Championship Saturday at the National Finals Rodeo featured a wide range of emotions, from the giddiness of 24-year-old Hailey Kinsel to the teary goodbyes of Trevor Brazile to the remembrances of loved ones lost in 2018 for Caleb Smidt.
All three Texans earned those coveted Montana Silversmiths gold buckles while in Las Vegas. Kinsel of Cotulla actually clinched hers on Dec. 14, after winning the ninth round. It was her fourth round victory in the championship. She placed three other nights and earned $157,865 to win her first barrel racing world title.
She and her great horse, Sister, finished the season with $350,700, distancing the No. 2 cowgirl by $99,000.
Brazile, though, made his statement before the NFR began. At 42, he decided it was to focus more on his family than his rodeo career. It brought out many emotions from Brazile to fellow cowboys to the hundreds of thousands of rodeo fans in Las Vegas through the finale.
It came to a head on that final Saturday night in front of a live television audience. During his interview shown on the CBS Sports Network, he broke down into tears, an uncommon appearance for the typically stoic Brazile.
He still plans to continue his rodeo career, but on a much smaller basis. He hopes to be a part-time cowboy. With that, he realized this would likely be his last NFR. The pressure to succeed showed in the winningest cowboy to have ever played the game.
Brazile, of Decatur, owns 24 world championships, by far the record for the most gold buckles. This year he earned his 14th all-around world title, another record. But it wasn’t without a struggle in a fight that featured his brother-in-law, Tuf Cooper, and Utahan Rhen Richard, the only cowboy to qualify for Las Vegas in two events—tie-down roping and team roping.
“It’s a really unique situation because I love him so much, and I’m his biggest fan, too,” Brazile said of Cooper during an interview with the PRCA. “It’s a crazy dynamic that we’ve lived for so long, but I can’t wait to just sit back and be able to watch him instead of competing with him.”
Smidt, though, had the most adversity of any of the Texas titlists. In January, his father, Randy, died at the age of 63 after a battle with cancer. On Nov. 4, just a month before the NFR began, his wife’s brother, Will Byler, died on is wedding day in a helicopter crash with his newlywed wife, Bailee.
Just 41 days later, Caleb Smidt wrapped his hands around his second gold buckle. He looked to the heavens, and he smiled through his grief. The trying year also gave the Bellville, Texas, cowboy one of the most precious gifts of his career.
But he earned every ounce of gold in that trophy, as did every other world champion. They just didn’t do it while still grieving.
“I came out here (to Las Vegas) to rope and do it for my family,” he told the PRCA. —Ted Harbin
Ted Harbin is a longtime journalist who spent 22 years in the newspaper industry before focusing on rodeo. He owns Rodeo Media Relations and TwisTed Rodeo and is one of just eight individuals to be honored with media awards by both the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. He lives in Maryville, Mo., with is wife, Lynette, and their two daughters, Laney and Channing.