Leading up to the 10th round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo the tie-down roping race was the most wide-open.
Mathematically, seven cowboys had a shot at the world title. But in the end, it was the cagey veteran Fred Whitfield, who came out on top-for the eighth time, no less.
"I just never got a break, but I kept my cool, stayed composed and just roped," the seven-time world champion calf roper and 1999 all-around champ said after the rodeo. "I knew that today I'd have to tie one in six. I managed to be 7.4 to win third in the round and boost me to the championship."
But it wasn't quite that simple for the Hockley, Texas, cowboy. Due to outstanding performances by some and disappointing ones by others, an entire season came down to the final round. To be in the world-title mix, ropers had to be the top three in the round. Plus, there were several cowboys who didn't have a shot at the buckle who could have easily played spoilers in the Thomas and Mack Center.
So Whitfield started studying. He talked to all the ropers who had roped the calf he drew in the 10th round to learn his tendencies. He studied all the times the ropers posted on the calf and watched every second of film on him.
Still, five-time world champ Cody Ohl was in the thick of the hunt and wouldn't go away easily. In fact, the Hico, Texas, cowboy roped his 10th round calf in a blistering 6.7 seconds, .2 of a second off his own arena record. Not only would that run earn Ohl over $15,000 for the round, it would bump him ahead of Whitfield in the average race. The payoff margin between places in the average is roughly $7,000.
To win the world, Whitfield had to not only maintain the fifth spot in the average, he had to place at least third in the round. And that's exactly what he did.
He roped the calf he had studied so hard in 7.4 seconds. He finished third in the round and .3 tenths of a second behind Ohl in the average. He won the world title by $4,142-a narrow margin by today's standards.
"I've got eight of them and I can't put one over the rest, but out of all the championships I've won this one was the most hard-fought," said Whitfield. "I battled all year long. I had a slow winter then in the summertime it picked up and I won the Pace Chute-out in Reno then I won quite a bit at Omaha and then won decent at Dallas. Those tours gave me a chance to get a lead and that's what helped me win this title. I rodeoed all year long, went to 75 rodeos and Mike (Johnson) and I were two or three thousand apart when I got here. And that was the bonus that made me know I didn't have to gamble when I got out here. I just knew I had to rope consistent, be solid and make them beat me."
And they simply couldn't.
When the dust settled and computers completed their frenzied whirring, Whitfield earned $168,782 for the season. Only $44,507 of it came in Las Vegas.
"I had it set up to win two or three rounds and it just didn't happen," he said. "I had bad breaks all week, but I never let them affect me, I just kept roping, stayed composed and I knew I had a chance to win it and it worked out. I had a decent calf and I just went out and roped him."
The whole season came to down clutch performances from Whitfield. He didn't make the headlines he usually does, but he won big when he had to. After a disappointing winter and spring run, he came to Reno for the Pace ProRodeo Chute-out and won roughly $15,000. Then, with one last chance at Pendleton, Ore., to qualify for the high-paying Pace ProRodeo Challenge in Omaha he came through with final-round and average wins.
The scenario was no different on December 11 in Vegas.
"I never had a doubt in my mind," Whitfield said. "I had more people who called me that doubted me. I don't doubt myself, I know my ability and I know where I'm at and I just take care of business."