Fred Whitfield smiled when hearing he was a 3-1 choice to repeat as all-round champion at this week’s National Finals Rodeo.
“I think it’s great that we are a part of the wagering,” said Whitfield, who appeared at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association promotion for next year’s Summer Finals Rodeo slated for June 13-15 at the MGM Grand.
The odds were posted by Palms race and sports book, but Whitfield admitted he heard through word of mouth and didn’t know the origin.
“It’s flattering to hear that odds are posted on you, and I know some of the other cowboys like it,” said Whitfield, a five-time world calf-roping champion. “I personally enjoy the attention. Our sport is growing so fast and I like being looked upon as a role model.”
Whitfield explained that he conquered a past gambling problem, though doesn’t mind an infrequent visit to the tables.
“I enjoy the cards, but I have changed my lifestyle since being married,” he said. “I realize where my priorities are, and that’s to be the best person I can be for my family, my sport and my fans. I’ll sign autographs all day, if I have to.”
Texas born and raised, the Houston resident is a walking defiance of the cowboy stereotype.
“I like R Kelly,” he said. “Not everyone is into country music.”
Whitfield began calf roping at age 7 and broke down the racial barrier in his sport through his unparalleled success over 12 seasons. Regarded as rodeo’s greatest athlete at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Whitfield doesn’t mind speaking out against injustice.
“I find people like Charles Barkley to be hypocrites,” he said. “When I was introduced to him, he didn’t even acknowledge me. I know he knew who I was. He is a phony and I don’t have much use for people who say one thing and do another.”
Whitfield remembers his first NFR in 1990 as a 23-year-old rookie when he stayed at Vacation Village.
“You know I think about that first year over there and realize just how fast this town and our sport have grown,” he said. “There was nothing here in 1990. Now, we’re at MGM. This is great.”
Whitfield will be part of next June’s event, but revealed that his schedule will be substantially trimmed.
“It’s all about money now,” he said. “I want to devote more time to my wife and daughter, and to a singing career I hope to get off the ground in the coming weeks.”
Singing cowboys are certainly not unprecedented. Chris LeDoux, appearing during the NFR at the Silverton, was a world champion rodeo rider prior to venturing into country music.
“I think I can sing a bit, but my type of music is much different,” he said. “I don’t want people to think that I am giving up the sport. I love the rodeos. I will just be more selective and make sure I compete in enough big money meets to qualify for the NFR.”
The June event at MGM will also be more relaxing to the cowboys and their families as opposed to the stress involved at the NFR.
“To be able to stay at a place like the MGM and enjoy all the amenities is really great,” he said. “It’s a little different at the NFR where the competition is at Thomas & Mack. In June everything will be at the hotel, which is so convenient. I know my wife (Cassie) and child (Savannah) will enjoy it.”
Whitfield left a bit of intrigue to next June’s competition, stating that the sport could have a new look.
“I really don’t want to discuss anything now, but there is a movement among a number of cowboys to improve the money scale,” he said. “I’m not saying there will be a break from the PRCA, just that some of us are not on the best of terms right now.”
NOTES: Whitfield said his favorite rodeo is in Cheyenne, Wyoming”¦The Whitfield website (www.FredWhitfield.com) has received some 20,000 hits”¦Whitfield is gearing next season toward the Olympics in Salt Lake City where rodeo debuts as a gold medal sport.
2002 stops on the Wrangler Pro Rodeo Tour
Jan. 27 Denver, COL
Feb. 3 Rapid City, SD
Feb. 17 San Antonio, TX
Feb. 24 Tucson, AZ
Mar. 3 Houston, TX
Mar. 17 Montgomery, ALA
Mar. 31 Laughlin, NV
Apr. 21 Red Bluff, CA
Apr. 28 Clovis, CA
May 5 Guymon, OK
June 13-15 Las Vegas, NV