Postcard: 2003 National Finals Rodeo

For one wonderful weekend a year, I'm a cowgirl. And I've got a lot of company at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, where accountants and secretaries, teachers and stockbrokers, put on their Stetson or Resistol hats to live their fantasies at the Thomas & Mack Arena.
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For one wonderful weekend a year, I'm a cowgirl. And I've got a lot of company at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, where accountants and secretaries, teachers and stockbrokers, put on their Stetson or Resistol hats to live their fantasies at the Thomas & Mack Arena.
Patriotism Was Center Stage at NFR | © Nancy Jaffer

Patriotism Was Center Stage at NFR | © Nancy Jaffer

December 14, 2003, Las Vegas, NV --During this week, guys who have never set foot in a stirrup proudly wear cowboy boots like they were born in them, as they tap their toes to the lively music that is the soundtrack for one of the truly greatest shows on earth. It's among the richest, too, with $5 million in prize money.

After today's action, I knew why the 10 days of the WNFR set a new attendance record of 175,903. It's just one great moment after another. But the best belonged to Cody Ohl, a former All-Around champion who suffered a horrific right knee injury here as he won that title two years ago. He came back in the biggest way possible this afternoon -- by setting a world record of 6.5 seconds in the calf roping (which has been renamed tie-down roping this season.) (Story Continues Below)

You could have just called him "Cody Oh" as he looked up at the scoreboard in awe to see he had beaten the former mark of 6.7 seconds, which he and several others had set.

"It's the greatest day of my life," said Cody, who edged his closest rival, Fred Whitfield, for the gold buckle by a margin of just under $12,000. "We've been 100,000 miles this year, for it to come down to one calf, how could it be more exciting?" asked Cody, who had to have three knee surgeries before he was properly mobile again. At one point, he told me, "I was just happy to be able to walk straight."

But even with athletic achievements like Cody's as highlights, the WNFR isn't just a sporting event. It's only the tip of the iceberg for the western lifestyle that gains popularity despite developers continuing to pave over the country. One of the pillars of that lifestyle is family, which has a broad interpretation in the world of rodeo.

Janae Ward, Barrel Racing World Champ | © Nancy jaffer

Janae Ward, Barrel Racing World Champ | © Nancy jaffer

First, of couse, there's blood family, like that of the new world champion barrel racer Janae Ward, whose grandmother and mother both rode in the NFR. Her mom, Renae, is the Oklahoma State University student's "number 1 fan. I've looked up to her my whole life," said Janae, who did not succumb to the knockdown-itis that made the barrel racing here look like a demolition derby during much of the week. Her mom was so busy taking care of Janae's borrowed horse, DeeDee, that she couldn't even go to the Gold Coast Casino Saturday night to see Janae accept the gold buckle for winning Saturday's competition.

And then there are the deep friendships that are like family ties, such as the one between Cody and Trevor Brazile, who won his second consecutive All-Around title, actually clinching it a day before the NFR ended.

Trevor didn't think he'd appreciate winning this year as much as he did in 2002, but he readily admitted, "I was wrong. I think it hushed the non-believers about my performance last year." He said it gave him confidence, "to know you have done it again, and done it bigger and better."

Trevor rides a gelding named Texaco, who has fabulous cutting horse bloodlines but turned out to be afraid of cattle. It took Trevor four years to make him into the roping horse he calls "My little oil well.''

Cody would like to see Trevor, who competed here in tie-down and team roping, break Ty Murray's record of seven world championships because he called his buddy, "the greatest cowboy who ever walked."

Cody Ohl Sets A World Record | © Nancy Jaffer

Cody Ohl Sets A World Record | © Nancy Jaffer

Added Cody, "It means a lot to have him on the same stage as me. He's an unbelievable athlete. There will never be another Trevor Brazile, I promise you." In fact, in deference to his pal, Cody no longer wears his own All-Around buckle, conceding his "claim to fame" is as a calf roper.

Trevor, who I find to be rather reserved in contrast to the ebullient Cody, won't commit to winning five more of the titles, but he's definitely going after one in 2004.

"I'm fixin' to bust my butt harder than I did this year," said Trevor, who was disappointed not to have won $300,000 and thus broken the season earnings record in the sport.

"I just didn't get it done, and that's all there is to it. It's going to be different next year, I hope," said Trevor, a quiet, philosophical sort. He knows what it takes to win a world title, and he admires the way Cody achieved it.

"He had doubts, but he just epitomizes the cowboy way. He fought back from nothing to do what they said he couldn't do," Trevor said.

These boys, like their peers, are true red, white and blue. Patriotism -- another key component of the cowboy way -- is always a big deal at the NFR, but it reached fever pitch today with news that Saddam Hussein had been nabbed. "The Lord has blessed us to capture that devil," said the announcer to cheers that shook the arena.

Best Friends Cody Ohl and Trevor Brazile | © Nancy Jaffer

Best Friends Cody Ohl and Trevor Brazile | © Nancy Jaffer

Rodeo has gotten a rap in the past for how animals are treated, but the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has a real emphasis on animal welfare, with vets required at every PRCA competition, and a whole passle of them here to take care of everything.

Stock contractors seem to care about their animals, above and beyond their earning capacity. Even so, I was really surprised to see one of the bucking horses honored. Airwolf, a 19-year-old gray gelding named the best bucking horse at the NFR, was turned loose in the arena to applause, as the crowd was informed that he is being retired to a life of leisure. Airwolf trotted around, looking amazed and obviously wondering where was the cowboy who was supposed to be on his back?

The western ambience doesn't end when you leave Thomas & Mack at the end of the evening, by the way. We have dueling trade fair/gift shows here, the "official" Cowboy Christmas at the Convention Center and Country Christmas a few blocks away at the Sands Expo. I never really understood the meaning of "shop 'til you drop" until I did some damage to my credit card at both of these venues. You can live the cowboy life in every aspect of your existence, from silk boxer shorts printed with bucking horses, through toilet seats whose lids are covered in spotted cowhide and a $750 mirror topped with steer horns.

One thing I love about the NFR is its contrast with the glitz and naughtiness of Las Vegas. As the commercial says, "Las Vegas is a little different during the NFR." You should come see it for yourself.