Cheney’s Gray rides high

Ryan Gray is the leader in the clubhouse. If the clubhouse is built on quicksand and crafted from popsicle sticks and Elmer’s Glue … in a hurricane.

OK, perhaps not that bad.

But there is no safe haven for a rodeo cowboy, not in the eight seconds atop an ornery bronc nor after eight months atop the money list.

Thursday brings the first go-round of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, the Super Bowl for the boots-and-chutes set, except that instead of two weeks of overwrought analysis and cotton batting leading up to the game, it’s game-on for 10 successive nights to settle the world championship. There’s also nearly $6 million in prize money at stake, divvied up night by night, so uneasy lies the head, if you will.

At the moment, that head belongs to Ryan Gray. In his ninth season on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, it didn’t seem to matter where on the map the 27-year-old former Cheney High School wrestler woke up because he always found himself on top. He won at Colorado Springs and Canby, Ore. He won at San Juan Capistrano and Spanish Fork, Utah. He won the Pendleton Roundup and the Last Chance Stampede.

In the process, he rolled up $159,024 and leads the seasonal standings in bareback riding by nearly $23,000 over Steven Dent.

“It’s been a great year,” Gray agreed, “but it has a chance to be an even better one.”

And a chance that he’ll be bucked off. More than $56,000 will be disbursed each NFR go-round, and three times that when they figure out the 10-go average. Even the 15th-and-last entrant – D.V. Fennell, who’s $95,000 behind Gray – mathematically has a chance to overtake the leader by getting hot.

In this regard, rodeo’s postseason has nearly every game beat. No other sport’s playoffs go back-to-back-to-back with no rest, with nightly beatings from some nasty nag. NASCAR’s silly Chase pares the contenders down to a dozen – but the eliminated drivers are still out there going around in circles. Golf’s money leader doesn’t have to win a major – or win at all, really. The World Cup can be settled by, ugh, a penalty shootout.

And let’s not even mention the BCS.

There’s also an interesting byproduct: the pressure that might normally be on the leader to hang on to his head start – the, uh, choke factor – is almost pointless.

“You can get so much done here,” Gray said, “and things change every day. I think it’s a great accomplishment to be the leader coming in, but I’m not going to put any pressure on myself to stay No. 1. What I am going to do is ride the best I can and win every night.”

As game plans go, it’s worked all season.

Gray has been among bareback’s upper tier since qualifying for his first NFR in 2005, only once finishing lower than sixth. And he’s experienced the whiplash changes of the NFR: in that first appearance, he scored 85 on his seventh-round ride and climbed to within $330 of leader Will Lowe before falling back.

This year, he made his move early. At RodeoHouston in March – the circuit’s most lucrative pre-NFR stop – he scored a 90.5 aboard Fancy Free and pocketed $55,000, and the competition’s been in the rear-view ever since. There may have been some serendipity at work. Gray has admired Fancy Free for a while – he named his border collie Fancy, in tribute – but had never drawn the horse.

“There’s a lot of confidence to be gained from winning a rodeo like that,” he said.

It also gave him a cushion to take care of something he’d been putting off. Gray tore the ACL in his right knee in 2006 and never had it repaired. By spring, it had become unstable enough that it was tearing his meniscus, so before the important summer rodeos Gray went in for arthroscopic surgery and shut things down for more than a month – but not to fix the ACL.

“That will have to wait,” he said. “That’s six to eight months, and that’s a whole season.”

In any case, he didn’t show much rust. In his first rodeo after rehab – in Clovis, N.M. – he scored a 90 on Pinball Wizard and won again.

His first draw in Las Vegas – Alley Trail – is another horse on which he’s won. But no matter how he rides, it’s only the first of 10.

“This is a great format, I think,” Gray said. “You don’t back into anything. It’s who rides the best all the way to the end. It’s a test – by the 10th day, everybody’s feeling it. But I can’t think of a better way to find out who’s the best.”

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