By: Justin Felisko
PUEBLO, Colo. – The PBR Las Vegas Invitational, presented by Union Home Mortgage, is going to be a unique Unleash The Beast event for a variety of circumstances in regards to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak in the United States.
There will be no fans inside the Lazy E Arena as the Unleash The Beast event will be a closed-to-the-public event, and riders will be spending the weekend in RV campers on site.
The draw for the non-mandatory event is going to feature a mix of the normal names we see at UTB events, including world No. 1 Jose Vitor Leme and No. 4 Daylon Swearingen, as well as seven riders making their debut and many riders that have been grinding away on the Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour.
In fact, 22 riders from outside the Top 35 will be competing on Saturday and Sunday night as 16 riders from inside the Top 35 are out because of injuries or travel restrictions.
Round 1 airs Saturday night on CBS Sports Network and RidePass at 6 p.m. ET.
Here are eight riders to keep an eye on this weekend at the Lazy E Arena.
1. Jose Vitor Leme
The world No. 1 bull rider is in a league of his own with two-time and defending World Champion Jess Lockwood out for six months because of a torn left hamstring. Leme leads the PBR with 20 qualified rides and a 74.07% riding percentage. He has only bucked off seven bulls in 27 attempts.
The 23-year-old leads the PBR among active riders with seven round wins, which is four more than the next rider – Daylon Swearingen (3).
The only question mark, and it is a small one, about Leme this weekend is how his three broken ribs are feeling since he broke them on Feb. 29 in Kansas City.
Leme is in the driver’s seat for the 2020 world title, and he likely continues down the highway at full speed once again now that he is healthy.
2. Daylon Swearingen
The No. 4 bull rider in the world has the second-best average ride score (87.25 points) and second-best riding percentage (46.67%) among riders with at least 10 qualified rides.
Swearingen is 14-for-30 this season and is coming off a third-place finish in Duluth, Georgia, before the PBR went on a hiatus. The second-year pro bounced back from a Round 1 buckoff to ride Joker for 86.5 points and Lil 2 Train for 89 points in the championship round inside the empty Infinite Energy Center.
Swearingen won the first event of his career earlier this year in Chicago, and he has posted four Top-3 finishes in 10 events. With Lockwood and his eight round wins on the sidelines, Swearingen may be one of the riders that can benefit with his ability to produce high scores when he reaches 8 seconds.
3. Matt Triplett
The six-time World Finals qualifier did not compete in Georgia and he has been chomping at the bit to get back into contention.
Triplett is only 10-for-26 this season on the premier series, but his second-place finish at the 2019 PBR World Finals is a reminder that Triplett has the talent to compete for a victory any weekend of the year.
The 28-year-old ranks fourth in average ride score (86.85 points) and fourth in riding percentage (38.46%) among active riders.
4. Colten Jesse
The No. 10 ranked bull rider has spoken openly about his desire to be a World Champion and his belief that he can compete with the best bull riders in the world. This weekend is an opportunity for Jesse to make a move up the standings with five riders in the Top 10 not competing.
Jesse ranks third in average ride score (87.02 points) and fifth in riding percentage (36.67%) among active riders in the draw.
The Konowa, Oklahoma, native is 11-for-30 (36.67%) with four Top-10 finishes this season after missing six months last season recovering from reconstructive right shoulder surgery.
Jesse won his first career 15/15 Bucking Battle with 89.5 points on Lil 2 Train last month in St. Louis, Missouri.
5. Dalton Kasel
This weekend will be the 2019 Rookie of the Year’s first event since he tore his right groin at the 2020 Iron Cowboy, presented by Ariat, on Feb. 7 in Los Angeles.
Kasel had missed the first month of the season recovering from offseason core muscle repair surgery on both his groins, and returned in Los Angeles only to suffer another setback in his recovery.
The 21-year-old has been getting on practice bulls and says he is ready to go. If so, Kasel could make a big move up the standings relatively quickly. He could be the biggest wild card in the field at the Lazy E Arena.
Kasel finished 2019 with six round wins, which was tied for fifth-most in the PBR, and he only joined the premier series for the final three months of the season. He went 14-for-21 in his rookie season with those six round wins and an event win – all of this despite dealing with groin injuries. If he is healthy, and takes another step in his development, he could certainly be a threat – especially for round wins.
Lockwood won the 2019 world title after only competing in 18 Unleash The Beast events. He averaged 88.25 points per ride, which was the best ever by a PBR World Champion. In comparison, Kasel averaged 87.93 points per ride in those 10 UTB events.
6. Fabiano Vieira
Vieira missed the majority of 2019 recovering from reconstructive right shoulder surgery after adamantly refusing to undergo surgery for five years on either of his chronically unstable shoulders. Vieira is now ranked 14th in the world standings after failing to qualify for the World Finals last year for the first time since 2010.
The 37-year-old is 10-for-25 (40%) in eight events and has posted a qualified ride in three straight events. Vieira also is a perfect 5-for-5 on the Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour with two victories.
Vieira is likely no longer a world title contender as he was in his prime, but the longtime veteran could walk out of the Lazy E Arena this weekend with a victory.
7. Cole Melancon
The leader in the Rookie of the Year race debuted with a monumental splash when he won Iron Cowboy, presented by Ariat, in his debut on the premier series. A week later, Melancon went 2-for-4 to help lead the Team USA Eagles to victory at the 2020 WinStar World Casino and Resort Global Cup USA, presented by Monster Energy.
However, Melancon then dipped into a 3-for-12 slump in four events.
The 26-year-old had also had a minor knee injury during that span, and the recent time off likely did him well.
8. Mauricio Moreira
What is next for the 20-year-old Brazilian?
The sample size is very small so far, but Moreira showed some flash during his second-place finish in Duluth, Georgia, last month.
Moreira won two of the three rounds in Duluth, and he quickly has made himself the top young Brazilian to keep an eye on in the 2020 Rookie of the Year race.
The No. 17-ranked bull rider in the world is the third-youngest Brazilian to ever debut on the premier series. Paulo Crimber was the youngest when he competed at 18 years old at the 1998 event in Calgary, and 2018 World Champion Kaique Pacheco is the second-youngest at 19 years old (2014 Last Cowboy Standing).
This weekend will be Moreira’s third UTB event, and he is 7-for-14 this season at all levels of competition.
ROUND 1 MATCHUP TO WATCH
Derek Kolbaba vs. Lil 2 Train
Lil 2 Train has been ridden in five of his seven outs in 2020, and this could be a great matchup for Derek Kolbaba on Saturday night.
Swearingen rode Lil 2 Train for 89 points in Duluth, and Jesse was 89.5 points with Lil 2 Train in Kansas City.
Kolbaba has the ability to be a threat to win rounds, and he surprisingly has zero round wins so far this season. The Walla Walla, Washington, native won four rounds in 2019.
A victory this weekend could push Kolbaba on the brink of the Top 10 of the world standings.
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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