Ontario, Canada came close to beating him in 8.8.
Then it was the cowgirls’ turn, and Oklahoma school teacher by day and breakaway roper by night, Cassie Vaughan, dominated Round One. If you would have blinked, you’d have missed her 2.2-second run for the win. In the barrel racing, world standings leader Kindyl Scruggs showed the crowd why she was at the top to take the first win in the barrel racing. Then all eyes turned to the bull riding, and Jon Mastrangelo, a multi-time IFR qualifier rode for an 83.5 and the round win buckle.
Saturday would see two rounds of competition, a matinee performance and an evening performance for rounds two and three of the finals. In the bareback riding Trey Moore and Philippe Harvey both took second place to French-Canadian Pascal Isabelle in Round Two and Rookie Austin Graham of Oklahoma would win Round Three. Steer wrestlers Stewart Gulager and Clint Thomas split the Round Two win, and then Gulager turned around that evening for Round Three to split the win with Austin Mason. The team of Buddy Hawkins and Jesse Stipes of Kansas and Oklahoma respectively, out roped the field of competitors by a solid margin with a 4.4-second run. Round Three would be all about North Carolina with Jacob Dagenhart and Clay Futrell taking the win in 4.1 seconds, but the competition was stiff from two of the All-Around cowboys, Justin Thigpen and Australian Ty Parkinson.
World standings leader, Shane Hand, and Oklahoman, Blane Stacy, took first and second place in Round Two of the saddle bronc riding, and Hand, who resides in Oklahoma but is originally from Pennsylvania, maintained his lead in the world title race by winning first again that night in Round Three.
There was more than one repeat win during the finals with Zach Hall again dominating the tie-down roping for Round Two, but Daryl Matthews would prevent him from going three-for-three by taking over the win in Round Three.
Oklahoman cowgirl Jimme Beth Hefner won Round Two of the breakaway roping, and first-time IFR qualifiers, Savannah Prater and Holland Sloan split the Round Three win. Back to the barrel racing, Kindyl Scruggs almost won again in Round Two but took second next to Canadian, Sindy Laliberte. Scruggs rebounded quickly for a Round Three win that night.
In the bull riding, former world champion Rowdy Rice won Round Two and world standings leader, Corey Bailey, won Round Three.
Yet, it all came down to Championship Sunday where Joshua Michael Cragar won Round Four, but Trey Moore’s solid performance all weekend secured him the aggregate win making him both the IFR Champion Bareback Rider and the 2016 World Champion.
“I placed in all of the perfs and won the average, so it’s been really good,” Moore said of the finals and added, “It’s been a long hard year. It’s been a long fight to be here in first place and leave in first place, but it worked out. The good Lord kept me safe and healthy all year, and it worked out.”
Steer wrestler Cody Brecheisen won the round, and rodeo veteran Stewart Gulager won the aggregate, but it was rookie J.W. Ery who secured his world title. Ery had this to say of his year-long fight to win the world, “it’s been a lot of ups and downs. There’s been a lot to it, but it’s been a fun ride. It started out strong, then the middle got a little off, and we ended off pretty strong, and it just kept going. I just kept my head up, kept praying and kept knowing the Lord would take care of it and just kept trying,” Ery said and enthused that his first year in the International Professional Rodeo Association has been special, because he’s been able to follow in his family’s footsteps and formed an even larger family within the IPRA. “The IPRA is just like a real big family, and everybody is helping each other. It’s a great organization.”
Winning the world title still hadn’t sunk in to Ery after the final round. “It still hasn’t hit me yet. I didn’t know it even happened, after my last run, people came up and told me, I was like really?!,” he laughed. Now he’s just set toward doing it all over again in the 2017 season.
Terry Crow and Jake Pianalto won Round Four of the team roping, but Cory Kidd and 2015 World Champion Caleb Anderson, roped steadiest to win the aggregate. Justin Thigpen and Stephen Britnell won the heading and heeling world titles. Canadian saddle bronc rider Louis Hemart won Round Four and Shane Hand took his multiple wins to a first place in the aggregate and the 2016 world title.
Tie-down roper Tyler Milligan won Round Four, and early dominator, Zach Hall took the aggregate title, while Justin Thigpen added another world championship to his vast collection of gold buckles.
In the breakaway roping Maggie Lamb split the round win with world standings leader Megan Rinehart, and Rinehart secured her first world title, while Jimme Beth Hefner won the aggregate.
Round Four would see the fastest barrel racing run of the entire finals and the win by Tennessee cowgirl, Jodi Colton, but it was no surprise when Kindyl Scruggs took home her first world championship and the aggregate title. “There were lots of ups and downs but obviously a few more ups than downs,” Scruggs described of her year and added, overall it was great. There weren’t many downs at the finals. It was awesome.”
In the edge-of-your-seat final round of bull riding Rowdy Rice again won the round and the aggregate, but the focus was on the extremely close competition for the world championship between Canadian Dusty McMullen and Corey Bailey. After McMullen bucked off his bull, Bailey came out on top to win the 2016 title.
“I wanted to come out here, win all four rounds and win the average, but you know, winning the third round, especially being the high marked ride of the weekend, it feels great, and being able to win the world championship feels even greater. It’s a blessing,” Bailey said.
Justin Thigpen would also take his second All-Around Championship.
For the champs, there’s not much time to sit and relax, as it’s the sport of rodeo and it’s now on to the 2017 rodeo season and making it back to the finals once again.