It was nine down and one to go for Jim Sharp of Kermit, Texas. The night before, he had clinched his first world bullriding championship—the title is determined by season earnings, and Sharp would finish the year with $102,588—but as he eased himself onto the big brindled Brahma on Sunday afternoon, he had a chance to make history, to become the first cowboy to successfully ride all 10 of his bulls in the National Finals Rodeo (NFR). No one in the 30-year-history of this rodeo—not Jim Shoulders, not Don Gay, not Larry Mahan, legendary champions all—had ever gone 10 for 10.
The sold-out crowd of 16,672 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas fell into a nervous hush as Sharp took his wrap. Many of them remembered the terrible moment 24 hours earlier when another bullrider, Cody Custer, had gotten hung up on his rigging as he was thrown from his bull's back and was kicked for a few long seconds by the wildly spinning animal. When Custer finally hit the dirt, he was as limp as a rag doll and had to be carried from the arena on a stretcher.
Seven hours later, relief greeted the news that Custer, who was in fourth place in the rodeo at the time of his accident, had suffered "only" fractured ribs, a concussion and a punctured lung. Serious injuries like these come with the turf, so it was with a mixture of excitement and dread that rodeo fans watched the 23-year-old Sharp tuck in his chin and nod for the gate to be opened for the start of his big ride.
Forget the Fourth of July, which is traditionally known as Cowboys' Christmas. The NFR is the genuine article, a nine-day showdown in which the season's top 15 money winners in calf roping, steer wrestling, bareback riding, team roping, saddle bronc riding, barrel racing and bullriding gather each December to compete for the year's biggest prize money and to determine the world champion in each event.
This year was the NFR's fourth in Las Vegas, after it had spent 20 years in Oklahoma City. And Las Vegas isn't about to let the rodeo slip away. A new agreement was reached between the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and the city last week, guaranteeing that the NFR will remain there through 1994. The main reason the city loves the rodeo is that it brought some $70 million to the local economy last year, according to an estimate by Las Vegas Events, Inc., and it should generate even more this time around. The cowboys, in turn, have developed a fondness for Las Vegas because the prize money has steadily climbed, from $901,550 in 1984 to $2.07 million this year; next December $2.2 million will be put on the table. The event has even won over long-time rodeo fans whose loyalty to Oklahoma City had led them to vow never to attend an NFR anywhere else. Last week the rodeo drew a total of more than 144,897 spectators, and eight of the 10 performances were sold out.
No wonder Las Vegas adopted the character of a neon cow town. A cowgirl bikini contest was held at the Sands Hotel. The Las Vegas district of the Bureau of Land Management put 115 wild horses and 25 wild burros up for adoption, corralling the critters next to the Tropicana Hotel and Casino. Staples of the Strip like Wayne Newton and Diana Ross vacated the premises in favor of such country and western performers as Willie Nelson, the Oak Ridge Boys and George Strait. Even one of the rodeo cowboys got into the act: Three-time world champion saddle bronc rider Monty (Hawkeye) Henson—who would finish 10th in his event with season earnings of $50,458—sang and played guitar with his band at the Fremont Hotel into the early hours of the morning, sometimes until 7 a.m. "It kind of cuts into your breakfast time," said Henson of his gigs. "But there's nothing like a rodeo steak [a hot dog] at the arena for a man's first meal of the day."
The most pressing question of the week was whether Lewis Feild of Elk Ridge, Utah, would win his fourth consecutive all-around title. The only cowboy to qualify for the finals in two events, the bareback and the saddle bronc, Feild, 32, came into Las Vegas with $73,396 in earnings—some $16,000 behind Clay O'Brien Cooper, a team roper from Gilbert, Ariz., and $4,000 behind Dave Appleton, an Australian bareback rider now living in Arlington, Texas. It was a position Feild had been in before: In 1987, he arrived at the NFR in third and then blew away the competition with a record $75,219 in NFR earnings to win his third all-around title by a whopping $30,129.
History seemed to be repeating itself this year. In the first three go-rounds in each of his two events, Feild placed in the money on five of his six horses to win $29,835 and put himself comfortably into the all-around lead. (Fortunately for Feild, 18-year-old barrel racer Charmayne James Rodman, the top money winner on the rodeo circuit this year with $130,540 in earnings, wasn't eligible for the all-around buckle, because she had competed in only one event.)
But then Feild stalled. In the next six rounds he placed only one more horse in the money, and he was disqualified on his ninth bareback horse because of improper spurring. That effectively eliminated him from any hope of winning money in the bareback "average"—as rodeo folks call the bonus pool that's divided among the top six finishers in each event after the 10th go-round, which takes place on the final day. Appleton, in the meantime, had added $14,917.50 to his totals and stood to take home another $19,966.50 if he maintained his lead in the average. "The whole season comes down to tomorrow," Appleton said after sharing first in the ninth go-round on Saturday. "I'm in position to win the big one, which is what I've been shooting for all year."
For some of the fans, though, the big one was the finals of the bullfighting competition, which were held last Thursday night. Bullfighting, you should understand, isn't an official PRCA event, but a competition sponsored by Wrangler Jeans for rodeo clowns. During bullriding performances, the clowns—or bullfighters, as they prefer to be called—use comical antics to distract the bull and keep it away from a fallen rider. Those same tactics come into play in bullfighting—plus a few corkers called barrel hops and kamikaze leaps—to score points with the panel of judges.