If the pro rodeo regular season was a horse race, this would be the top of the stretch. Just six weeks remain before the September 30, 2014 cut-off date for this year and cowboys and cowgirls are racing to earn needed dollars in the World standings. Only the top 15 in each pro rodeo event -- bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, team roping, tie down roping, steer wrestling (all sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and the Women's Pro Rodeo Association (WPRA) barrel racing -- will qualify to compete in December in Las Vegas at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR), the richest event in the sport.
Battles are brewing at both ends of the top 15 in every event. Cowboys are chasing dollars as they try to position themselves for a world championship run while others are scrapping for every dollar and hoping to earn enough just to get to play in Vegas.
There are still plenty of opportunities for guys on both sides of that equation with lucrative rodeos looming in San Juan Capistrano (CA), Ellensburg (WA), Puyallup (WA), Pendleton (OR) and Omaha (NE) to name a few.
New in 2014 is the addition of the Wrangler Champions Challenge events and these will certainly play a big role in who's in Las Vegas in December. There are three WCC events left on the schedule: Kennewick (WA) Aug. 19, Amarillo (TX) Sept. 17 and Omaha Sept. 27. Paying $16,000 per event, and inviting only ten competitors, these events present huge opportunities to those cowboys and cowgirls who are qualified to compete but put the rest of the field at a disadvantage. Each event takes the top seven from the final 2013 World standings (competitors had to agree to compete at all seven events), the current World standings leader, the current Wrangler Million Dollar Tour leader and the winner of the hosting committees rodeo.
With all this in mind, here are our picks for who to watch -- for World title races and to bust the bubble and make the WNFR -- as the season winds down.
For the World title, three-time and reigning champion Kaycee Feild (pictured) looks tough to beat. The Utah cowboy won more money than any other competitor over the lucrative Fourth of July ($34,483) to blow open what had been a tight race. His lead with six weeks to go is better than $41,000.
For dark horses, Oregon cowboys Steven Peebles (ranked 2nd) and Austin Foss (ranked 3rd) have both had stellar years and could make a title run as the season ends.
On the other end of the top 15, Luke Creasy is trailing the 15th position by about $6,000 but won $7,399 at the Caldwell Nite Rodeo over the weekend and added another big check at Candy (OR). He also has his ticket punched for at least the first of the remaining WCC events in Kennewick.
If you like a long shot, look at Clint Laye or Kyle Bowers.Ranked 25 and 26, respectively, both need better than $16,000 to catch up to 15th ranked Tilden Hooper but both have also got a seat at Kennewick for the WCC.
As it always is, the steer wrestling is hard to predict. On the top side of the standings, Trevor Knowles is leading the way with second ranked Luke Branquinho out until the WNFR with an injury. Knowles has had another solid year and is heading to his 11th WNFR with a good chance to capture his first career World title.
Dru Melvin (pictured) could play spoiler to that as the season winds down. Not ranked in the top 15 in mid-July, Melvin has bull dogged his way to third in the standings, just about $11,000 behind Knowles. But Knowles has a spot at the remaining WCC events while Melvin does not.
On the bubble side, there are still probably ten guys who are not currently in the top 15 who still have a chance, making this race one to watch as we close in on September 30. Only $10,000 separates 15th ranked Bray Armes from 26th ranked Timmy Sparing.
Armes has a good chance to hold onto his spot, if not improve it, as he is one of the guys guaranteed into the three remaining WCC events and he has won two of those events in the past.
Watch for Billy Bugenig (17th) to make a move. Bugenig has made two trips to the WNFR in the past and managed several round checks over the weekend. Others to keep an eye on are Riley Duvall and Josh Peek.
Like the steer wrestling, the team roping can get wild. Reigning World Champions Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill lead the way once again but their lead is slim over Erich Rogers and Cory Petska. Both teams will compete at the WCC in Kennewick so the battle will continue to be close as the season winds down.
On the bubble are some guys with huge credentials like World Champion Allan Bach and many times WNFR qualifiers Martin Lucero, Monty Jo Petska and Ryan Motes.
Lucero made a big move in the closing weeks of the 2013 season to get to his 16th WNFR and he certainly has the experience to push him over the top again. He is only trailing by $3,000 at this point. Ryan Motes is also likely to get it done; he is roping with Aaron Tsiningine and both guys can make the huge runs when they need to. They are also just a few thousand dollars behind.
Both Allan Bach, who ropes with his son Joel, and Monty Jo Petska, who ropes with Tom Richards, won good checks over the weekend so they could be contenders as the season comes to its conclusion.
Unlike the other events, none of the bubble guys are qualified to the WCC events, meaning theirs will be a level playing field as they race across the country in the next six weeks.
