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Knowles takes command, rookies fare well during first night of the 2013 WNFR

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Of 119 contestants competing at the 2013 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo this week, only 28 hail from the states of Utah, Oregon, Washington, Louisiana and Arizona, a figure barely half the total number of Texans (44). Though smaller in numbers, the contestants from those five states dominated opening night of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) in Las Vegas.

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With $6.25 million being given away, along with World Championships in six Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) events and the Women's Pro Rodeo Association (WPRA) barrel racing, the WNFR is never short on drama and excitement. With just one of ten rounds in the books, the title chases are already heating up.

Oregon cowboy Trevor Knowles took the first shot of the 2013 WNFR with a round winning 3.1 second effort in the steer wrestling. It was just one tenth off the arena record here, held by Steve Duhon (1986) and Bryan Fields (2001), and the fastest Round 1 time ever.

"I had a great start and I just kind of went through the motions," says Knowles who is riding Lee Graves' Jessie this week. "It didn't feel like I really did anything special. It just happened fast."

Knowles took the lead in the world standings despite regular season leader Casey Martin's fourth place finish with his 4.2. Martin had led the standings for all but one week since January--the guy who took it from him back in September? Knowles. His advantage is just $3,407.

"I'm not really doing anything different, I just came here in a better position than I have before [to win the world]," said Knowles. "I just want to stay focused on what I need to do."

Twenty-four contestants are competing here in Vegas for the first time but there were no sign of rookie jitters. In fact, the group collected $85,437 on opening night. Though none won a go round, steer wrestlers Dakota Eldridge and Stan Branco split second and Justin Davis won second in the team roping. He ropes with Clay O'Brien Cooper.

Stetson Vest split second in the tie down roping while Sterling Smith won fourth and Caleb Smidt was fifth. Smidt is a true rookie this season as is Elliot Jacoby who placed fifth in the bull riding. Also in the bull riding, Josh Koschel was sixth while Ty Breuer split fourth in the bareback riding. In the barrels, Sabrina Ketcham split fourth.

While Knowles was the only cowboy to change the standings lead in Round 1, several other races tightened up. In the bareback riding, Kaycee Feild was the only guy in the top four to earn a check, moving him to just $604 behind Bobby Mote.

Utah cowboy Caleb Bennett won the night with 85.5 points on Pete Carr's Classic Pro Rodeo's Wise Guy. The horse bucked for the last time Thursday night, retired having carried eight cowboys to WNFR go round wins in his career.

"I always looked forward to drawing that horse," Bennett said. "I couldn't have picked a better place to draw him the first time and I was honored to be the last guy to get on him. You can't find a better horse."

In the saddle broncs, a trio of Utah cowboys named Wright are now at the top of the standings. While Cody and Jesse came to Vegas ranked 1-2, brother Jake was seventh before he won the first go aboard Korkow's Wiggle Worm. He earned 84 points.

"I won the first round at Pendleton on that horse; he's a great horse, one in my drawing book," laughed Jake, who talked about his family and their influence on his rodeo career. "I watched Cody growing up and I remember one year he finished 16th. We watched the rodeo on T.V. and he said I'll never be sitting here during the Finals again."

With the $18,630 paycheck, Jake closed the gap on his brother Jesse to just $2,225 as Jake is now third. Cody split fourth, pushing his lead out to $26,000 over Jesse, who is the reigning World Champ.

"Cody and I have been in some battles at the last couple of rodeos we've been to," Jake said. "It seems like we've been going one and two at every rodeo, and it's been fun."

All the drama is the tie down roping came the guys ranked further down the standings. Tenth ranked Shane Hanchey won a juicy go round at 7.6 seconds with Ryan Jarrett, Stetson Vest, Sterling Smith, Caleb Smidt and Scott Kormos all within four tenths. The Louisiana cowboy moved from tenth to sixth while the top two remained unchanged with two-time champ Tuf Cooper still leading Tyson Durfey.

"You know I have a special angel looking over me this year, my grandma, and I figured that was all her," Hanchey said, mentioning his grandmother Lola McBride who passed away June 12.

In the team roping, Ellensburg, Washington brothers Riley and Brady Minor won the round at 4.6 seconds, jumping two spots in the standings.

"It's great to be back [at the WNFR]. It's been 730 days since we were here and we couldn't wait to get back," said Riley.

"The last time we came was in 2011 and only won one check. It was a bummer," Brady added. "It seemed like we were behind all year but we had a good fall to get here so we hope to keep the momentum going here instead of struggling."

World leaders Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill split third in the round but Corkill was injured when his coils crushed his left hand against the saddle horn while dallying. The Justin Sportsmedicine Team sent him to a trauma center and he is listed as questionable for Round 2 on Friday night. With their earnings, they extended their lead over Kaleb Driggers and Travis Graves by $9,465.

Also moving further ahead during opening night were bull rider J.W. Harris and WPRA barrel racer Sherry Cervi. The Arizona cowgirl won the go round with a 13.77 second run aboard her horse Stingray, who was voted by the other WNFR barrel racers as the Horse with the Most Heart during the WPRA's Star Celebration on Thursday afternoon.

"She is an awesome horse that gives 110 percent every time, so she deserves it," said Cervi. "But, all of the girls love their horses. I can't describe how it feels for them to give Stingray this award."

Cervi came to Vegas with a $10,000 lead over reigning champion Mary Walker, a lead she increased by $18,630 when Walker tipped a barrel.

"It gets the momentum going," she said of the win. "It feels awesome every time you win a round, but it is a long week and there are 14 other girls with just as good an opportunity to win. My plan is just to run out as fast as I can every night."

Harris took fourth in a bull riding where seven cowboys made eight seconds. Washington cowboy, and 2011 World Champion, Shane Proctor won the go with 89 points on News Flash from Rafter H Rodeo. He moved from tenth to fifth in the standings, still trailing Harris by almost $44,000.

"I wanted to come in here relaxed and I feel like I'm in the zone I need to be," Proctor said. "I won the 10th round here last year and now I won this round, but it's always one bull at a time. I want to stay on as many bulls as I can and have a lot of fun out here. Might as well have some fun in Vegas."

Round 2 begins at 6:45 p.m. Pacific time on Friday night, December 6. Live coverage is provided by Great American Country TV and Pro Rodeo Live, the Internet home of professional rodeo. Pro Rodeo Live's coverage is also carried on SiriusXM Rural Radio Channel 80.

Other Round 1 Notes:

Justin Sportsmedicine Report: Steer wrestler Tyler Pearson suffered cartilage damage to his right knee during the WNFR steer wrestling practice on Tuesday afternoon but is competing. Team roper Derrick Begay is competing with a fracture to his left tibia suffered while practicing two weeks prior to the WNFR. Bull rider Trey Benton is competing for the first time since breaking his leg in Puyallup in September.

Brazile watch: With a sixth place finish in the team roping, Trevor Brazile extended his lead in the All Around standings. He has now earned $258,192 in his three events this season. His closest competitor, Tuf Cooper, is $125,168 behind and not likely to catch up in the next nine days. With his 11th All Around title, Brazile will stand alone with the most World Championships in pro rodeo history at 19. He won his 18th title last month at the National Finals Steer Roping Championships in Oklahoma.

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