LAS VEGAS – J.W. Harris wasn’t focused on sending any sort of message on the first night of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. He did anyway. The three-time world champion bull rider came to the Thomas & Mack Center entrenched in one of the most intriguing battles – trailing long-time 2012 world standings leader and NFR rookie Cody Teel by a little more than $7,000 – but erased it and took over the world lead in front of 17,460 fans, winning the first round with a 90.5-point ride aboard Four Star Rodeo’s Stink Eye.
Harris won $18,257 for his efforts, but Teel answered with a qualified ride of his own. The Kountze, Texas, bull rider finished fourth in the first round, and now trails Harris by $3,361 in a race that could last until the 10th night in Las Vegas.
“I don’t feel like I could be riding better,” said Harris, who trailed Teel by $45,303 on Sept. 4, just 26 days before the end of Pro Rodeo’s regular season. “But I’m sure there’s something I could work on to make myself even better.” Harris is attempting to win his fourth world title in five years, one year after finishing second to Shane Proctor.
Reigning World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Taos Muncy wasted no time announcing his presence, either. The two-time world champion entered the NFR in fourth place, but quickly moved into second thanks to an 87-point ride aboard Andrews Rodeo’s Fire Lane. The score topped the rest of the field by 2.5 points, but it still leaves him $26,762 behind world leader Jesse Wright, who tied for second place Thursday night. “After the first two jumps, he stayed underneath himself and was really an awesome horse that I’d like to get on every day,” Muncy said. “I love the atmosphere here and the way the fans are; it’s something that you can’t explain and it’s just unreal.”
Steer wrestler Casey Martin enjoyed a much better start to his second WNFR than his first. As a rookie one year ago, Martin never even left his mount in the first round, suffering a no-time. He didn’t earn a check until the rodeo’s sixth night. But in 2012, the Sulphur, La., cowboy got off to a roaring start, winning the first round with a time of 3.4 seconds.
Four team ropers celebrated first-place checks on the first night when partners Kaleb Driggers and Jade Corkill and Brock Hanson and Ryan Motes put together matching 4.7-second runs. The victory was particularly special for Hanson, who was roping his first set of horns at the NFR. “We’ve been practicing hard in these conditions and studying film for the last three weeks, but you can’t practice the emotions and feelings and noise you get in this building,” the Casa Grande, Ariz., cowboy said. “I felt like I was the weakest part of our team – my partner has been here before and I have confidence in my horse – so I was comfortable just trying to control my part of it.”
Despite enjoying his eighth trip to the NFR, bareback rider Wes Stevenson still admits to being nervous at the Thomas & Mack Center. It didn’t seem to bother him on Thursday night. Stevenson, from Lubbock, Texas, rode J Bar J’s Freckled Doll for 87 points and the Round 1 victory. “I’m pretty pumped – it’s an important win,” Stevenson said. “But a guy needs to keep doing good. Every single time I come here, it’s a new experience. I don’t get … butterflies anymore, but I do here.”
The NFR continues with the second round Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center. All 10 rounds will be televised live on Great American Country and broadcast live on ProRodeoLive.com.