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The Super Bowl of rodeo

National Finals Rodeo a dream job for Sutherland, Iowa, man

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LAS VEGAS | A Sutherland, Iowa, man is living a dream while playing a critical role behind the scenes of the nation’s richest, most prestigious rodeo.

John Barnes is livestock superintendent at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. He oversees care for 200 bucking horses, 100 bulls and dozens of roping cattle used in the $6.25 million, 10-day event. Billed as the Super Bowl of rodeo, it starts Thursday and runs through Dec. 14.

Caring for the animals and making sure they’re ready to give their best at the right time is the job of a lifetime for Barnes. It’s also what he does every day: He and his siblings run Barnes PRCA Rodeo in Peterson, Iowa.

"This means as much to me as the high school football player getting into the Super Bowl," he said. "This is what I've lived for my whole life."

Barnes PRCA Rodeo is one of only two stock contractors to have a bucking bull or bronc at every rendition of the National Finals Rodeo.

The family will be represented this year by a bull, Shorty D, and a bronc, Cat Power.

In 2009, the National Finals Rodeo gave a Barnes bucking horse, Wild Falls, a standing ovation in honor of her retirement. The moment still gives John Barnes chills. The old mare always seemed to stand taller and buck bigger in the spotlight at the Thomas & Mack Center, he said.

"You'd be surprised the number of animals that know once they get there, hey, I made the big leagues," Barnes said.

The bulls, broncs and roping cattle Barnes oversees reported to the National Finals Rodeo pens at least a week before the event.

He and his crew built the temporary stockyards for the animals on a University of Nevada, Las Vegas intramural field next to the rodeo arena.

Starting with the opening performance on Thursday, the crew must have the correct animals ready for the night's performance at the adjacent Thomas & Mack Center, in the right order and at precisely the right time.

There’s no room for error and no time to waste. While spectators are enjoying the rodeo, Barnes and his crew are sorting animals between the stock pens and rodeo arena.

Each rodeo performance only lasts two hours, so the right animals must be in the right spot precisely when they’re needed.

"It's as stressful as you want it to be," Barnes said. 

Each day starts with early morning feedings and doesn't end until well after each evening's performance. Barnes maintains a grueling schedule, said Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association spokesman Jim Bainbridge.

"I don't think he gets a lot of sleep during the rodeo, and you're dealing with a lot of people and a lot of issues and people having needs and wanting favors. It's a tough job," Bainbridge said. "I think it's even way tougher than people would imagine."

It the kind of hectic work Barnes has become accustomed to in the family business. His late father, Bob Barnes, of Peterson, Iowa, produced events and supplied stock to rodeos for more than 60 years. Bob Barnes died Nov. 23 in a Cherokee, Iowa, nursing home. He was 84. 

Locally, the Barnes family supplies bucking stock for the Ponca Days of ’56 Rodeo in Ponca, Neb. It also helped start and continues to bring animals to the Cherokee PRCA Rodeo in Cherokee, Iowa.

After the National Finals Rodeo concludes in Las Vegas, Barnes and his crew will be back in Sioux City for the Rawhide Bullriding Challenge at the Tyson Events Center, scheduled Jan. 25-26.


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