Las Vegas, Nev., December 16, 2007 -- The last time I was at the Thomas & Mack Center here, where I covered the show jumping and dressage World Cup finals in the spring, the competitors were wearing tall black boots with their white breeches and the silence in the arena usually was of pin-drop quality during their performances.
What a change I found on my return trip. For the past 10 days, the uniform has been jeans, cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats for everyone--even the spectators, who raise the roof as they cheer on their favorites.
While the show jumping and dressage World Cups were a huge success, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) is even bigger. It's twice as long as the World Cup, but my guess is it would have been a sellout at double its current 10-day run.
The NFR attracted 174,087 fans. It was the hottest ticket in a hot town; there wasn't an empty seat in the house as everyone plugged into cowboy (and cowgirl) mania.
I can tell you, they put on quite a show. In many cases, the outcome of the world championships was too close to call before the last go-round, but one title was decided early. Remember how they used to call Roy Rogers the King of the Cowboys? Well, if he were still around today, he'd have to pass on that title to the amazing Trevor Brazile.
Trevor won his fifth All-Around Cowboy title (for competitors participating in more than one event), and the "Triple Crown" by taking world championship honors in tie-down roping (formerly known as calf roping), team roping and steer roping (the latter is not contested at the NFR).
How does he top that, particularly since he and his wife, Shada, just had their first child, Treston.
Trevor's goal is to continue winning as much money as he can (he earned more than $425,000 this year, $100,000 more than in 2006, and more than $186,000 in the last 10 days), but I asked if his rodeoing will be affected down the road by the fact that he is now a father.
Trevor is a heck of a nice guy. What he said after receiving his trophies on what he called "the greatest night of my life" reminded me of former football star Gale Sayers' quote, "God is first, my friends are second, I am third."
Stepping up to accept his awards, Trevor first thanked God, then his friends, noting they loaned him mounts when his star, Texaco, was laid off due to injury.
"If it wasn't for great friends and their horses, I wouldn't be here giving this interview about the calf roping right now," he said.
Jason Miller, the steer wrestling world champion who came from 13th place to take the honors, seconded Trevor's feelings about friendship in the rodeo world.
"The camaraderie in rodeo is different than any other sport," he said, noting one of his competitors, Lee Graves, helped him all week.
He added, "I helped a bunch of people all week long, too. It"s all about making money, but you want to see your friends win as much as you."
If there was any disappointment in the midst of triumph for Trevor, it came when he missed with his first rope in the final round of the tie-down. He felt that he had disappointed his fans, but it did show that this Super Texan is not a machine.
I had the chance to speak with the new world champion in bull riding, 22-year-old Wesley Silcox, who astounded me when I asked him why he rides bulls instead of horses.
"I've seen my brother get hurt too many times on horses. The bareback riders just take a beating," he said. Huh? Bulls are less dangerous than horses? You could have fooled me; I never saw a horse with horns. But the rodeo clowns do a good job of protecting the riders when they take a fall, which is often.
Wesley was incredible in the final round aboard Wolf Can Do, who just kept spinning but couldn't unstick him.
Brittany Pozzi-Pharr reigned in the barrel racing with her quarter horse, Stitch, to take the world title.
Brittany did withstand a determined challenge from Canadian Lindsay Sears and her chestnut mare, Martha, who won an amazing five go-rounds but couldn't beat the world champion's consistency.
Lindsay, by the way, is quite the fashion maven, with a different outfit that sparkled and/or glittered every night. She favored the Catwoman look with sexy patent-leather-like tops, then changed into dresses for the post-show awards ceremony at the South Point Casino Hotel.
There was a lot of pink at the NFR this year, and it wasn't confined to the barrel racers. The "Tough Enough to Wear Pink" campaign was started by Terry Wheatley, a Californian who, like her grandmother and mother, was a breast cancer victim. According to Terry's daughter, Katie, her mom teamed up with Karl Stressman, who handles special events for Wrangler, in 2005 to increase awareness about the disease and raise money for research. This year the initiative raised $2.5 million.
While last Thursday was the official evening for wearing pink, everything from pink ropes and leg wraps to pink shirts was in evidence nightly, showing the sport's great enthusiasm about the campaign. I asked Katie, who was selling hats, T-shirts and other pink items at the NFR, to talk about the initiative.
The NFR is very down to earth, a place you feel at home and likely find you have a lot in common with the fans you meet in front of the pavilion or in the crowded hallways.
Walking back from the stables, I was amazed at how many of the big name competitors said hello to me, even though most had no idea who I was. The fact that I had a couple of cameras and was in the back lot seemed to be enough to merit a greeting.
You may have guessed, but probably haven't heard officially, that the Rolex/FEI World Cup finals are coming back here in 2009. Las Vegas Events also is hoping to snag the 2011 edition of the Cups, but by that time, they will be held in a new arena planned for construction closer to the Strip.
Though there's a lot of sentimental value to Thomas & Mack, it's outdated compared with all the new facilities around. The best thing about the planned $500 million arena is that it will seat about 20,000, and Tim Keener of Las Vegas Events tells me the competition floor will be larger. That's good news for the show jumpers and dressage competitors who have had to make do with very tight quarters for their rides.
While the World Cup is an event, the NFR is total immersion in the western lifestyle. Ranches may be giving way to subdivisions, but I doubt the enthusiasm for the cowboy way of doing things has ever been stronger.
The NFR offers some great extras in that regard, such as an appearance by Brooks & Dunn singing "Cowboy Town," ("Where a good man's word is money in the bank") which became the anthem of this year's show.
The NFR culture has expanded beyond the arena to three (count 'em) cowboy markets in the city. They only give out gold buckles in seven events at the NFR. Next year I suggest they add another for shopping.
I spent an hour at Cowboy Christmas in the Venetian Hotel, where I was dazzled by the bling on everything from purses to bridles. Having trouble finding something for your significant other this holiday season?
How about beer bottle nightlights ($25) or if you want to spend a bit more, a coffee table made from a wagon wheel ($1,750)? Then there's the $16,000 pool table with little western saddles as the pockets and Indian head nickels embedded along the edge.
I had a few other finds, including a $15,000 bronze fountain featuring three horseheads, and a chandelier made of horns naturally shed by deer that was going for $1,845.
I wound up buying a $20 garland of Christmas lights made from shotgun shells (the powder had been removed, I was assured).
Consulting by phone with my husband as to whether I should get it, he agreed you never know when something like that might come in handy as a last-minute present. But the shopkeeper did warn me not to put it in my carry-on luggage when I packed to fly home.
Well, that wraps up 2007 for me. Where did this year go? Happy holidays, thanks for reading my postcards and stick with me. My first outing in January is to the U.S. Equestrian Federation annual meeting in Louisville, Ky.
Want to check out one of Lindsay Sears' outfits, or see Brooks & Dunn as they appeared here? Visit EquiSearch.com's NFR photo gallery.