Rusty Wright, of Milford, Utah, rides Major Huckleberry in the Saddle Bronc Riding competition on the second day of the 2015 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 04, 2015. Brett Le Blanc/Las Vegas Review-Journal Follow @bleblancphoto
By Patrick Everson
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Over the past dozen years or so at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, there's one thing you could pretty much always say: If there's not a Wright, there's something wrong.
It's no different this year, as 2014 world saddle bronc champion Spencer Wright qualified 10th among the top 15 riders and will defend his title, and brother Jake Wright qualified eighth as he continues pursuit of his first crown.
But they'll have to overcome the newest Wright in town — their nephew Rusty, son of two-time world champ Cody Wright, who is Jake and Spencer's oldest brother in a family tree full of bronc-busting branches.
Rusty, in just his second full year on the PRCA tour, entered the 2015 WNFR ranked second in the world, with regular-season earnings of $115,986, less than $4,000 behind first-place Cody DeMoss. Rusty got to this point a little behind his ambitious schedule, but he's thrilled, nonetheless.
"My goal last year was to win the worlds," he said, alluding to a 2014 season in which he won rookie of the year honors in saddle broncs, but finished 30th on the money list and missed the WNFR. "So this year isn't a real surprise. That's what I was going for, that's what everybody's going for. This year looks a little better."
Indeed it does. But that's not to say that the 20-year-old rider didn't learn from the disappointment of 2014.
"I think last year I was putting too much pressure on myself," he said. "This year, I relaxed, had more fun, drew good horses. Everything is going really good."
He got an early jump on 2015 season with a big win at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, one of his 13 outright victories this year, and he split first in two other rodeos. The 2012 and 2013 national high school saddle bronc champ quickly transitioned his skill set to the sport's highest level.
His dad Cody, a 12-time WNFR qualifier who won the gold buckle in 2008 and 2010, has enjoyed Rusty's speedy ascension.
"It's awesome to see him doing this. Heck, I couldn't be prouder of him," said Cody, who almost certainly would have joined Rusty and been back for a 13th consecutive year if not for a shoulder injury that ruined the first half of his 2015 season. "He went out and rode like you're supposed to, and hell, I'm happy for him."
But Cody was hardly shocked.
"It's not a surprise to me. He's rode really good, practiced really hard," Cody said. "It's always been his dream. He's a very talented kid, he's got a lot of style. How far he goes is just up to him."
Rusty, though, knows his pedigree has certainly helped him get where he is. Jesse Wright, another of Cody's younger brothers and the 2012 world champion, just missed qualifying this year, finishing 19th in the standings. Cody was 20th. Jake, Jesse's twin brother, is back for his fourth straight WNFR and finished second in the world in 2013. And of course, Spencer is back at the Thomas & Mack Center, aiming for a second world title.
"That's one thing I've always said is a huge advantage for me," Rusty said. "All those guys have been there, done that. I wouldn't be where I am right now without them, my dad especially. Watching him do all them things, and staying humble in the way he carries himself, it helped me a ton. Not a lot of kids have a dad like that."
Rusty, who's now fourth in the world standings at $161,948, certainly expects his dad's insights to help over the course of this 10-day rodeo.
"We talk, and he keeps reminding me that it's just another rodeo. Keep it simple, don't do anything different than I've done all year," Rusty said, adding that's easier said than done with him right in the thick of the title chase. "It's kind of an unrealistic kind of feeling, but hopefully it'll sink in and I'll get the job done. Ride every horse, and let the chips fall where they may."
As excited as Rusty and Cody are, both wish they could be competing against each other this week. Cody suffered a dislocated left shoulder in the seventh round of last year's WNFR, after cashing in two go-rounds. He still finished ninth in the world, despite missing the last three go-rounds, but he was on the shelf the first half of this season.
"I'm not gonna lie. I wish I was going," said Cody, who is looking on from the arena stands with a multitude of family members. "It really would've been fun to ride with him. There was a lot of talk about it. But I never thought I'd be going to the Finals against my son. It could've happened if I would've had a healthy season.
"But I'll just enjoy it however I can. It'll be real satisfying."
Rusty is hoping father and son can make it happen next year.
"I really wanted my first NFR to be with him there, too," Rusty said. "When I was little, at my dad's first NFR (in 2003), I didn't even know anything about it. I've never seen the NFR without a Wright in it. This is what we all do and what we've all always wanted to do. It's the family business.
"I would've loved having my dad competing, but I'll make the most of it, and next year, hopefully we'll both end up making it."
Ex-NFR roping champ Skelton still having fun by winning
By Todd Dewey
Las Vegas Review-Journal
When Rich Skelton entered the media room at the Thomas & Mack Center after he and team roping partner Nick Sartain won their first round at the National Finals Rodeo on Tuesday night, someone jokingly said to him, "It's about time," to which Skelton replied with a straight face, "Yeah, no kidding."
Eleven years removed from winning the last of his record eight straight team roping world titles with former partner Speed Williams, the 49-year-old Skelton still expects to win every night.
"If you don't expect to have success, I think you need to retire," Skelton said.
Skelton and Sartain turned in a 3.9-second run to split the sixth-round win with Aaron Tsinigine and Ryan Motes and pocket $23,481 apiece, boosting their NFR earnings to $33,212 and their season earnings to $117,290. The victory also extended Skelton's event record for round wins to 36.
