FRESNO, Calif. ― J.W. Harris isn’t your typical rookie making his Built Ford Tough Series debut.
After competing in his first BFTS event in Fresno, Calif., the 27-year-old couldn’t help but smile when asked if he learned anything going forward.
As a matter of fact he did, but he didn’t need to be at a PBR event or a pro rodeo to be reminded to keep his feet down.
One little mistake kept the Mullin, Texas, cowboy from making the Built Ford Tough Championship Round.
He let his feet get up in Round 2 and despite having ridden Strike Back for 94 points at a pro rodeo in Waco, Texas, last October, he found himself looking up from the dirt at Save Mart Center. Guilherme Marchi had won Round 1 on that same bull Friday night with 86.75 points.
Harris and Marchi are the only two men to have made the whistle on Strike Back.
“J.W. Harris rides as good as I thought he did and I expect him to do well,” said PBR Livestock Director Cody Lambert.
Lambert is a longtime admirer of Harris’ ability as a bull rider, “but he’s not allowed to make a mistake.”
Harris is competing among the Top 35 riders in the world after receiving a three-event exemption from the PBR. His exemptions do not take away from the usual 35 spots in the draw.
Like Lambert, two-time World Champion Justin McBride likes what he’s seen and heard from Harris after watching the BFTS-newcomer at past National Finals Rodeos and in person last November at a Touring Pro Division event in McAlister, Okla.
“I’m excited to see him at this level,” said McBride. “He’s a guy that I think can really ride good, but I’m anxious to see him against this level of bull. I think he’s capable of riding them – the really rank bulls – with his style of riding.”
Lambert said, “J.W. Harris is consistent and he is going to win money at these deals. He rides so good that this is where he should be.”
Harris is happy to get the first event behind him and appreciated the kind words.
“It always makes you feel like you accomplished something, especially whenever McBride is saying that stuff and Lambert,” Harris said between Rounds 1 and 2. “You look up to those guys because they rode bulls so good and so it always makes you feel good whenever you hear guys like that say stuff about you.”
However, this weekend wasn’t about making his debut on the BFTS or proving any points.
It’s about taking advantage of an opportunity to compete on the rankest bulls in the world and a shot at earning a $1 million bonus paid to whoever wins the world title in October at the World Finals in Las Vegas.
“I definitely don’t want to let this slip away,” Harris said. “I have a great opportunity here to make something good of this deal and so I might as well take advantage of it, while it’s here.”
In the opening round, he rode Hot Blooded for 85.75 points to place fifth in the round.
According to www.probullstats.com, it was only the second recorded outing for Hot Blooded, who was marked 42 points both times. He bucked off Ty Pozzobon in 6.41 seconds earlier this year.
Harris finished 1-for-2 on the weekend and placed 18th in the average.
With Gage Gay unable to finish out the weekend after aggravating a left shoulder injury sustained last week in Albuquerque, N.M., Harris played the waiting game for much of Round 2 before missing out on the championship round by two spots.
However, he’s moved up to 75th in the world standings after one BFTS event.
Harris is just shy of 500 points from the last alternate positions in the draw and has two more exemptions ahead for Nampa, Idaho, and a three-day event in Billings, Mont. The two events offer a combined maximum of 2,100 points.
With a slew of injuries in recent weeks – J.B. Mauney, L.J. Jenkins andChase Outlaw are all questionable after Fresno – the draw could go deep into the alternate list in coming weeks.
“Hopefully I’m here to stay,” said Harris in regard to his chances of riding his way into the Top 35 and not worrying about exemptions or alternate positions.
“I feel like he can get on tour in these three events,” McBride said. “I whole heartedly believe that and I think that we’ll see him at the World Finals this year.”
Last week, Harris, who has won four PRCA titles in the past six years, indicated that he wasn’t planning to compete at any rodeos until May and wouldn’t have to alter his plans to compete at the PBR.
The BFTS has five events between now and mid-May before giving way to the annual summer break.
The summer break would allow Harris to resume his rodeo schedule, including the important Cowboy Christmas run in July that includes a weeklong trip to the Calgary Stampede, before making a stretch run to the PBR Finals beginning in mid-August – if he finds himself among the top PBR riders.
As positive as his experience was this past weekend, it wasn’t without some detractors.
Harris is aware of the fact there are some who question the PBR for awarding him and Guytin Tsosie three exemptions. The organization also extended invitations to Cody Teel and Sage Kimzey.
When asked about any of the negative comments on social media, Harris replied, “It doesn’t matter to me. I’m grateful that the PBR gave me this opportunity to come over here. Shoot, with the PBR, there’s been nothing but good stuff said.”
Harris said he’s used to having critics and naysayers and that people have been opinionated ever since he won his first PRCA title in 2008.
“Wow. That’s all I can say is wow,” said Lambert when asked about the Twitter comments, including some from PBR riders. “If they’re worried about not making the tour maybe they should go try a different league because this is the big tour.”
McBride said he understands fans having an opinion one way or another, which he thought was a 50/50 split last week.
In fact, he said that’s part of being fan and, although he doesn’t publicly post them via Facebook or Twitter, he has opinions about sports like football. But he has an entirely different take on what he read from current riders this past week.
“I’ve seen on some of the social media stuff – some of the negative reaction from some of the competitors in the PBR – and it’s not any of the top guys,” said McBride. “That puzzles me. I think those guys must just get bored and don’t have any sort of hobbies to do, so they start talking, but why anybody would have a negative reaction to that, especially as a competitor, is beyond me. I don’t understand that. That’s part of the things – this relates to bull riding in general – the things that are not part of you and that have nothing to do with you staying on your bull, I don’t know why you would even worry about it or comment on it.”
Reigning World Champion J.B. Mauney agreed with McBride.
“I like the idea that they let him come because he’s been the best bull rider in the PRCA for a long time, and why not bring him over here?” Mauney said. “Giving him that exemption, a lot of people said a lot of things about it and there’s a lot of fuss, but it doesn’t bother me. Everybody shows up for the same reason and that’s to win first and if you’re not here to win first then you don’t need to come.”
Speaking of not coming, McBride was equally flummoxed over Kimzey’s indecision to accept the invitation.
While Teel is out of competition after breaking his ankle at Rodeo Houston – the injury reportedly required surgery last week – Kimzey has been noncommittal.
“If you’re healthy and get invited to step into this scene and you turn it down it’s probably a good idea not to come,” McBride said. “You don’t believe that you belong here, so it’s probably best you don’t show up.”
In spite of all the water cooler chatter, Harris is simply happy to have the opportunity to earn in upwards of $40,000 paid to the winners of each event (and that doesn’t even include special events like the upcoming Last Cowboy Standing or the $25,000 bonuses for whoever can ride Bushwacker in any of the forthcoming 15/15 Bucking Battles).
However, in the days leading up to the Fresno event, Harris admitted that he was feeling “more pumped up” than he normally does prior to an event.
“I was just back there in the locker room thinking, ‘I’m glad the first one is done and over with,’” Harris said. “Just being here, I was feeling a little bit of the pressure. Now I can relax and just ride bulls like I do.
“Once I got here and got checked in and got my credentials and everything, then I kind of felt like, OK, this is just another bull riding—nothing any different than what I’ve done in the past. Then I kind of relaxed and got back into my routine—just kind of loose and cool and enjoy it.”
He concluded by adding, “This is the greatest job that a guy could have—riding bulls.”
Follow Keith Ryan Cartwright on Twitter @PBR_KRC.
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