Right now, he’s in.
But Luke Branquinho is far from comfortable in the saddle.
The four-time and defending world champion comes to this week’s PRCA Yellowstone River Round-Up an uncharacteristic 10th in the world steer wrestling standings.
Just like a year ago, Branquinho is trying to overcome a slow start and make it an even dozen for National Finals Rodeo qualifications.
“It’s definitely crunch time,’’ said Branquinho during a phone call from his parents’ place in Oregon. “We’ve only got six more weeks of the season left.”
The 2013 PRCA season ends on Sept. 30. The top 15 in the standings qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December.
This is Branquinho’s first time at the August PRCA rodeo in Billings. The veteran bulldogger has previously competed at the PRCA NILE rodeo in October.
The rodeo has three 7 p.m. performances in front of the MetraPark grandstand through Saturday.
“It looks like they’ve added some money,’’ he said of the Yellowstone River Round-Up, which increased the money to $6,000 added per event. “I’ve got a good horse and hopefully, I’ll have a good steer.
“When you’re down in the standings like I am, you have to win as much as you can so I can get back to the Finals.”
The NFR is something Branquinho knows well.
He’s an 11-time qualifier, having won world titles in 2004, 2008, 2011 and 2012. Branquinho has also won the NFR average twice.
He shares second-place with Jim Bynum, Everett Bowman, and Ote Berry for steer wrestling championships won. Homer Pettigrew holds the record with six.
Last year, Branquinho went to Las Vegas fourth in the world standings. He earned a little more than $73,000 to win his fourth world title over a tightly bunched field. Only $18,000 — the same as a go-round win — separated the top six in the final standings.
Branquinho is coming off a win at Missoula, where he put his steer down in 3.0 seconds. It is the fastest time at a Montana rodeo this year.
“I knew it was a steer I had a chance to win on,’’ he said.
Branquinho is riding Dillon, owned by Wyoming steer wrestler Les Shepperson. The horse previously belonged to Rod Lyman of Victor. Branquinho and Shepperson will be competing in Caldwell, Idaho Thursday night before driving to Billings.
“It gives you confidence when you have a good horse. You know you have a chance to win,’’ said Branquinho, the father of two sons who lives in Los Alamos, Calif.
Along with the win in Missoula, Branquinho became the first steer wrestler in PRCA history to clear more than $2 million in career earnings since turning pro in 2000.
“It’s certainly a special milestone,’’ he said. “You average it out over 13 years and I’ve had a pretty good run.
“The only problem is I don’t have most of it in the bank. We’ve probably spent most of it going up and down the road.”
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Branquinho is one of seven reigning or former world champions scheduled to compete.
The others are: Jesse Kruse (saddle bronc), Wesley Silcox (bull riding), Jason Miller (steer wrestling), Walt Woodard (team roping), Mary Walker (barrel racing) and Rocky Patterson (steer roping).
Patterson is a three-time steer roping world champion and won the Billings title last year.
Kruse is coming off a big win at Lovington, N.M., a Wrangler Million Dollar Silver Tour rodeo. The Great Falls cowboy missed a few weeks in July and August because of a broken leg.
Along with the world champions, there are 49 cowboys and cowgirls with NFR experience scheduled to stop in Billings.
Entered in bull riding is Beau Hill of West Glacier. Hill missed a month of competition because of a wrist injury. He returned to the arena last week in Missoula.
Hill is one of just a few Montana cowboys to qualify for both the NFR and the Professional Bull Riders World Finals.