ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The last time Sean Willingham bucked off 12 bulls in a row, he was eventually cut from the Built Ford Tough Series following a streak of 228 consecutive BFTS events.
So far it has been the only instance in his career where he had to work his way back onto the BFTS.
Therefore, Willingham is no stranger to the year-to-year grind of trying to remain competitive on the BFTS and trying to avoid flirting with the unattractive BFTS cutline.
“Once you get here, it is hard to stay here,” Willingham said. “You have to perform every week to stay on tour. Me being here for so long and dealing with the cutline and not being cut – I have only been cut once in my whole career – is rough.”
Willingham began the Ty Murray Invitational on another 0-for-12 slide and kicked that slump to the curb with an 86.25-point ride on California Sports Coat Friday night at WisePies Arena, aka The Pit.
The ride wasn’t enough to help him gain some precious points as he finished Round 1 in eighth place, and he will begin Round 2 on Saturday night 29th in the world standings – only 85 points ahead of No. 35 Lachlan Richardson.
However, three years removed from being relegated to the Touring Pro Division, Willingham has plenty of advice for riders – young and old – that may get put into a position similar to him.
“Anyone down there that asks for my advice, I would say, ‘Stay positive and you are here for a reason because you one are one of the best bull riders in the world,’” Willingham said. “You just have to feel the confidence, and they need to believe in themselves.”
Coincidentally, the PBR was implementing a new points system in 2013 that awarded 25 percent of points earned at Touring Pro Division and international events to the world standings when Willingham worked his way back to the BFTS.
He won the 2013 event in Oklahoma City in his first event back after needing 10 months to make his return. Just before he got cut, Willingham had gone 5-for-25 and was trying to ride with hand/wrist injuries.
While Willingham admits riders are still trying to learn more about this year’s new points system, he does believe the way things are set up now, it will be easier for riders that struggle on the BFTS to make their way back up through the BlueDEF Velocity Tour or make up ground in the standings later in the season.
“That is what is good about this points deal,” he said. “It gives guys opportunities that have struggled at the early part of the year to come back and have an event win and jump them back into the race. Look at Joao(Ricardo Vieira), he was close to the cutline and won that event and jumped all the way up to number five.”
Willingham takes on Water Exploration (3-2, BFTS) in Round 2 and has gone 9-for-30 (30 percent) in 12 BFTS events this season. His best finish came in Anaheim, California, where he placed fourth overall by going 2-for-4, including an 87.5-point ride on Hair Trigger to win Round 2.
Bryan Titman holds the 30th position in the world standings heading into his second-round matchup against Modified Clyde (17-7, BFTS), and he says doesn’t mind having the metaphorical bulls eye on him this weekend seeing as he holds the last guaranteed spot on tour.
If anything, Titman says he enjoys the mini-race at the bottom of the standings between the mix of up-and-comers and veterans, such as Willingham.
“I like the little race where you have to fight to be here,” Titman said. “Regardless, no matter where you are at, as long as you ride your bulls you’ll be OK. A go-round win will put me in the Top 25.”
He also noted that there are more alternate positions below him with so many riders (four) in the Top out due to injuries. It is why riders such asRobson Aragao, Luis Blanco and Tyler Harr are competing in Albuquerque.
Titman was bucked off by Shaft in 3.93 seconds in the first round on Friday night. Earlier in the night, he was icing his index finger on his riding hand in a cup of water.
The rookie said the minor injury happened at the BlueDEF Velocity Tour event in Laredo, Texas, at the beginning of the year and has caused swelling on and off, but added that it hasn’t been a big factor in his performance.
Cooper Davis was the No. 30 ranked rider last week and built off his slump-buster last weekend by riding Wasted Wages for a career-high 86.75 points on Friday night. He earned 40 points to move from No. 28 in the world standings at the beginning of the Ty Murray Invitational to No. 27
“If you are 30th you know you got to do something and if you don’t, you have to go back down to the BlueDEF’s,” Davis said. “This week, I wasn’t worried about being on the bubble. I am just comfortable. I am glad I got one down. I am just excited to be here and not worried about points and I kind of got out of that slump a little bit.”
That is the kind of mentality that Willingham thinks riders need to develop when it comes to crunch time on the BFTS.
“I figured they can’t all throw me off,” Willingham said after his ride Friday. “I just try to stay positive and stay focused the best I can.
“That is the main thing when guys get into a slump, they get to try to changing something and there really ain’t nothing wrong with their riding. Their confidence is just a little low. I just try to stay positive through it all.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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