CHEYENNE – Bareback rider Tim O’Connell won’t need the come-from-behind heroics that helped him win his first Cheyenne Frontier Days championship buckle to clinch his second.
The Zwingle, Iowa, cowboy just needs the best ride among today’s 12 finalists.
“This format is for a gunfighter,” said O’Connell, who is currently ranked No. 1 in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world standings. “This is a winner-take-all scenario, and you’d better be the best you can be that day. There is no safetying up in the short round.
“I’m a gunfighter when I need to be. When I need to turn it loose, I can turn it loose. Come Sunday, I’m going to let it all go.”
CFD used an aggregate format that awarded the title to the contestant with the best score or shortest time on three runs when O’Connell claimed the crown in 2017. The “Daddy of ’em All” switched to a tournament style in 2019. Under that system, the top scores and times from each of the quarterfinal days advance to the semifinals. The six best results from two days of semis advance to a winner-take-all final round.
In 2017, two points separated first and third place. O’Connell knew he was going to have to make a strong ride and get a little bit of help if he was going to win his first championship buckle from the “Daddy of ’em All.”
He got just that, scoring 87 points on Brookman Rodeo’s Continental Drift. David Peebles and Jake Vold entered the finals sitting first and second, respectively. Peebles scored an 82 and ended up finishing third overall, while Vold notched an 85.5 and remained second.
“In that scenario, it sometimes takes a smart ride to get you through and not the best ride,” O’Connell said after Friday’s semifinals at the 125th anniversary edition of CFD. “I made a really good ride in the short round, and the other guy’s horses kind of slipped and stumbled, and they couldn’t get going right away.
“That helped me make up the one or two points I was behind by.”
O’Connell likes the winner-take-all format of CFD’s rodeo. A lot of contestants do because it doesn’t require a herculean effort – and a minor miracle – to ascend from the bottom spot to the top like an aggregate rodeo.
“Everyone is going to cock the hammer and shoot for the stars,” O’Connell said.
Letting it all hang out fits bareback rider Tilden Hooper of Carthage, Texas, just fine.
“Bareback isn’t a play-it-safe event,” he said. “That’s how I approach it pretty much every time. You never know when you’re riding for the last time.
“I love doing this more than just about anything in the world. Any time I come out here in the sunshine and nod my head, it's a great day, so I give it my all.”
Cheyenne Frontier Days buckles aren’t as big or flashy as championship winnings from other rodeos. But that doesn’t make them any less coveted.
“This is the most prestigious rodeo in the world,” bull rider Josh Frost said.
Frost, who hails from Randlett, Utah, made the finals under the tournament format in 2019, but was thrown from his draw. He placed in a handful of rounds before that, but wasn’t able to cover two bulls and advance to the finals.
“I’ve struggled to get two bulls rode here, but I’m looking forward to trying it again,” he said.
Frontier Days has been good to Shane Proctor. The Grand Coulee, Washington, bull rider won the title in 2011 en route to winning the PRCA world championship. He also has finished second twice and made it back for the finals a handful of other times.
Proctor thrives under the pressure.
“The nostalgia and history of this place makes it one of those rodeos that’s on a pedestal and is on everyone’s bucket list,” Proctor said after scoring 86.5 points on Dakota Rodeo’s Big Red during Friday’s semis. “You have to put your emotions aside and focus on doing your job. It’s a lot about how you deal with the pressure.”
Saddle bronc rider Ben Andersen is competing in Cheyenne for the first time. The 21-year-old from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, Canada, is fulfilling a lifelong dream, but trying his best not to make too much of it.
“I’ve always watched this rodeo and always wanted to be at it,” he said. “I was excited to come to it this year. To be in the finals is a blessing.
“But it’s the same as any other round – you get on your bucking horse and see what you can do. It’s just about you and (the horse), no matter what the average is.”