The $2 million American, a professional rodeo calling itself the richest one-day rodeo in history, will kick up a storm Sunday, March 2 before a projected 75,000 rooters at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
And Bellevue’s Kelly Wardell, 50, was almost there, about two points away from qualifying for the RFD-TV’s American presented by Polaris RANGER at the home site of the NFL Dallas Cowboys.
The oldest of all the bareback riding qualifiers on the American circuit this year, Wardell finished sixth with a 79.5 point ride on Korkow Rodeo’s Flash Card Champion during the American Semi-Finals Shootout staged Feb. 22-23 at Mesquite, Texas.
Only the top five in the bareback riding semi-final qualified for Sunday’s upcoming competition that brings together the top athletes in each of the traditional rodeo events. So Wardell just missed.
“It was a one-shot deal and I did all I could,” said Wardell this week. “I did my job, the horse did his job, but two judges saw it different. I was only two points away from getting in. It was frustrating, especially with so much on the line.”
Sunday at Arlington, the winner of each American event will earn $100,000 and be eligible for a $1 million prize.
Wardell figured that kind of prize was worth the $900 fee he paid to enter a qualifying bareback event Nov. 17, 2013 at Rapid City, S.D. He captured second place there with an 82-point ride and earned a berth in the Mesquite semi-final.
He said it was his first competition on a horse in 10 years, although he does stay in good shape with MMA fighting and is still physically able to ride.
Making Wardell unique, despite the fact that he turns 51 in March and is still doing what he calls “the most abusive event in rodeo,” are these rodeo history tidbits:
He joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association way back in 1985, nearly 29 years ago. He qualified for the National Finals Rodeo four time starting in 1996. In 2001, Wardell was the No. 1 bareback rider in the world with regular-season earnings of $105,903 and might have won the world championship that year if not for an injury.
During that remarkable 2001 season, the wiry 5-10, 160-pound Wardell scored 91 points on a very tough bucking horse and came within two points of the all-time PRCA bareback mark of 93. He qualified for the 2002 Winter Olympic rodeo in Salt Lake City, Utah where he ended up with a silver medal.
Wardell, who conducts rodeo schools and advises young riders, will be watching the American finals closely in Texas this weekend. Two of his bareback students will be competing for the big prize and he’ll be rooting for them.
“I made spurs for both of them,” said Wardell.
They are Tyler Nelson of Victor, Idaho, with finished second in Sunday’s semi-final shootout with an 84-point ride, and RC Landingham of Huntsville, Texas, who was fourth with 82.5 points. He’s proud of them, but Wardell would be like to be there as well.
“If I go to some rodeos this summer and they do something like the American next year, I’ll be there,” he said. “I’ve always had the dream to do a rodeo camp for kids and build a place to do that—and $1 million would go a long way to achieving that.”