Pro wrangler competition to come to Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo

Tri-City HeraldApril 6, 2014 

Two-time world champion tie-down roper Tuf Cooper, seen here at the 2012 National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, reached $1 million in career earnings in February, just three weeks after his 23rd birthday. He will compete tonight at the Farm-City Pro Rodeo in Hermiston.

MIKE COPEMAN

There's nothing wrong with a little extra rodeo action in your backyard.

The Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo will host the fifth stop of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) Wrangler Champions Challenge at 7 p.m. Aug. 19, a day prior to the start of the Horse Heaven Round-Up.

"It was a perfect fit," said John Davis, director of member relations for the PRCA. "They have had good success with their rodeo up there and the cowboys are headed that way. It's like a mini-NFR (National Finals Rodeo). We are bringing the contestant talent and we are asking Kennewick to bring in NFR-caliber livestock."

When the PRCA offered the Benton-Franklin rodeo a date for the event, Executive Director Lori Lancaster said it was an easy decision to make.

"I had only met John a couple of times before he called," Lancaster said. "He said they would like to bring this up here. The timing was perfect."

The Wrangler Champions Challenge is part of an ongoing commitment to increase the popularity of rodeo. The made-for-TV series began in 2013, featuring 10 top competitors in each event and the sport's best livestock.

Seven of the 10 spots in each event are reserved for top finishers in the previous year's world standings. The remaining three qualifiers will be comprised of the leaders in the 2014 world standings and Wrangler Million Dollar Tour standings one month before the Wrangler Champions Challenge and the venue champion of the host city.

"The (PRCA) has been looking into this for a while, trying to get faces on TV and fans to our sport," Davis said. "We sign the cowboys to a contract, but we had to give them a sales pitch. There's only so much money in the arena, but there is an opportunity to help their sponsors and maybe get new ones."

The prize money payout is $16,000 for each Wrangler Champions Challenge event, with the winner pocketing $5,440 -- among the highest of any of the rodeo cowboys association's one-go rodeos. And unlike last year, the money earned goes toward their earnings for the NFR -- another good selling point for the cowboys.

"It's fun. I really enjoy going to them," said Tuf Cooper, a two-time world tie-down champion from Decatur, Texas. "The money is good and you are up against only 10 guys. It's a great show for the fans. It's the top cowboys and the top rough stock. The best of the best."

The Wrangler Champions Challenge kicked off in Rapid City, S.D., on Feb. 4, then moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., on Feb. 27. The next event is May 17 in Redding, Calif., followed by Spanish Fork, Utah, on May 31, Kennewick on Aug. 19, Amarillo, Texas on Sept. 17, and Omaha on Sept. 27.

Lancaster went to Scottsdale to get a feel for the event, she said.

"It is kind of a fun thing," Lancaster said. "In talking to (the cowboys), they are worried about letting their team down. You are a solo act in rodeo. This gives them a new identity being part of a team."

Lancaster would like to let the fans know that every competitor wearing black, khaki or teal is on the same team.

"We need to educate our fans on who is who," she said. "We want our sport to be looked at like any other professional sport."

Cooper, 24, is on the Justin Boots team, which is sitting sixth in the 10-team standings.

"I guess we need to step it up," Cooper said.

Of the 10 teams in the Wrangler Champions Challenge, not one is hurting for a top-name cowboy. The B&W Trailer Hitches team boasts four-time world champion bareback rider Bobby Mote and 19-time world champion Trevor Brazile in the tie-down and the team roping -- with Travis Graves. Hard to think their team is in third place.

Team roping brothers Brady and Riley Minor from Ellensburg are on the Coors team. Their fourth-place finish in the world standings last year earned them a spot in the competition, but they have struggled in the first two events, and their team is in ninth place.

"I've missed both," said Riley Minor, who is the header of the duo, while Brady is the heeler. "It's my fault. You just have to move on to the next one. Hopefully I'll win in Redding in May."

Riley, 26, and Brady, 29, are currently ranked in the top 10 in the world standings with $16,081. A couple of good paydays in the Wrangler Champions Challenge would go a long way for a return trip to the NFR.

"It's a very big deal to win $5,400 that time of year (August)," Riley said. "Only the top 10 guys get to do this. It's a privilege. You do well at all seven, you are halfway to the NFR."

Rodeo cowboys association bull riding representative Fred Boettcher is in charge of helping select the livestock -- mainly the bulls -- for the Wrangler Champions Challenge.

For the Kennewick event, Mike Corey of the Corey & Horst Rodeo Company of Moses Lake will be working with Sonny Riley and Chad Hutsell of the Big Bend/Flying 5 Rodeo Co. (Ritzville) to bring in some of the best bulls in the Northwest.

"The goal is to showcase the best cowboys on the best livestock," said Boettcher, a six-time NFR qualifier in bull riding. "They are a crucial part. Big Bend has had some of the best horses and bulls, but it's hard for one contractor to have top stock every year. Mike Corey is one of the best bull guys. He has the very best stock in the Northwest, if not the country. With all the breeding programs nowadays, there's no excuse not to have a good pen of bulls anymore. It's like the Kentucky Derby -- sometimes they are more famous than the cowboys."

Kennewick is giving up its Xtreme Bulls event for the Wrangler Champions Challenge, but Boettcher said no one will be disappointed.

"Rodeo is the original extreme sport," he said. "They had Xtreme Bulls, but this will blow your socks off. The administration knows we have to shape this as we grow it. Kennewick is a new stop. Good rodeo fans will know what they are seeing."

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