November 26, 2012–Fred Whitfield’s autobiography – Gold Buckles Don’t Lie – is due to be published next spring and will end with his labors at this 20th Wrangler National Finals Rodeo appearance. Whitfield says he’s “not worried” about how this plays out, but he also has a good enough sense of dramatic possibilities that he knows what a great last act could mean for book sales and his legacy in the sport.
Sure, he enters the WNFR 12th in the standings, officially a long shot, but he also knows that with a $6.125 million purse in Vegas, nobody can truly be counted out. Ten good days could allow him to claim his eighth tie-down roping gold buckle and tie Dean Oliver for the event record.
There is a certain symmetry to the thing: This is the year that Oliver is being honored as a Legend of ProRodeo at the Dec. 3 Gold Buckle Gala at the South Point Hotel, Spa & Casino.
“There are a lot of people who will look at me and say, ‘Is he going to be as competitive as he was at his fourth, fifth or 10th NFR?” Whitfield said. “But we’ll see. I’m going there with nothing to lose. My goal this year was to qualify for my 20th and I’ve done that … 20 in 23 years. I can look back over the season and say, ‘What if I’d won Reno, or what if I’d done better someplace else?’ There were lots of highs and a few lows along the way, but I made it to the NFR. Now we’ll see.”
Whitfield’s quixotic quest for further history-making is just one of several worth watching at this 54th renewal of the sport’s biggest event:
• Eighteen years removed from his last gold buckle – and four years from his last WNFR appearance – team roping legend Clay O’Brien Cooper has a very real shot at regaining a share of his place in the record book. Cooper and header Jake Barnes won seven gold buckles (1985-89, 1992, 1994) to set a ProRodeo record that stood until Speed Williams and Rich Skelton won eight in a row from 1997-2004. A win next month with 2007 World Champion Chad Masters would give Cooper his eighth, and he starts the rodeo second in the world standings to Patrick Smith.
• Bobby Mote’s goal since he started his ProRodeo career in 1996 has been to win more gold buckles than any bareback rider in the history of the sport. A win from the No. 4 slot this year would be Mote’s fifth, tying the record shared by Bruce Ford (1979-80, 1982-83, 1987) and Joe Alexander (1971-75).
• Luke Branquinho of Los Alamos, Calif., is seeking to become the first steer wrestler since Ote Berry in 1990-91 to claim back-to-back world championships and just the fifth bulldogger to win four or more gold buckles, joining Everett Bowman, Jim Bynum and Berry in a tie for second place with four, two back of record-holder Homer Pettigrew.
• And then, of course, there is Trevor Brazile, who is taking aim at extending his record for all-around titles to 10 by winning what would be his record seventh in a row. He currently shares the record of six in a row with Tom Ferguson (1974-79) and Ty Murray (1989-94). If he and team roping partner Patrick Smith win a round, Brazile will tie the National Finals record of 51 held by Billy Etbauer. If Brazile wins the all-around as expected (he has a lead of more than $103,000 on Steven Dent), it will be his 17th gold buckle, allowing him to break the record he shares with Jim Shoulders for most world championships by a multi-event cowboy. If he should also win the team roping title with Smith, that would be No. 18, tying steer roper Guy Allen for the record for most gold buckles won overall. It would also make Brazile the first cowboy in the sport’s history to earn multiple world championships in four categories; he enters this WNFR with nine titles in the all-around, three in steer roping, three in tie-down roping and one in team roping.