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Tight Race Atop World Standings

Mike Lee wins in Laughlin, Nev., moving to No. 3 in the world. Photo by Andy Watson / BullStockMedia.com.

LAUGHLIN, Nev. – Every sport comes with pressure, and every athlete is going to be faced with adversity whether it be physical, mental or emotional.

All of those stressors only begin to increase the closer an athlete gets toward reaching the pinnacle of their sport. A championship race adds to one’s blood pressure rising.

With three Built Ford Tough Series regular season events and an additional 15/15 Bucking Battle set for Huntington Beach, California, remaining until the World Finals, the pressure to succeed will become a major factor for this year’s World Championship contenders, which is part of the territory says nine-time World Champion Ty Murray.

“The mental aspect of any sport is the hardest part,” Murray said. “Having the pressure of a World Championship and the pressure of a $1 million bonus all can be a lot to deal with, but that is part of the job. That is like saying keeping your arm down riding bulls is hard to do. Yeah, but that is a pre-requisite.”

Following this weekend’s Desert Showdown presented by Cooper Tires, there is much to be decided between now and the 2014 Built Ford Tough World Finals. The Top 5 riders in the world have not changed in five events since the summer break, but their positioning and the points separating them has changed.

Joao Ricardo Vieira sits atop the world standings, but he is only 562.44 points ahead of No. 5 Silvano Alves. Joao Ricardo Vieira leads No. 2 Fabiano Vieira by 89.38 points, No. 3 and Laughlin event winner Mike Lee by 357.19 points and No. 4 Guilherme Marchi by 438.94 points.

It was another week in which the world leader could not do enough to separate himself from the rest of the contenders.

“The only guy that stepped up and acted like he wanted to go for a $1 million bonus was Mike Lee,” Murray said. “That jumped him from fifth to third.”

Murray, who served as the CBS and CBS Sports Network color commentator this weekend, felt that other than Lee, none of the other top world title contenders rose to the occasion.

“I thought the Top 4 guys are all faltering big time,” Murray said. “I am not saying they got beat. I am saying we saw some guys jumping off and we saw guys not taking re-rides. If you are not going to take re-rides, you have to ride all of your bulls.”

On Friday night, Joao Ricardo Vieira (64 points on Apollo Stripes), Fabiano Vieira (51.25 points on Royal Hawaiian) and Silvano Alves (72.75 points onRockerfeller Center) all turned down re-ride options, which left the three world title contenders in a must-ride situation come Saturday night.

Fabiano Vieira, who was the only world title contender to earn a qualified ride and bonus points in the 15/15 Bucking Battle, bucked off Lil Lanch in 3.06 seconds and failed to qualify for the Built Ford Tough Championship Round.

Meanwhile, Joao Ricardo Vieira rode Celling Bioscience’s Jukebox Herofor 85.5 points and Silvano Alves, who now has 250 career rides on the BFTS, covered Mr. Twitter for 63.75 points in the second round.

They then bucked off their bulls in the championship round. Vieira was taken care of with ease in 2.6 seconds by Crack the Whip, and Alves failed to capitalize against Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, a bull he has ridden 2-of-5 times in his career, and was bucked off at the 5.16-second mark.

One of the problems, says Murray, is that when you turn down re-ride options it puts a rider into a position where they have to ride every bull to have a chance at winning.

“Silvano got offered two re-rides and turned them both down and doesn’t convert on a bull that he rode twice before. You can’t do that,” Murray said. “If you are going to go at it (with) that attitude that you are not going to care what your score is – you just want to score on every bull – well, then you have to get a score on every bull or else it is going to bite you in the ass.”

Murray understands the strategy can work at times – pointing out that Alves is a two-time World Champion – but also noted that it can come back to haunt you later in the year with such a close title race.

“It worked before. It is a legit strategy, but would I want to rely on that this year? No way,” Murray said. “I wouldn’t want to rely on it every year because when you come up short you know you didn’t do all you could do.”

Murray also is not sure what has happened to Marchi. The 2008 World Champion has seemingly disappeared in the second half, and for the second consecutive weekend he finished without a qualified ride. He is 3-for-13 in the second half. Marchi’s frustration was apparent when he got behind the chutes on Saturday after bucking off Dumber in 1.78 seconds.

Marchi has insisted that his right knee injury he suffered at Last Cowboy Standing, which is still sore, is not hindering his ability. After being the No. 1 rider in the world for 13 of the first 22 weeks of the season, he has seen his command on the world title race dwindle.

“Guilherme is a veteran, if he doesn’t know at this point in his career how to deal with those pressures and get your mind to a place – I don’t know what happened,” Murray said. “It looked like the gate opened and he jumped off. It didn’t look like it was injury related, but I don’t know, I am just going off of what I see with my eyes.”

After witnessing many of the top riders fail to capitalize in Laughlin, Murray believes that keeps the door open for other riders inside the Top 10, especially Cody Nance and Matt Triplett.

Murray came away impressed by the two riders’ effort over the course of the two-day event. Triplett came .01 seconds away from winning the event and Nance nearly rode Roy, this weekend’s high-marked bull (45.75 points), by fighting his way across the bovine’s body after he almost was dispatched immediately leaving the chute.

“That is the reason why I don’t judge,” Murray said. “If Cody Nance makes the whistle tonight, I am going to mark him 100. That is the kind of stuff I love to see. It is inspiring. That bull was rank and had a lot of stuff going on and Cody Nance was going at him.”

Triplett’s 2-for-3 performance and third-place finish propelled him to sixth place in the world standings and he trails Joao Ricardo Vieira by 1,914.42 points. Nance (1-for-3) finished the event in 10th and he is 2,288.63 points behind Vieira and is ninth in the world.

“When I see guys like Cody Nance and Matt Triplett put out the effort they did, those guys both came up a little bit short, but if they keep trying like that every time, which those guys are both pretty  much known for that, they are going to get into a world championship race,” Murray said.

With this year’s world title race becoming only tighter, Murray believes the rider that will win it all is the one that is going to put out the most effort on a consistent basis.

“You have to believe you are the best to be the best, and you have to believe you can (win) before you can,” Murray said. “To me, it all comes down to effort. That is the only thing you can guarantee. You can’t guarantee you are going to ride a bull. You can’t guarantee you are going to get a high score. You can’t even guarantee you are going to live, but you can guarantee that you are going to give it every bit of effort that you have from the bottom of your guts.”

Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko.

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