PUEBLO, Colo. – Excitement, anticipation, frustration, disappointment, anger and sadness were just a few of the emotions that flowed through Gage Gay’s body this past October during the 2014 Built Ford Tough World Finals.
The talented 20-year-old rookie bull rider began the week eighth in the world standings, and in clear control of the PBR Rookie of the Year race. He controlled his destiny of becoming the first American rider in five years to take home the honor and was the clear-cut favorite entering the season’s marque event after being the first rookie rider to earn a spot on the BFTS back in January.
However, over the span of five days, Gay went through an uncharacteristic slump and struggled to find his groove inside the Thomas & Mack Center, while fellow rookie J.W. Harris put forth a Herculean rally to snatch the rookie title from Gay’s grasp.
It was a shocking turn of events as Gay wound up going 1-for-5 in Las Vegas and lost the Rookie of the Year title by just 95.13 points.
“It happens,” Gay said this week before heading to Kearney, Nebraska, for Saturday’s Midway Auto Group PBR Touring Pro Division event. “It wasn’t nobody’s fault but my own. If I would have rode one more bull at the Finals, I would have won it. It is kind of my fault and it was just a bad couple of days.”
It was a dark ending to an otherwise standout performance by the Staley, North Carolina, bull rider in his first year on tour. Gay, who received words of encouragement from fellow riders Douglas Duncan and Chase Outlaw at the World Finals, concluded the season 11th in the world standings, which was second-best among all rookie riders, and finished with a 33.33 percent riding average. He tied Tanner Byrne for the most Top-5 finishes (5) among rookie bull riders and led all rookies with nine Top-10 finishes.
He and Harris were also the only rookie riders to post 90-point rides and both finished with two on the season.
Harris said he has no doubts that Gay will be a force at future BFTS events.
“Gage rides really good for being 20 years old,” Harris said moments after winning the Rookie of the Year title at Finals. “He has a bright future ahead of him.”
Gay was the only first-year rider to win a BFTS event this season after he kicked off the second half of the season by going 3-for-3 to win in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Obviously, my win in Tulsa was probably my highlight,” Gay said. “To be the only rookie to win an event is kind of an accomplishment to me.”
Still, there is no question that Gay is motivated to get a mulligan next year for a better showing in Las Vegas.
“Just riding one bull at the Finals really motivates me,” he said. “I can’t really do much worse next year, so I can really only go up. It really made me mad I didn’t finish in the Top 10 (of the world standings), but to still be 11th in the world at 20 years old isn’t too bad.
“I take the good out of it and don’t worry about the bad.”
Some wondered if the nerves of competing at his first World Finals were the culprit of his struggles.
Gay believes it was actually quite the opposite.
“It wasn’t a whole lot of nerves,” Gay explained. “Just the energy in that building got me pumped up. That may have been what it was. I overrode a couple of the bulls I was on. That may have been what it was. Next year, I just have to remember to settle down and take it like it is a practice pen.”
Jerome Davis first saw Gay ride as a young teenager in Florida and later witnessed Gay’s continued progression as a bull rider once the Gays moved to Staley in 2006. Even before Gay made it on tour, Davis believed the young bull rider would be a Top-10 contender.
Davis said it is important to remember that Gay is still only 20 years old and that growing pains are part of the maturation process of adjusting to the BFTS.
“He is learning,” Davis said. “It is a stepping stage. We are asking a lot of a guy that is 20 years old for his first year on tour. Silvano (Alves), J.B. (Mauney) or any of these guys roll into these coliseums and they’ve been there, they’ve done that. They feel at home. Everything is routine to them.
“Everything is new to that kid. When he rolled in here at the World Finals, we have two arenas, the place is sold out and it is a new thing. You go, ‘Whoa.’ You dream of this when you are a kid and he made it. He (got) the first time jitters out this year, and I look for big things from Gage next year.”
There was also the question of whether Gay dealt with an injury leading up to the Finals. After winning in Tulsa, Gay failed to record multiple rides at a single event for the rest of the season.
Gay admitted this week that he was plagued by an unknown left hip injury throughout the second half of the season and during Finals.
“My hip has been bothering me for some reason,” he said. “I am not sure why, but it had been for quite some time. It was definitely messed up before the Finals. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it. I am not going to say that it did or it didn’t. It was just sore.”
The hip bothered him again at last month’s Touring Pro Division event in Springfield, Missouri, and Gay said he plans on having sports medicine look at his hip during the BFTS season-opener in Baltimore next month.
Other than getting on those two bulls in Springfield, Gay has spent the majority of the offseason relaxing, working out at the gym – he has gained five pounds – and climbing aboard his Mighty Bucky.
Last week, he went hunting with Josh Faircloth and Eli Vastbinder for another mental break before the season returns.
“Hell, I couldn’t shoot nothing to save my life,” Gay said with a laugh. “All of my buddies killed deer, but I didn’t.”
While it was a fun trip, Gay added that he is getting tired of sitting around at home and wants the BFTS to kick back into gear.
Plus, he has that extra motivation gnawing away at him.
“Losing that rookie race lit a fire up in me and it seems to help me when I get fired up and mad about bull riding,” Gay said. “Hopefully, that will help me next year.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko.
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