Roping, riding and roughstock
2023 NWSS Championship Round of Rodeo
After narrowing down its rodeo contestants through a series of early brackets, the 2023 National Western Stock Show took the top 24 qualifiers from each event and reduced them further by way of a trio of high-energy semifinal rounds on Saturday, Jan. 21. Each of the three semifinals started with a clean slate, so the top four times/scores moved ahead into Sunday’s championship round, creating a total of 12 contestants in each event. Continuing the playoff style format, what happened in those brackets and semifinals no longer mattered. What did matter is that whoever came out on top for Sunday’s sold-out performance would take home bragging rights, a big buckle, and an even bigger check.
At 2 p.m. on Jan. 22, the NWSS Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association finals kick-started the crowd as top contenders were introduced with accompanying flames, fog, spotlights and lasers. It was loud inside the packed Denver Coliseum.
And then the action started.
The loaded bareback field started strong as two of the first three contestants made impressive rides for scores in the mid-to-high-80s, but it was the fourth rider out — Garrett Shadbolt — who grabbed a big lead with 89.5-points aboard Cervi’s “On Second Thought.” It was a clutch ride, but Shadbolt’s lead wasn’t safe with veteran National Finals Rodeo riders like Tanner Aus and Richie Champion waiting to go, along with young guns Keenan Hayes and Rocker Steiner. Creating more drama was Champion’s return from injury in 2022 to compete at the NWSS. Making the final round is never enough for Champion, who successfully rode “Gander Goose” and celebrated with the crowd after dismounting. When his 86.5-point score flashed on the board, Champion had placed third and Shadbolt hung on for the win.
“When he hit that right turn, he put a lot of power on the rigging,” described Shadbolt of his winning ride in an arena interview with the Cowboy Channel. “I was trying to keep ahold of my feet. I moved a little bit, but man, he was putting a lot of power on a couple of moves there. But then he straightened out and kept bucking.”
TEAM ROPING AND BARREL RACING
“Kept bucking” could describe the never-give-up approach of veteran team ropers Clay Smith and Jake Long. The accomplished duo overcame slower times in the early rounds to come up big when it mattered. Their blistering 3.9-second run in the NWSS Finals was the quickest of the entire rodeo. While winning isn’t new to the pair, this buckle was special.
“My grandpa passed away one year ago, today,” said an emotional Smith. “I found out last year in the short round up here and I messed up in the short round. I had God on my side (today). This is special to win it here. I try not to put too much pressure on myself, but the Lord was watching after me.”
The Lord was also watching over Texas barrel racer Jimmie Smith-Tew. Her ride in an early round aboard her horse Minnie was not heavenly and Smith-Tew chose to give some indoor experience to 10-year-old “A Valiant Nicky,” who is usually her summer outdoor rodeo mount. “Nicky” was a revelation in the tight pattern inside the boisterous Denver Coliseum, posting faster runs throughout the rounds until she sent the crowd into rapture with a rodeo-fastest 14.83 time in the championship round to win the 2023 title at the historic Denver venue. For Smith-Tew, the result was miraculous.
“I honestly have no idea,” said the grinning Texas cowgirl about how they pulled off the winning run. “I thought I had no chance of making the semifinals, so I got on Nicky to give her a chance, which is funny, because I wasn’t even going to come (to the NWSS) if I had to run the outside horse. She just got better and better.”
THE WRIGHT WAY
Getting better and better describes Utah roughstock competitor and rodeo phenom Stetson Wright, who has already earned a total of seven PRCA world titles at just 23 years of age. Despite piling up big wins since 2018, Wright had not yet claimed a NWSS buckle. Qualifying for the final round in both the saddle bronc and bull riding events gave him the opportunity to rectify that oversight and he nearly managed a two-fer.
First up for Wright was the saddle bronc event, where he rode a high-kicking “Ed Bishop” from Cervi Brothers Rodeo for 90 points. Picking up his buckle, Wright revealed his satisfaction at getting redemption in what was a rematch ride.
“Oh yeah, that horse bucked me off pretty hard, last year,” said Wright. “When you have a horse do that, it shatters your confidence or you come back and try to redeem yourself.” The success was sweeter since it ended with a buckle. “It is the first time I have won here,” he added. “To come out on top here is pretty special.”
Wright made the bull riding pretty special for the packed stands, as well. Early in the event, Wyoming bull rider Bryce Burnell made a spectacular ride aboard Cervi’s “White Trash” and the crowd went ballistic. But they also knew Wright was waiting to compete. Near the end of the event, Wright put on a show aboard a bull named “Centerfold” and it was bedlam while he celebrated before his score was displayed. When a 90 appeared on the big screen, Burnell’s sterling effort had denied Wright a double-dip of NWSS buckles by a single point.
“It doesn’t really set in for a while, so I don’t know,” said a humble but very happy Burnell when asked to describe how it felt to get a big win at the NWSS.
Sending the crowd home as happy as Burnell with his new buckle was the aim for NWSS rodeo producers, and it looked like their roping, riding, and roughstock hit the target again in 2023.
117th National Western Stock Show Winners
Bareback – Garrett Shadbolt, Merriman, Neb., 89.5 points, $6,181
Steer Wrestling — Jace Melvin, Fort Pierre, S.D., 4.2 seconds, $4,758
Team Roping – Clay Smith, Broken Bow, Okla. / Jake Long, Coffeyville, Kan., 3.9 seconds, $6,821
Saddle Bronc – Stetson Wright, Milford, Utah, 90 points, $4,636
Tie-down – Riley Mason Webb, Denton, Texas, 7.2 seconds, $4,782
Barrel Racing – Jimmie Smith-Tew, McDade, Texas, 14.83 seconds, $4,782.
Bull Riding – Bryce Burnell, Sheridan, Wyo., 91 points, $4,581