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5 things to watch at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas

For the 32nd time, the National Finals Rodeo will make its home in Las Vegas.

More than 2,000 tons of dirt has been brought in to help transform the Thomas & Mack Center into the home of rodeo’s main event.

And this year’s NFR promises lots of lead changes, a new all-around champion and a wide-open field in many events as 120 competitors descend on the Thomas & Mack Center beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday.

“The NFR obviously it’s just the Super Bowl of rodeo,” PRCA commissioner Karl Stressman said. “It’s one of those things where everybody wants to come and take a look at.”

Here are five things to watch from the NFR, which runs nightly through Dec. 10:

THE ALL-AROUND

For 13 of the past 14 years, Trevor Brazile has been crowned the PRCA’s all-around cowboy champion. But there will be a new champion this year.

Brazile spent the year competing in a new pro rodeo association, the Elite Rodeo Athletes, of which he is a shareholder, meaning he is exempt from PRCA events.

“There was a lawsuit this year,” Stressman said. “Whatever you believe was the right or wrong piece of the lawsuit, it eliminated Trevor from being in the all-around category. He’s an outstanding cowboy, and he’s dominated it for years.

“Him not being there gives opportunity for somebody else to say, ‘Hey, you know what, I get a chance to make a run at this deal.’”

There are no two-event qualifiers, and of the cowboys in the top 10, only No. 5 Russell Cardoza can’t win, as he’s $9,000 behind his team-roping partner.

Junior Nogueira is atop the standings with $123,786.02 in earnings.

NEWCOMERS

The NFR will feature a record 39 first-time qualifiers. That includes 11 team ropers, seven bull riders and six barrel racers.

“This year, because of some circumstances, it gave some other people an opportunity to be there at the Wrangler National Finals maybe that would not have been there in the past,” Stressman said. “It’s also given some young people some opportunity.”

LEAD CHANGES

When the prize money jumped from $6.3 million to $10 million, it changed the dynamic of the NFR, opening doors for competitors to move up a number of spots quickly.

“I think every race this year, along with last year, because the rounds pay so much, $26,000 and change to win a round, nobody’s lead is really safe in that,” Stressman said.

He cited Tim O’Connell’s lead of more than $40,000 in the bareback standings and bull rider Sage Kimzey’s $55,495 lead, among others.

“In the past, those would have been safe leads, but money being increased by our partners in Las Vegas over the past two years, everything’s wide open,” Stressman said. “It just makes much more exciting when the dollars are there.”

Stressman said there was a new storyline almost every day last year with standings switching, and now with the amount of money available, he said every cowboy has an opportunity to make up significant ground during the 10-day competition.

YOUNGEST MILLIONAIRE

Kimzey has a chance to become the youngest millionaire in ProRodeo history.

He has career earnings of $844,685, and is in first place in the bull riding standings.

Kimzey, who will be 22 years, 3 months and 15 days on Dec. 10, has a chance to break Tuf Cooper’s record, which he achieved at 23 years, 22 days.

Kimzey has averaged $164,022 in his first two trips to the NFR, making it certainly possible that he’ll eclipse $1 million in Las Vegas.

“That’s a young man that you can in fact really appreciate who he is, what he does, what he stands for,” Stressman said. “The fact that he’s young becoming the first one to win a million at that age, that just tells us that rodeo is at least making some headway in terms of the financial aspect of it for the contestants.”

BRAZILIANS

Could this be the year a Brazilian takes home a gold buckle? It hasn’t happened, but two Brazilians are well positioned to potentially be winners.

Nogueira leads the all-around by $7,182.87 over Josh Peek and team roping (heeling) by $13,557.02.

Fellow Brazilian Marcos Costa leads the tie-down roping by $16,983.94 over Timber Moore.

Contact Betsy Helfand at bhelfand@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BetsyHelfand on Twitter.

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