If the Built Ford Tough Series event this past weekend, in Tulsa, Okla., was any indication, this year's battle for the world title won't be decided until Sunday, Oct. 28.
The order of the Top 10 riders in the world standings remained unchanged other than that Valdiron de Oliveira slightly extended his lead by anywhere from 130 to 458 points over the competition.
Oliveira and Marco Eguche were the only riders among the Top 10 in the standings to finish the Express Classic among the Top 10 in the event average.
"I'm happy with the first event after the break," said Oliveira, who acknowledged he hadn't ridden since Pueblo, Colo., but trained to stay in shape while visiting family in Brazil.
He indicated he was nervous the first bull would buck him off. However, after riding Strokin for 87.75 points in Round 1, he said, "I knew everything was going to be OK."
It's a familiar spot for both Oliveira and reigning World Champion Silvano Alves, who trailed him coming out of last year's summer break.
With eight BFTS events remaining, Alves is in third and trails the No. 1 spot by 1,155 points, which is only 55 points more than the maximum number of points available this coming weekend.
He could, however, wind up surpassing Oliveira at the event Thackerville, Okla., which is where he was in 2011 when Alves claimed the top spot en route to winning his first World Championship.
"I'm happy that I managed to get back to this place," said Alves, with Tab Barker interpreting, "and I'm happy with the position that I'm in right now. I just need to stay here and get to the Finals in a good place."
After 20 events, Alves has actually ridden more bulls (42) than anyone else, but L.J. Jenkins is ranked second in the world largely because of having more Top 5 finishes (8) than Alves (5).
This past weekend, Jenkins snapped his streak of eight consecutive Top 10 finishes, which left him one short of the record set by Ednei Caminhas 10 years ago in 2002.
Jenkins said he's unfazed by the streak coming to an end.
"All I want is to stay on all my bulls," he explained. "I'm going for the year end and I don't care about a streak that (isn't) going to do (anything) for you."
Unlike Oliveira and Alves, Jenkins has never been ranked this high in the standings this late in the season.
When asked if he's contemplated how different it would be to have 34 riders all pursuing him rather than being the pursuer, he said the doesn't want to think about what it would be like to be the No. 1 ranked rider in the world.
In fact, he suggested that if he did think about it everything could very well fall apart.
"I just want to get the lead and think I have five, six people to chase," he added, "just keep riding and get as many Top 10s as I can."
Jenkins, who was 1-for-2 in Tulsa, went from 632 to 959.5 points behind Oliveira, who was 2-for-3 and finished fourth in the average. Jenkins split 12th and 13th.
"I feel good about the stretch," said Jenkins, who is focused only the BFTS and has attempted half as many bulls as he had last year when he was competing nearly every night at BFTS, Touring Pro Division events or pro rodeos.
"If I would have been riding all summer there's no telling if I'd be beat up or hurt or not even able to compete at this event. There's just no telling."
This summer he stayed home and rode in only two events--J.W. Hart's TPD event in Decatur, Texas, along with the Calgary Stampede--during the entire break.
Oliveira didn't compete at all, while Alves rode nearly every weekend at various PBR Brazil events.
"I like to be riding," said Alves, who won nearly $71,000 while in Brazil. "It helps me to stay riding."
Alves, who has remained virtually injury-free during his entire professional career, said his body remains healthy and that, at this point in the season, he feels good.
The same cannot be said for J.B. Mauney.
Mauney is coming off an injury in which he broke a bone in his left riding hand. He competed at three BFTS events, prior to the break, using his off hand and is once again using his customary riding hand.
However, the top of his left hand remains badly bruised and the 25 year old from Mooresville, North Carolina, said that his hand becomes more painful with each bull that he attempts.
Mauney was 1-for-2 in Tulsa and finished the event splitting 12th and 13th with Jenkins.
He's ridden six of 10 bulls since having the cast removed from his left hand, but, more important, like the others in pursuit of Oliveira, he fell further behind in the standings. He is now 2,631.25 points back.
In order to go into the Finals within 1,000 points of the leader he'll need to make up an average of 205 points per event for the eight remaining regular-season events between now and the start of the World Finals.
Guilherme Marchi, who is ranked fourth and went 0-for-2 in Tulsa, would need to gain an average of 180 points on Oliveira to get within 1,000 points when they arrive in Las Vegas. Marco Eguche is 2,708.75 points back, while the remaining Top 10 riders--Renato Nunes, Austin Meier, Fabiano Vieira and Luke Snyder--are all 3,200 to 4,500 points off the lead pace.
"I just need to ride my bulls like I was before the break," said Alves, who was disappointed in missing out of the Built Ford Tough Championship Round this past weekend. "Falling off is natural. It happens, but I'm not worried about it. I just need to stay on my bulls."
As for the battle atop the standings, Jenkins said, "I'm just here to do my job."
He added that only "time will tell" if he can return with the consistency he showed prior to the break, but promised, "If I'm not, I'll be riding that good by Finals."
"This season I'm more focused, more prepared. I have more heart. I want it to be different." -Valdiron de Oliveira
There is a maximum of 9,300 points remaining in the regular-season, including two more 15/15 Bucking Battle.
But with Oliveira averaging slightly more than 450 points per event this season that cuts the opportunity to make up ground nearly in half. He has finished in the Top 5 the past four seasons and has a career riding average of over 60 percent.
If he remains healthy it becomes all the more difficult for anyone outside of Jenkins or Alves to catch last year's runner-up, who vows to finally win it all in 2012.
"I want some more points next week in San Antonio," Oliveira said. "Hopefully I'll win next week. This season I'm more focused, more prepared. I have more heart. I want it to be different."
Follow Keith Ryan Cartwright on Twitter @PBR_KRC.
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