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LAS VEGAS – With big money up for grabs at the Wrangler Nationals Finals Rodeo, any of the top-15 contestants in every event of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world standings still have chances for gold buckles.

Minden bareback rider Wyatt Denny is a perfect example.

In his third-consecutive appearance at the WNFR, Denny started Round 1 with a bang – a strong mark-out, a classic spur ride and aboard a gifted dancing partner.

On Pickett Pro Rodeo’s “Night Crawler,” Denny didn’t just crawl to the top of the leaderboard – he jumped Thursday night at Thomas & Mack Center.

With a score of 87 points, he won the first round and stuffed $26,230.77 into the pockets of his jeans.

“I’ve never ridden that horse before. I didn’t even know him,” Denny said. “When I looked at the draw, I knew everyone’s horses except mine but it all worked out.”

Denny knocked down his third qualification to the WNFR in 15th place, but a broken neck suffered by JR Vezain bumped Denny up to the 14th – leaving the door open for three-time world champion (2003, 2005, 2006) Will Lowe to take the final spot.

With Thursday’s win in Round 1, Denny catapulted four spots to 10th in the world standings with $113,726.63 in earnings.

Entering Round 2 on Friday night, he drew the horse “Painted Brush” of J Bar J Rodeo.

“I haven’t been on that horse either, but he should be a lot like the one I rode in the first round. They come from the same bloodlines,” he said. “Cullen Pickett is the son-in-law of Sparky Dreesen, who owns J Bar J.”

Rusty

Elko steer wrestler Dakota Eldridge knocked down five-consecutive qualifications to the WNFR from 2013 through 2017, two WNFR average titles (2015, 2017) in a three-year span and a runner-up finish to the world title in 2015.

A devastating knee injury in July at the Cheyenne Frontier Days cost him the chance for making six straight trips to Las Vegas.

The setback required reconstructive surgery – ending Eldridge’s season early – although he still finished 24th in the world standings with $52,951.91 in earnings, despite missing the final three months of the season.

While Eldridge’s misfortune cost him a trip to the WNFR, his 19-year sorrel gelding “Rusty” still performed in Round 1.

Eldridge loaned the tried-and-proven mount to fellow steer wrestlers Blake Knowles, of Heppner, Oregon, and Bridger Chambers, of Stevensville, Montana.

Each cowboy found immediate dividends.

Knowles placed second Thursday with a time of 3.8 seconds – earning a check for $20,730.77 – Chambers splitting third and fourth with a time of four-seconds flat for $13,326.92.

In the world standings, Knowles currently ranks fourth with $106,188.49 and Chambers follows him in fifth at $104,505.27.

Matt Shiozawa

Chubbock, Idaho’s Matt Shiozawa is no stranger to success in the rodeo arena or at the WNFR.

The tie-down roper with Nevada ties is making his 11th trip at the Thomas & Mack.

The former WNFR average winner and two-time runner-up for a world championship split sixth place for the final checks of the first round Thursday night, posting a time of 8.5 seconds.

He roped the calf with a quick, sharp loop out of the box, but he didn’t get quite enough pull from his horse – the animal moving to the left as he tried to flank.

The slight hiccup cost him a chance to win the round, but he began his 10-round journey with a check for $2,115.38.

More importantly, he did not miss, break a barrier or take a no-time and is alive and well in the average race – always posing the threat of doing damage in the upcoming rounds.

After Round 1, Shiozawa ranked 12th in the world standings with a total of $96,268.76.

Follow live

Keep track of the action as the cowboys and cowgirls (barrel racing) battle it out during the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, broadcast through Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. nightly on CBS Sports Network – Channel 158 on Dish Network and Channel 221 on DirecTV.

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