Saddle Bronc Riding
A pair of World Champions are battling for supremacy at the top of the saddle bronc standings as August closes out. Both Taos Muncy and Cody Wright have a pair of title on their resumes and the duo are currently ranked first and second, respectively.
Muncy added $5,886 to his season total with the win at the Caldwell Nite Rodeo which ended August 16, 2014. He came into the week with a lead of just over $9,000.
Though Muncy and Wright have the upper hand thus far, don't count out Wade Sundell, ranked sixth. Sundell has an electric riding style that can garner him big scores which will eat up money deficits between him and his fellow competitors.
However, Sundell is not committed to the WCC events while Muncy is scheduled for all three remaining events and Wright will be in Kennewick at the least.
Chasing down a WNFR berth are Cody DeMoss (17th), Jake Wright (18th-pictured) and Isaac Diaz (19th). All three have been in Vegas before and have the skills to get over the bubble again in 2014.
DeMoss and Wright won second and third in Caldwell while Diaz won a title in Canby (OR) worth $3,359.
Tie Down Roping
Just as he did a year ago, two-time World Champion Tuf Cooper leads the tie down roping again as the regular season comes to a close. While he lost that lead to Shane Hanchey at the WNFR, Cooper is hoping to claim a third title this time around and recently added $7,814 for a championship in Caldwell to his $25,000 lead.
Cooper's closest competitors thus far at Matt Shiozawa and Trevor Brazile. Cooper and Brazile are guaranteed positions at all three remaining WCC events while Shiozawa has a solid chance of being there as well as the highest ranked competitor in the World standings who is not one of the contracted contestants.
On the bubble side is the Reserve World Champion from 2013, Cody Ohl (pictured). A six-time World Champ, Ohl came very close to adding number seven a year ago but suffered an injury in mid-summer that has him outside the top 15.
Ranked 20th, Ohl is about as sure a bet to make the WNFR as the guys already ranked in the top ten. He recently cleaned up in the Northwest, winning Canby (OR) and Billings (MT) for nearly $6,000 in earnings.
Other bubble cowboys to watch are Randall Carlisle and Scott Kormos. Carlisle made his first trip to the WNFR a year ago; his calm, never pressured demeanor should serve him well as he battles to get back to Las Vegas.
Kormos has eight WNFRs to his credit and will compete at the remaining WCC events as he tried to erase the $21,000 deficit from his 21st ranking to 15th.
WPRA Barrel Racing
Kaley Bass is the current leader in the WPRA barrel race, a position gained on the strength of a huge Fourth of July run and win at the Calgary Stampede that netted the Florida cowgirl better than $95,000 towards her season earnings.
Trailing by about $20,000 are Fallon Taylor and Lisa Lockhart (pictured). Both cowgirls have been on the WCC Tour all season and will make the remaining events as will Bass as the World leader.
Lockhart could be the World title favorite but for the fact that her number one mount for the WNFR, An Okie with Cash aka Louie is injured and may not be available for the WNFR. Louie has run out to better than $100,000 at each of the past four WNFRs. However, Lockhart always has another good one to ride, including Fast an Gold, aka Chisum aboard whom she made her first three trips to the WNFR.
Meanwhile, on the bottom end of the top 15, about $10,000 separates 12th from 18th. Brenda Mays holds the 18th position but is one of the hottest hands in the barrels lately and will be working at rodeos within her home circuit, the Columbia River, for the next month.
Two of the cowgirls she is trying to catch, 2012 WPRA World Champion Mary Walker and Christy Loflin, are both guaranteed into the final three WCC events which could certainly be an advantage to them down the stretch.
For a long shot, watch for Pam Capper. She is nearly $20,000 back, a big number but, like Mays, she is at home in the Columbia River Circuit; in fact, she has won the title there for the past three years, earning over $44,000 in her circuit alone in 2013. She also has a position at Kennewick for the WCC event.
Anyone who has watch the PRCA's bull riding in the past several years would likely choose standings leader J.W. Harris (pictured) to win his fifth title in 2014. It's a safe bet as Harris leads rookie Sage Kimzey by nearly $20,000 and is always tough to keep off the leader board once the WNFR begins.
Trey Benton III is the only other rider close to the leaders sitting third with about $10,000 less than Kimzey.
Kimzey and Benton will both make the WCC event in Kennewick and likely the remaining events in Amarillo and Omaha as well while Harris is not currently scheduled to compete.
As for the bubble riders, look for a strong finish from Beau Hill, who was ranked 19th as of August 11, 2014. Josh Koschel and Cole Echols both have WNFR experience that could help them down the stretch as well. Koschel has the added advantage of being seeded into the WCC events.