LAS VEGAS – The first-round jitters surprised even Richmond Champion, who is competing at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for the third time in four years.

“Last night was the most nervous that I’ve ever been,” said Champion, who failed to catch a check on opening night but more than made up for it in Round 2 by finishing in a tie for first place. “I said that last year, and it topped it. I was tight.

“It was a good wakeup call for me. It was a little disappointing, but it forced me back to the fact that we’re here, we’re back to work. Tonight, I could feel the confidence and felt at home before I got on. That’s a nice feeling.”

So was his ride on Pete Carr’s Classic Pro Rodeo’s Fancy Free. The two athletes matched moves for 87.5 points, and Champion shared the round victory with Tanner Aus of Granite Falls, Minn. Both cowboys pocketed $23,481.

By collecting his first paycheck of the NFR, Champion pushed his season earnings to $134,678. He sits fifth in the world standings, and he’s excited to get off to a solid start.

“I’ve never won money this early,” said Champion, who shared the win in Guymon, Okla., on the horse in 2014. “I looked at a few videos of when Caleb (Bennett) got on her here, and I watched Kaycee Feild get on her here. We didn’t cover the ground she normally does. She was spectacular. I was having to hustle to keep up with her.”

This is his first round victory since his inaugural NFR in 2014. That year, he won twice and finished with more than $108,000 in 10 days. A year ago, he placed in just three rounds, so this was the perfect way to kickstart his 2017 finale.

“It’s good to be back in the winner’s circle,” he said. “Last year’s finals was a challenge. This is a goal checked off the list for this year. You don’t want to let any opportunity go by, so this is an awesome night.”

Now the cowboy from The Woodlands, Texas, hopes it just starts the ball rolling. He’s looking forward to what the next eight rounds has to offer.

“I was thinking about tomorrow night before I got out of the arena tonight,” Champion said. “We’ve got it going now. The high here is like nothing else. I can’t wait, because every night is a new opportunity. This is a dream come true to have this win coming this early. You never want to run short of confidence here.

“You need to stick to the basic things, keep a smile on your face and keep moving forward.”

That smile won’t be leaving any time soon.