Rodeo Finals sports

The Minor brothers wave their hats to a standing ovation during the finals of the Ellensburg Rodeo in the Ellensburg Rodeo Arena last year.

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With a purse reaching $350,000 and the best cowboys and barrel racers in the world circling this weekend on their calendars, Ellensburg — like it has been for decades — is the place to be on Labor Day weekend.

Add another 100-grand from Saturday night’s Xtreme Bulls Finale and contestants will leave the Kittitas Valley with a collective $450,000 over four performances.

The Ellensburg Rodeo is one of the main attractions of professional rodeo’s Northwest Run — a string of rodeos based in the Northwest, many of which pay quite well. Each event boasts all the top cowboys in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Take bareback riding, where world leader and four-time world champion Kaycee Feild is up on Friday night, the same night that three-time defending world champ Tim O’Connell nods his head in the chute. Ellensburg is known for its great paydays, but it means a bit more to the veteran Feild.

“When you hear of the Northwest, you think of Ellensburg. You think of their really cool buckle they’ve been giving for nearly 100 years. It’s something special,” he said after winning the Kennewick average last weekend. “That rodeo’s really cool. It’s unique in its own way, the tradition there with the Yakama Nation Indians, the short round, the horses, the silver bucking chutes. The atmosphere of Ellensburg makes that rodeo. It’s so much fun.”

High praise from a cowboy who if he hasn’t seen all pro rodeos, he’s seen most of them in his lifetime as a third-generation rodeo cowboy.

Feild suffered career-threatening injuries in late March when he was knocked unconscious, fractured his skull, nasal cavity and jaw while also recovering from a brain bleed and concussion. The Utah cowboy put a positive spin on it all.

“I had a great winter. I had an accident in late March, took me out for three months. I set some big goals while I was sitting on the couch, watching everybody catch up to me in the standings. I came back, I’ve had a lot of luck, been drawing really good and I feel great,” he said. “I’ve only been to about 19 rodeos where the other guys have been to about 50 or 60, so I’m just taking care of my body.”

And despite the painful year, it’s been profitable. Feild has $174,000 in season earnings, just ahead of Clayton Biglow.

Another roughstock rider, rookie sensation Stetson Wright, announced his return to rodeo this weekend, making Saturday’s saddle bronc ride in Ellensburg his first since breaking his jaw in Dodge City, Kan., a month ago. Wright won’t compete in bull riding here this weekend — he’s second in the world behind five-time defending champ Sage Kimzey — but potential earnings here will help his cause as he’s 23rd in this week’s saddle bronc standings where the top 15 make the National Finals Rodeo. Also important is preserving his lead in the All-Around race.

Moving to the other side of the arena to the timed-event chutes, bulldogger JD Struxness could use a payday. The 13th-ranked steer wrestler has a cushion less than $2,000 on 15th-ranked Cameron Morman, so a payday here and probably a few more before the end of the regular season on Sept. 30 will be the difference between competing and watching the NFR on TV in December.

“We’re getting to that time of the year where every dollar is starting to count,” he said in Moses Lake two weeks ago. “This winter we had a little bit of money won and then about Reno we started to take off and it’s been a good summer now we just need to finish it off.”

Finishing off Ellensburg hasn’t been the case for the big man from Minnesota.

“I either break out or win the round, that’s how it’s been over there,” he said. “Hopefully we can put together more than one run there this year.”

On the flip side, however, is team roping duo Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira. The team is fourth in the world this week and have threatened for the world title, finishing the season second in the world for three straight seasons (Nogueira, originally from Brazil, won the All-Around in 2016). From a standings standpoint, this season is no different than years past, the team is always one of the top teams at every rodeo.

“It’s been good,” Nogueira said earlier this week. “We’ve had some good winning, top three or top four. We probably have 15 rodeos left. We’re just looking forward to finishing strong.”

Two-time Ellensburg barrel racing champ Nellie Miller (2016 and 2017), who placed second in the average here last year is back. Another fan favorite Mary Walker, who won Ellensburg on her way to the 2012 world title, will also run the cloverleaf pattern in the spacious Ellensburg Rodeo arena.

Ellensburg’s slack began this morning with the 7 a.m. call for steer roping, followed by barrels. Thursday’s slack for timed events begins at 7 a.m., with Friday’s slack scheduled for 9 a.m. Slack is free to the public.

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