Waiting to Exhale

In cards, deuces can be wild. For tie-down roper Blair Burk (Durant, Okla.) it's all about the No. 11.

Burk, who joined the PRCA 11 years ago in 1993, sits precariously in 11th place in his event's Wrangler ProRodeo Tour standings after 11 of the 12 stops on the summer run. And, yes, he's trying to qualify for his 11th Pace Picante ProRodeo Series championship event next weekend at the Pace Challenge in Omaha, Neb.

He's the only cowboy to have qualified for the previous 10, winning in Las Vegas in 2001 and Omaha last September.

Now, if he can just hang on and get to No. 11.

"If I can stay 11th, that will be good enough," said Burk, who is trying to earn enough Wrangler Tour points to be among the top 12 cowboys in each event who qualify for each Wrangler Tour's culminating Pace Series event. "This summer, I've just been trying to stay on track and getting a little bit at a time."

Burk, who had 88 Wrangler Tour points during this year's winter series en route to a fourth-place finish, struggled early on this summer, earning just 12.5 points after the first seven stops. He rallied late, scoring 10.5 points in Hermiston, Ore.; 17.5 points in Ellensburg, Wash.; and 12 more in Puyallup, Wash., to bump him into the top 12 for the first time this summer.

Now, it's time to wait in Pendleton.

This year, cowboys competing in the 12-city Wrangler Tours select 10 of the 12 events as their official Wrangler Tour entries. According to PRCA officials, Puyallup was Burk's 10th event, meaning that he'll have to watch other contestants earn Tour points in the final stop in Pendleton, Ore., this weekend.

If Omaha isn't in the cards, Burk still has plenty of chances to still earn money next weekend. The big picture here, of course, is winning a world title at the conclusion of the 46th Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (Dec. 3-12) in Las Vegas. Burk is the PRCA's top-ranked tie-down roper this week with $111,670 in annual earnings.

"I'm entered at the Oklahoma State Fair in Oklahoma City, and that's kind of my hometown rodeo," Burks said. "I've won there in the past. Hopefully, I can do both, but you have to plan ahead and not leave anything short."

But qualifying for the Pace Series events sure helps the cause. Just look at bareback rider Will Lowe, team ropers Speed Williams and Rich Skelton and saddle bronc rider Dan Mortensen. They all won Pace Series championship events in 2003 en route to their respective world titles.

By virtue of reaching the finals at the Pace Chute-out in Las Vegas in May, Burk clinched a spot in the PRCA's final regular-season rodeo — the Pace Classic (Nov. 12-14) in Dallas. Having that already clinched gives Burk even more potential as he tries to lasso a world title. He's come close before, finishing third in the final world standings three times in the last five years and was runner-up in 2002.

Burk is looking forward to actually competing in Dallas. Last year, he was forced to withdraw from the Pace Classic after undergoing an emergency appendectomy in Kansas City, Mo.

"Dallas is the one that's key to make," Burk said. "It's the last rodeo of the year and it's close to home. It's nice to already have that in my back pocket. At first, my goal at the end of the year was just to qualify [for the Wrangler NFR]. Now, it's to go ahead and win it. I've learned a lot in the past roping out there, and when I get out there, I want to be smart and do what I do best."

Which is rope.

And fans in Omaha can see him try to defend his Pace Challenge title next weekend, but only if Burk's 11th-hour rally was good enough.

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