"This is fun. Winning never gets old. The money's even better," he said. "You can tell when you're getting old. It felt to me like we were 2. We'd only won about $10,000 before tonight, and with this much money up that's nothing. I'm glad to get in on some of the big action tonight."
The win was especially satisfying considering Skelton was seriously injured in a road accident May 15 in Llano, Texas, where he lives. The tractor Skelton was driving was rear-ended and tipped over by a car that had been rear-ended by a truck pulling a livestock trailer. Skelton was launched through the top of the canopy of the tractor as it was knocked on its side, and he landed on his head in a ditch about 30 feet away.
Skelton, who suffered bleeding on his brain, was airlifted to a Round Rock, Texas, hospital, where he was put in a medically induced coma.
"It was a scary deal for a couple of days," Sartain said. "After a couple days, we were thinking things were going to be all right. Prayer and positive thinking goes a long way. If you don't think it does, it does.
"He downplays it, but I was real worried. We've been friends a long time."
Said Skelton: "I just basically got a concussion out of the deal. I was hurt for about a month, and it kind of worked out. I got healed."
After waiting six weeks for the bleeding on Skelton's brain to dissipate and for him to be medically cleared, the team got back on the rodeo trail and qualified for their third straight NFR together.
Skelton said the accident made him appreciate things more.
"When something like that happens, it makes you evaluate everything," he said. "I have an 11-year-old daughter and a wife, and it makes you put everything in perspective."
Sartain, 36, was wearing a button bearing the words "Prayers for Jake Barnes" to show his support for the seven-time world champion team roper, who suffered bruising and bleeding on his brain and a broken ankle when his horse landed on him during a practice run before the NFR.
"Everybody in the rodeo industry is all good friends. You're around each other as much as your family, and I heard (Barnes) made it home," Skelton said. "His injury and my injury are kind of similar. Both of us had a little blood on the brain. Hopefully he gets healed up as quick as I did."
Barnes won his seven gold buckles with Clay O'Brien Cooper, who at 54 has won three rounds at this NFR with partner Derrick Begay to take over the top spot in the world standings from two-time defending world champs Jade Corkill of Fallon and Clay Tryan.
"Don't waste your time worrying about Clay O'Brien Cooper because he's the best there's ever been or there ever will be," Sartain said. "If he's 100, if he can still pick his shoulder up, he's gonna beat you. That's what's gonna happen."
And what about Skelton?
"Same way," Sartain said, grinning. "It's pretty awesome roping with him. I was getting out of high school when he was winning his championships. I looked up to him a lot. Now to get to be out here winning with him is kind of a dream come true for me."
* NOTES — Trevor Brazile clinched his record 13th all-around gold buckle and record 23rd career world title in style, winning the round in tie-down roping with his personal-best NFR time of 6.6 seconds, which was one-tenth of a second off Cody Ohl's NFR record of 6.5 seconds. "I'm as pumped about the 6.6 as I was the all-around championship," said Brazile, 39. "I've got my eyes on another (gold buckle). I'm thinking it's going to be a fun race in calf roping." Brazile, with $382,203 in total winnings this year, trails Tuf Cooper, his brother-in-law, by less than $9,000 in tie-down roping. ... Less than $428 separate the top three steer wrestlers in the world standings: Hunter Cure, Ty Erickson and Clayton Hass, who won the round with a 3.5-second run.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter:
WNFR general manager Davis has his day
Shawn Davis, left, longtime general manager of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and Tim Keener, vice president of ticket and event operations for Las Vegas Events, stand aside a proclamation from Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman declaring Monday as Shawn Davis Day.
By Patrick Everson
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Monday morning's production meeting at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo was business as usual for the most part.
WNFR General Manager Shawn Davis took attendance, ran down a checklist of items, then went around the room calling on each person individually, to see if any issues might need to be addressed. There was something going on — perhaps an inside joke — regarding the making and/or delivery of pies, and whiskey came up in the discussion, too.
But as the meeting was about to adjourn, Tim Keener — vice president of event and ticket operations for Las Vegas Events — stepped up with a surprise for Davis: a proclamation from Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman declaring Monday as Shawn Davis Day.
It's a well-earned honor for Davis, the WNFR general manager who has devoted most of his life to rodeo and has been involved with the WNFR in some form or another — spectator, contestant or official — since 1963. He's overseen this 10-day bonanza since it moved to Las Vegas in 1985, helping it grow into the world's greatest rodeo.
"I was really surprised," said Davis, a 12-time WNFR qualifier and three-time world saddle bronc champion before getting into rodeo administration. "I had no idea this was coming. It's very much appreciated."
While announcing the proclamation, Keener joked that the reason Davis cast the deciding vote on moving the WNFR from Oklahoma City three decades ago was so that he could spend 10 days in Las Vegas every December. That got a laugh out of Davis, though he saw it a bit differently.
"I thought Las Vegas was the best place for the rodeo to be," he said. "I'm just glad I got to come, too."
Making the proclamation better, not coincidentally, was that Monday was Davis' 75th birthday.
"I had no idea they were doing this," said Davis, who grew up in Whitehall, Mont., and has now somewhat retired to Congress, Ariz., near Wickenburg. "It's wonderful to have this happen."