Ryan Gray and Tyson Durfey made returning to the upper echelon of pro rodeo sound easy.
Both used the word focus after they officially qualified for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. It was a trip they both missed last year, ending long appearances at the lucrative season ending Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association championship.
“I tried to focus more and enjoy it,” said Gray, a bareback rider who graduated from Cheney High School. “I’m riding better. I felt I had to step up my game.”
Gray had qualified for seven straight Finals before last year and, with more than $100,000 in winnings, heads to Las Vegas in fourth place among bareback riders.
Durfey, a tie-down roper from Missouri who has called Colbert home since he became one of the best ropers in the country, said, “After last year I really got focused and worked out. I invested in new horses and I have a lot more horse power.”
After having his run of five straight Finals end, he returns in second place among tie-down ropers. He is just shy of $100,000.
The 10-day NFR runs Dec. 5-14. The local cowboys will be joined by Grand Coulee bull rider Shane Proctor, who is the 2011 World Champion, and team roping brothers Riley and Brady Minor of Ellensburg.
“I didn’t change anything, the way I ride or do anything different,” Gray said. “Sometimes you over-think or try too hard and I think I did that some last year. I had some unfortunate things happen to me as well and I missed a lot of opportunities.”
He earned $48,767 and finished the season 17th. The top 15 qualify for the NFR.
“Every year you get older and you have to work harder to stay on top,” Gray added. “There are young guys coming up, trying to pass you, so you have to focus more and physically be in better shape. I turned 30 this year and I have to work hard to make up for that.
“Last year gave me that drive. I know I’m capable of being one of the best. It fueled my fire not to sit home and have to watch on TV. I’m where I want to be. My goal was to be in the top five.”
Four-time world champion Bobby Mote, who has moved from Oregon to Stephenville, Texas, leads the bareback riders with $126,194. Gray’s official total is $108,287, having won at 11 rodeos this year.
Anything can happen at the Finals, as Gray well knows. He has been as high as fourth and in 2010 he entered in first place and came away with a serious injury, a lacerated kidney, sidelining him in the second round.
Gray started his 2014 season (officially starts Oct. 1) with a couple of rodeos last week and he’ll compete in the Columbia River Circuit Finals in Redmond, Ore., Nov. 1-2. In between he is working on building a barn on his new place outside of Reardan. After the CRC Finals he’ll head to his ranch in Texas.
“My health is good, I’m as healthy as I’ve been in 10 years,” Gray said. “I don’t have any injuries to speak of. I feel like I’m riding as good as I’ve been.”
Durfey changed his approach this year.
“My whole goal was to stay fresh,” he said. “When I go, I go to win. I cut down miles by 15,000 (from 85,000). It doesn’t sound like a lot but when your house has to bounce around in a trailer and you don’t have a chance to rest. … 70,000 is still a lot but the extra time to rest and focus helps and my horses are fresher.”
That meant the two-time Canadian champion only took one trip across the border. He won an average of $3,000 in the five rodeos he went to but it takes 15 to qualify for the Canadian finals.
Although he has won $97,995, he trails defending champion Tuf Cooper by what would be considered a lot if the stakes in Vegas weren’t so high. Durfey does have a pretty good history at the Finals, including a second-place finish in 2008.
“I’m in better shape than ever, no issues” said Durfey, who finished 18th last year at $53,141 but won nine rodeos this year. “I’m ready to go to Vegas and let the chips fall.”
Durfey got married Oct. 5 to an Australian cowgirl he met in Houston several years ago. He is moving to Dripping Springs, Texas, outside of Austin.
Proctor, who finished sixth last year in bull riding, shut down his regular season a little early because of a shoulder that kept popping out of the socket.
“I know I had pretty much made the finals,” he explained. “After Pendleton I decided it was time to let it heal.”
Proctor got off to a bit of a slow start and has $75,859, good for 10th place. Former World Champion J.W. Harris is leading at $130,383.
“I split time in the PBR (Professional Bull Riders) and the PRCA,” he explained. “I don’t get to hit many big rodeos in the winter. I make all my money in the summer. But if you’re not riding for Vegas … that’s where you make the money.”
Proctor also won almost $10,000 riding saddle broncs, which boots him to fourth in the all-around chase – light years behind perennial champion Trevor Brazile. In fact, of his eight bull riding wins this year he was crowned the all-around champion at four rodeos.
Not many team ropers – or anyone else – enters the NFR hotter than the Minors. On the fringe of the top 15 as autumn approached, they seemed to place in every recent rodeo. Now Riley is sitting sixth among headers and Brady fifth in heeling heading to their fourth finals.
The brothers have earned $78,672, more than $40,000 better than last year when they were never in contention. Clay Tryan leads the headers with $110,607 and Jade Corkhill tops heelers with $110,607.