Postcard: 2004 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo

EquiSearch's Nancy Jaffer indulges in the "cowboy way of life" at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas as Trevor Brazile holds on to his All-Around crown.
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EquiSearch's Nancy Jaffer indulges in the "cowboy way of life" at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas as Trevor Brazile holds on to his All-Around crown.

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Las Vegas, Dec. 13, 2004--The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) is not just an event; it's an experience. From the minute you arrive in this glittering city blossoming with 10-gallon hats, until the fireworks explode in the breathtaking awards ceremony, you're part of the "cowboy way of life."

That's a phrase you hear a lot during the 10 roller coaster days of the NFR. I experienced plenty of it myself at the three western gift shows in town, up from two last year. It's possible (if you have a high enough limit on your credit card) to furnish your house with everything western, from cowhide pillows ($69) to a mirror topped with cow horns ($3,500). This particular mirror was flanked by rifles. I asked the woman running the booth whether the rifles came with it; she told me I'd have to supply my own.

Short of money? You could have just settled for the accessory of the year, a spur rowel to wear around your neck on a ribbon for $29.99. But the best way to celebrate everything cowboy is to go to the rodeo--if you can get tickets.

The NFR marked its 190th sold-out session yesterday, while a packed house watched guys with image-conjuring names like Turtle, Cimmaron, Chad and Speed do their thing. The desperate spend $35.50 for a "Mad Dash" ticket just to get in the door at the Thomas & Mack Center. There they can share in the NFR's communal energy level and, if they're lucky, fill a seat for the few minutes that its occupant is out on the concourse or in the bathroom. They'll drink Jack Daniels or Coors (two very evident sponsors) and satisfy their hunger with pemmican (dried beef) or barbecued pork.

Needless to say, these are die-hard fans, and the NFR always delivers what they came for--action. This time, we saw some old reliables fall by the wayside. Two former All-Around cowboys, Cody Ohl and Fred Whitfield, missed their calves in the tie-down roping during the last round. But the current King of the Cowboys, Trevor Brazile, kept his All-Around crown and was already thinking about working on number four next year as he continues to hone his roping skills.

As usual, the always-modest Texan Trevor thanked the Lord for his victory, and then his sponsors, one of which was new this year--the U.S. Army. The Army and rodeo? It didn't click with me, but Chandra Lim, who works for the public relations agency handling that account, explained, "The Army recognizes a lot of similarities between cowboys and soldiers: They're both physically and mentally tough." The effort is part of the "accessions command," which handles recruiting and training.

The NFR is the perfect venue because it attracts "a patriotic crowd," said Chandra, and you can't argue with her there. Several casinos sponsored people at the gate handing out little American flags, as they did a year ago during the NFR on the day that Saddam Hussein was captured. And of course, the Stars and Stripes often enters the arena carried on horseback by a pretty cowgirl (another NFR tradition).

You can bet that she'll usually be riding a Quarter Horse, just like everyone competing in the timed events. These horses are truly partners with their riders in the competition. When you watch a calf roper's horse back up until the tension is just taut enough on the rope, or see a barrel racer gallop down the homestretch with relish, you know the Quarter Horses are really in the game.

Trevor, who wore the signature black Army rodeo patch on his shirt, clinched his title just eight
days into the NFR. But it wasn't so easy for some of the other world champions.

Kelly Kaminski finished second in the barrel racing last year.

"Maybe I wasn't ready to be a world champion then," she mused. This time, however, Kelly wasn't willing to settle for anything less than the embossed trophy saddle as her race went down to the wire. The mother of two from Texas and her distinctive gray gelding, Rockem Sockem Go ("My third child") were consistent enough to keep the lead she gained through the year before coming here, but it was a struggle.

"I've been broken out in hives all week," she confessed on Saturday, adding, "I feel like I'm standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and my life is about to change for the better."

And so it did. A lot of the reason why involves Kelly's relationship with Rocky. She spent just $500 on his mother, Athena, an appendix quarter horse related to the racehorse Northern Dancer who was too aggressive for her previous owner. Athena ("I named her after the goddess of war") was pregnant at the time, and her foal has gotten Kelly's love and attention since his birth.

A former schoolteacher, Kelly went into barrel racing full-time in 2000 after the death of her father made her realize that she shouldn't delay her dream. The title is the final element in the life she is enjoying to the fullest.

"How can you not love riding your horse for a living and hanging out with a bunch of girls who do the same thing?" she asked. Her enthusiasm level, always high, was at fever pitch post-NFR.

"It feels like my wedding day," she said, glowing.

Kelly, who does dressage to warm up for her performances, doesn't stint on the horse cookies for Rocky ("He'd live in the house if we'd let him in," she said), but the male cowboys take a different approach.

Say the word "treats" to them in the same sentence when you're talking about their horses, and they look at you funny. A horse may still be a cowboy's best friend, but treats are not part of their equestrian vocabulary.

"I feed my horse twice a day," said Monty Lewis, who thinks that should satisfy him. Monty, who won the world tie-down (calf) roping title in his first NFR appearance, was aboard Ned, the tie-down roping horse of the year. He heaps praise, rather than horse cookies, on his mount.

"He gives me what I need. He's automatic," he said proudly of the gelding he has trained for the last six years.

Trevor is just as high on his tie-down horse, Texaco, who's not even 14 hands.

"He's like my little Mighty Mouse. But you couldn't get a tape measure around his heart -- he's all heart, and he gives it all for me every time," Trevor said.

Then he confessed that his wife does sneak the occasional cookie to Texaco and his other mounts. "She spoils them all," he said with a resigned grin.

The cowboys generally strike me as cool customers, but maybe it's just a front. When I was interviewing saddle bronc champ Billy Etbauer, who took his fifth title here, the Oklahoman thought a long time before answering the question, "What does this mean to you?"

"It's like a dream come true," he said finally, and, frankly, not very originally. Hmmm, maybe he just takes all this in stride. But when I passed him again a few minutes later, his guard was down as he hugged his wife and kids, bawling like a baby.

"Okay," I said to myself, feeling a shared rush of emotion, "I guess it really is a dream come true."

Other world champs here were Kelly Timberman in the bareback broncs, Luke Branquinho in steer wrestling and Dustin Elliott in bull riding. Speed Williams and Rich Skelton corralled their eighth set of gold buckles in team roping, an achievement that has never been duplicated.

If I haven't convinced you by now to go to the NFR in 2005, but you are intrigued by much of what you hear, why not try the dressage and show jumping World Cup finals in April, also at Thomas & Mack?

It, too, will be a special experience in this town's inimitable style. This is the third time Las Vegas Events (LVE) has presented the show jumping finals, but the first time for dressage, and the new combination is a winner, according to Tim Keener of LVE.

The whole lower tier of the arena already has been sold out for the musical freestyle, and the excitement is building for the project. The Cups won't be as "country and western" as the NFR; they'll be tailored to a very different crowd. But you can bet there will be some Vegas-style excitement with an Elvis impersonator and maybe even some show girls making an appearance.

This is my last postcard of the year, so let me wish you happy holidays. Have a great 2005, when I'll be keeping you up-to-date about the World Cups and all the other competitions that will make it a year to remember.

Visit Nancy Jaffer's postcard page to relive all of the action at some of the world's top equestrian events.