The field of tie-down ropers slated to compete December 1-10 for their share of the record $14.1 million payoff at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Teton Ridge—which is up from the $13.3 million in 2021— is a melting pot of past world champions and NFR first-timers.
The Top 15 is made up of five men who’ve already strapped on gold buckles, totaling nine tie-down roping world championships. And there’s a tenth world title in the mix when you include Tuf Cooper’s 2017 all-around world championship. Shad Mayfield, the 2020 champion of the world, will lead the pack back into the Thomas & Mack Center on the University of Nevada-Las Vegas campus with a new regular-season earnings record of $203,508, and a $36,780 lead over John Douch, who’ll make his second-consecutive NFR appearance.
“I’ve had some really good seasons so far, and this was the best one yet,” said New Mexico native Mayfield, who plans to ride his 13-year-old roan, Rampage, in Vegas. “Breaking the single-season earnings record is something I’ve always wanted to do, and it was something I was set on doing this summer. So that was big for me. It just seemed like I kept getting money everywhere I went, and got more wins than I’ve had before. I kept riding Rampage everywhere, and he stayed working really good. I’ve got a lead, so I’m going to take it as it comes and rope sharp. I’m roping for the average, and hopefully the rounds will fall into place.”
Other past tie-down roping world champions on this year’s National Finals Rodeo roster include 2019 World Champion Haven Meged, three-time and defending World Champion Caleb Smidt, 2013 World Champion Shane Hanchey and Cooper, who has four gold buckles on his mantle, including three in the tie-down. Cooper will rope at his 14th NFR, the most of any tie-down roper at this year’s NFR. Coincidentally, these four world champions are the only men in the field who have NFR average titles to their names, with a combined total of seven between them.
Meged, who won the world and the NFR average in his rookie season three years ago, won second in last year’s NFR average race to finish the reserve world champion behind Smidt. Meged’s NFR consistency track record is impressive, with two top-two average finishes in his first three years at Rodeo’s Super Bowl. He also competed at the 2020 NFR—Texas edition—in Arlington.
“There’s nothing like roping in the Thomas & Mack,” said Meged, who grew up in Montana and again plans to ride his great black mare, Beyonce. “Win or lose, it’s awesome getting to rope in there 10 nights in a row with that environment and electricity. Getting to ride that horse there is such a big part of my success. I know she’s going to run hard to the calf every time, and let me do my job every night.”
Meged’s traveling partner Smidt is the reigning world champion, and will rope at Rodeo’s Super Bowl for the eighth time. If there’s one thing you can bet on, it’s that Smidt will be aboard his standout steed, Pockets, who was honored with his second Nutrena Horse of the Year presented by the AQHA award this year.
“Pockets is unbelievable, and I give him all the credit,” said Texas cowboy Smidt of the horse that also was recognized with the Horse of the Year award in 2020, and has helped Caleb win three gold buckles dated 2015, 2018 and 2021 since he bought the bulletproof bay in 2015. “No matter what I draw, I feel like I have a chance to win when I’m riding him. When I don’t win, it’s usually my fault, because Pockets hardly ever makes a mistake.”
Smidt also won The American on Pockets in 2019 and 2022.
“I’ve won everything on him,” Smidt said. “A good horse is everything to those of us who rope for a living. I’ve always been a big believer in good horses, and Pockets has it all. He’s just super easy, and so consistent.”
It’s probably no coincidence that the third member of the Meged-Smidt traveling partnership is Zack Jongbloed, who will make his NFR debut as the highest-ranked first-timer in the field. He ended rodeo’s regular season in the sixth spot.
“Ever since I started roping, it’s been my goal to make the NFR,” the quiet Cajun cowboy said. “This is a dream come true to finally accomplish that. Getting to travel with those guys was a big benefit. When you travel with winners and guys that rope as good as they do, it’s huge. Every calf I ran this year, I felt like I had someone in my corner, because those guys are on my team and helping me every time.”
Louisiana’s Jongbloed will be joined by three other NFR rookies, including Texan Riley Webb, Louisiana’s Macon Murphy and Lone Star State cowboy Kincade Henry. Not only will Webb rope at his first NFR, but he will also be crowned the 2022 Resistol Rookie of the Year during Round 6 on the floor of the Thomas & Mack. While he is the youngest tie-down roper in the field at 19, Hunter Herrin will book-end at the topside of the age chart, as the oldest tie-down roper in the bunch at 38.
Young Webb has worked and waited for this moment his entire life.
“It feels kind of surreal, but this is a dream come true,” Webb said. “It’s been my goal my whole life to win the rookie of the year, and to make the NFR my rookie year. I’ve worked and practiced for this, and I am blessed.”
This year’s regular season was one for the record books in its own right, as it’s never taken more money to make the Finals in this event. With Mayfield’s $203,508 being basically twice that of 15th-ranked Henry at $101,946, there is a $101,562 gap between first and 15th riding into NFR 2022. But with rounds paying $28,914 (sixth in the round will be worth $4,664), and the average winner banking $74,150 (the average pays eight deep, with the last hole being worth $6,995), no lead will be safe in Vegas. And that will make for great watching.