It's crunch time in professional rodeo.
Only a handful of big-money rodeos remain this season, which means contestants are running out of time to secure an invitation to the 2009 Wrangler National Finals in Las Vegas.
The top 15 money-winners in each event compete at the Thomas & Mack Center in December, so the scramble for NFR berths is a major storyline at every PRCA rodeo these days.
A few cowboys and cowgirls have already wrapped up spots in the National Finals and just need to stay healthy to compete in Vegas.
For others, however, nothing is guaranteed and, much like the NCAA basketball tournament, how those on the bubble perform down the stretch will have a huge impact on their chance of reaching the big dance.
"Things are winding down," said Eagle Mountain saddle bronc rider Rusty Allen. "... It's the time of the year where you have to take advantage of every opportunity, you have to go somewhere and make a little money."
Last year, nine Utahns qualified for the National Finals Rodeo. Saddle bronc rider Cody Wright of Milford captured a world championship.
This year, Payson's Steve Woolsey (bull riding), Spanish Fork's Clint Robinson (tie down roping), Elk Ridge's Kaycee Feild (bareback) and Wright have already earned enough money so -- barring the unforeseen -- their ticket to the NFR is punched.
Seven other Utahns are on the bubble, though. The group is led by 2007 world champion bull rider Wesley Silcox of Santaquin.
Silcox battled injuries at the start of the season but is 17th in this week's standings. He's only about $3,600 out of the top 15.
Tie down roper Jake Hannum of Ogden also sits just outside the top 15 in season earnings. He's 20th, about $5,000 shy of qualifying for the second NFR of his career.
"There's probably a little bit more [pressure] in a situation like this," Hannum said. "But, really, there's pressure every time you go out because this is what we do for a living and there are always bills to pay."
Hannum doesn't plan to change his schedule just to compete in more rodeos and give himself a chance at more prize money.
"I'm sticking to what I've done every year," he said. "You go to the big rodeos, for sure. But you also try to go to ones where there's a pretty good chance to win some money because that's the name of the game -- winning."
Hannum put himself into position to challenge for the top 15 with wins at the Oakley Independence Day Rodeo and the Ute Stampede in Nephi. He earned over $20,000 in the lucrative weeks around the Fourth of July known as Cowboy Christmas.
"It's slowed down a little the last few weeks," Hannum said. "But it's been a good year. If I draw a good calf and a good jump, it seems like I've taken advantage of it."
Like Silcox and Hannum, Allen needs some late-season success to reach the National Finals.
He sits in 18th place in the saddle bronc standings after earning more than $5,000 last weekend for runner-up finishes at Lawton, Okla., and Missoula, Mont.
Asked if he feels the pressure of the race to Las Vegas, Allen said, "Yes and no. Yes there's pressure because, this time of year, we'd like to be solidly in the top 15. But no because there is only so much you can do. You have to draw good at the right kind of rodeos and that's stuff you don't have any control over. So it's a double-edge sword."
Allen isn't changing his schedule, mostly because he's already booked solid through the end of the season.
"I always plan to rodeo full-time -- from start to finish throughout the year -- even if I'm going real good and leading the whole deal," Allen said. "... I do everything I can to get to 100 rodeos, at least."
This week, Allen's quest to reach the National Finals will take him to Canby, Ore., Caldwell, Idaho, Moses Lake, Wash., Gooding, Idaho, and San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
One of Utah's top performers in last year's National Finals Rodeo will definitely not return.
Shawn Proctor of Payson finished fourth in the 2008 NFR standings after riding four of his 10 bulls, winning one round and earning over $70,000. But he has been sidelined since mid-May after shoulder surgery.
Proctor earned only $12,502 through the first 4½ weeks of the 2009 season and was ranked 34th in the world before electing to have surgery.
"I just wasn't performing as well as I should and decided it was time get it fixed," said Proctor at the time of his surgery.
"This will be the first time I've ever sat out. ... I took that money I made at the National Finals and bought some land, so I've got plenty to do. But it's still frustrating. I'd rather be out there rodeoing."
(The top 15 in each event qualify)
Viva Las Vegas/They're in
Kaycee Feild (Elk Ridge) » Fourth in bareback
Clint Robinson (Spanish Fork) » Third in tie down roping
Cody Wright (Milford) » Ninth in saddle bronc
Steve Woolsey (Payson) » Third in bull riding
On the Bubble/They can still get there
Rusty Allen (Eagle Mountain) » 18th in saddle bronc
Jake Hannum (Ogden) » 20th in tie down roping
Nancy Hunter (Neola) » 16th in barrel racing
Rhen Richards (Roosevelt) » 15th in team roping (heeler)
Colby Siddoway (Hooper) » 17th in team roping (header)
Wesley Silcox (Santaquin) » 17th in bull riding
Jesse Wright (Milford) » 21st in saddle bronc
The top PRCA rodeo events remaining this season, prior to the National Finals in December:
Aug. 18-22 » Caldwell (Idaho) Night Rodeo
Sept. 11-13 » Puyallup (Wash.) Pro Rodeo
Sept. 16-19 » Pendleton (Ore.) Roundup
Sept. 24-26 » River City Roundup, Omaha
Oct. 9-17 » Heartland Championship, Waco
Aug. 18-22 » Caldwell (Idaho) Night Rodeo
Aug. 20-22 » Great Plains Stampede Rodeo, Altus, Okla.
Aug. 20-22 » Moses Lake (Wash.) Roundup
Aug. 21-23 » North Texas Fair and Rodeo, Denton
Aug. 22-23 » Rancho Misson Viejo (Calif.) Rodeo, San Juan Capistrano