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PONDER, Texas â€“ Bray Armes isnâ€™t much of a gambler, but he loves Las Vegas.
He returns to the City of Lights next week with his third qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. This is a business trip for the steer wrestler from Ponder, and he takes care of business quite well in the Nevada desert.
In 2012-13, Armes has earned more than $288,500 grappling bovines â€“ he pocketed $185,755 of that in Las Vegas over 20 December nights. Now he goes into ProRodeoâ€™s premier event sixth in the world standings. He trails leader Trevor Knowles by $22,500, but that gap can be closed in a hurry at the NFR, where go-round winners earn $19,000 each night.
â€śMy whole thought is that Iâ€™m going into the finals in the best position Iâ€™ve ever gone in,â€ť said Armes, who grew up in the northern-most area of the Texas Panhandle near Gruver. â€śIâ€™ve got just as good of a shot as anybody to go in there and win the gold buckle. Iâ€™m going to try to win as many rounds as I can and see where it falls in the end.â€ť
Last December, he downed 10 steers in a cumulative time of 44.8 seconds to win the coveted NFR average championship â€“ it is the second greatest accomplishment in the game, only to be outdone by the world championship.
To say he likes the set up at the Thomas & Mack Center would be a bit of an understatement.
â€śI like a fast start,â€ť he said. â€śIâ€™ve always seemed to do pretty good at quick starts, and itâ€™s definitely as fast as anywhere we go. Iâ€™ve been blessed to ride good horses out there every year, and Iâ€™ve had great hazers.
â€śEverythingâ€™s been lined up good for me.â€ť
Itâ€™s been worth the wait. Armes focused on competing sparingly early in his career, then stepped away from the game in 2009-11. When he returned in 2012, he did so with a goal of being one of the best in the game. Heâ€™s been one of the elite ever since. He finished the 2014 regular season with more than $69,000.
He won the Wrangler Champions Challenge in Kennewick, Wash., and also earned at least a share of the title at Jackson, Miss.; Lake Charles, La.; Armstrong, B.C.; and Dodge City, Kan.
â€śDodge City is always one Iâ€™ve wanted to win, and Iâ€™ve had the opportunity to win it before,â€ť said Armes, a four-time College National Finals Rodeo qualifier while attending Howard County Junior College in Big Spring, Texas, and Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. â€śThat was pretty awesome to get the win at it.â€ť
It was the perfect time of year. He had just enjoyed his family being on the rodeo trail for two weeks. As a rodeo cowboy who spends much of his time away from home, those few days with his wife, Neelley, daughter, Breely, and son, Drake, were priceless. In fact, Breely was still with him when he won the title in western Kansas.
â€śMy family came out with me more than they ever have, and Breely stayed with me another week because she had never done that by herself before,â€ť he said. â€śMy family means the world to me. They take care of everything at home. A smile or anything, just to see them, it tends to bring you back. When youâ€™re down, they can always pick you back up.
â€śAll it takes is a little smile from them, and you seem to forget about everything else.â€ť
In fact, that sentiment will bring some big changes for the Armeses in 2015.
â€śWhen I got home, I told them I wasnâ€™t ready to quit, but I was willing to do that or they needed to make the decision to go with me all year,â€ť he said. â€śI donâ€™t want to miss the kids growing up. Weâ€™re all so close. They pretty much build me up all the time and keep me happy. The hardest part of what I do is being away from them, and Iâ€™m ready to be with them every day instead of away from them.â€ť
Thatâ€™s bound to make everything better for next year, but Armes has no other complaints about his 2014 season. He leaned on hazer Sean Mulligan, a four-time NFR qualifier from Coleman, Okla., and on his horse, Ote, a lightning quick palomino gelding.
Heâ€™ll do so in Las Vegas.
â€śThey donâ€™t make them any better than Sean Mulligan,â€ť Armes said. â€śWhen I back in the box, Iâ€™ve got to worry about one thing, and thatâ€™s bulldogging. Oteâ€™s going to work great every time, and Seanâ€™s going to have the steers right there where I need them every time. Seanâ€™s hard to beat because he has the steers picked up for you every time.
â€śIâ€™m blessed to have Ote, because he gives me a chance to win every time. If I donâ€™t win, itâ€™s usually pilot error. He scores great and gives me everything heâ€™s got ever time. Thereâ€™s not a lot of them out there that do that.â€ť
With that kind of team in his corner, Armes is coming out swinging when the 10-round NFR slugfest begins Dec. 4. He has high goals â€“ â€śI want to wear them both, the average buckle and the gold buckle,â€ť he said â€“ and he has the right frame of mind to do it.
â€śWinning the gold buckle means everything to us; itâ€™s why we do what we do,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s the highest point that we can get to in our careers. To be able to win the world title would be something special.â€ť
It would be a dream come true.