Six Figures Apiece!

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The first is that it's hosted by the king of country music. The second is that, like last year, the winning team earned the biggest set of Open paychecks ever written.

The two-day George Strait Team Roping Classic is always open to the world. No qualifications, no invitations, no caps, no limits. There is, however, that friendly little two-header in which they have to rope a couple in less than 12 seconds just to come back in the clean-slate top 50.

Hence, guys are dropping three coils and daring crossfire flags in some of the wild-and-wooliest team roping since old-school matches. And, to encourage more of the same on Saturday, all 50 teams get all three steers and only one is paid in each round. Still, it's perfection rather than recklessness that gets the big bounty in the end.

At stake for the high call duo of Travis Tryan and Michael Jones on Saturday was a record $88,060 per man, a pair of Chevy duallys, two Bruton three-horse bumper-pulls, Twister saddles, Gist buckles and leather U.S. Smokeless Tobacco ropebags (second would pay $35,225, on down to eighth place). As if that didn't create enough suspense, Jones-together with the sold-out crowd of thousands-had to wait on his partner, who was fighting tears.

Tryan was walking old Walt back from the stripping chute after having just come tight with Kory Koontz in 5.9 to move to the lead-with only himself left to go. That's right, at the roping where thousands of kids fantasize about being high call, Tryan had the top two opportunities. By the time he shook out a new loop and came around behind the box, a pin could have been heard dropping in the deafening quiet of the standing-room-only Rose Palace.

"Hey," he told the guys stretching the barrier. "I need just a second."

Fighting off the emotion of knowing he'd locked up the biggest win of his entire life, Tryan needed to get his mind around the fact that he still had to rope another one-in less than 6.16 seconds for first. Meanwhile, Jones could taste blood.

"He was relying on me to win just the same as my other partner was," Tryan said later. "That last steer was just as hard to rope. I stood to lose only $35,000-his difference was going to be $88,000!" Then he paused as it hit him that, on most days, $35,000 isn't pocket change.

Add it to his deposit slip.

The longtime rodeo partners drew a good steer and Tryan hung it on another one. He'd barely gotten the steer switched before Jones sucked the breath out of the crowd with a showy corner shot. It was the second steer in a row Jones had snagged as soon as it was legal, and it was just the finish you'd expect at one of the premier ropings in the world.

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Perfect Timing

"I just couldn't hold on to it any longer," explained Jones, who had stopped the clock with Tryan at 5.59 to win the roping by a half-second.

He apparently had that problem all day. The 28-year-old heeler from Hico, Texas, had already won the first round with Tryan on a 4.56 and turned around to win the second, too, with Travis' big brother Clay on a 4.28. And since that first steer had red wraps, he'd hit a $13,000 jackpot already.

Talk about having a phenomenal year in one day-Jones earned $101,060 and Tryan banked an unbelievable $134,785, added to new trucks, trailers, saddles and more.

To give you an idea just how big Tryan's recent payday was, consider that Speed Williams won first and second in the Strait in 2006 and earned $78,105. Need more perspective? The 2007 BFI paid $69,505 a man. The most recent U.S. Open and Wildfire ropings each paid $50,000 a man. And to outrope everybody on 10 head in Las Vegas at this past NFR paid the immortal Jake and Clay $72,043 a man.

"Thanks to George for putting on this type of event and giving us the opportunity to win this much," said Tryan, who golfed with George and his son, Bubba Strait, at Pebble Beach last year and calls the superstar "a cool guy" and "fun to be around."

The 27-year-old heading end of the championship had never had a decent chance to win the Strait in years past, and this one couldn't have come at a better time. Travis and his blonde bride, Hillary, had 190,000 miles on their pickup and had just bought 30 acres of bare land near Santo, Texas. (Although, in Hillary's words, they'll always be from Montana, where they still hang their hats May through September.)

The young couple had needed to be out of their old place near Decatur, Texas, on Wednesday, and, if Hillary was a little miffed that Travis left the moving up to her while he practiced for the Strait, it's likely she's forgiven him. Their 14-month-old daughter Riley, pacifier in tow, was a trooper during the long awards presentation, although she wouldn't let George hold her.

"She's going to regret that one day," quipped Hillary.

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Just Comes Natural
Back in 1983 when George and his brother, Buddy, created the Team Roping Classic in Kingsville, their wives took tickets and George and Buddy set up tables and chairs. Along the way, it was moved to the Rose Palace and has grown astronomically.

Tunes from George's staggering collection of hits still play softly over the sound system for two straight days-and now it literally takes two days to play them without repeating. His cattle man, Cliff Davis, brings a couple of hundred head of steers and sets aside 55 so everyone has a fresh one Saturday.

Last year, a mind-blowing 675 teams paid $400 a man to enter three times. This year, the fees were raised to $1,000 per team, and numbers dropped off to 483-but the payout still exceeded all others.

It's so good, in fact, that Camish Jennings and Brandon Bates bagged a truckload of loot without even placing on Saturday. They won the first long round for $15,540 a man, then strapped on two new buckles for fast-times on one and two head. The event is so hard to miss that when guys find themselves up the same day at RodeoHouston, they'll charter a plane just to get to or from San Antonio in time.

Aspiring team ropers buy and study videos of the Strait like it's a textbook, and for good reason. The only mistake Travis Tryan made all weekend was roping his final steer for Koontz around the neck. But, with Walt in hand, he simply stayed with the steer a little more and they made the business-like run they needed to move Kirt Jones and Jake Stanley, who'd been off the barrier.

It was a welcome run for 36-year-old Koontz, who's been blanked at the Rose Palace for the past eight years after winning the roping three times. So, speaking as the King of All Jackpotters (he's also won the Wildfire four times and the BFI twice), what's the secret to the Strait?

"This is really no different than any other roping," said Koontz, who rode a relatively new bay named LB (he sold Switchblade to Al Bach in February). "You have to rope aggressive and you cannot make mistakes."

But if you do, you cannot let it affect you.

While many exiting the Strait's stripping chute with a penalty have been known to throw icy stares or hurl expletives, Koontz merely offered his rodeo partner Key a "sorry, man" and stayed cool after roping a leg on their second one.

"I made a mistake for David that cost us having a chance to win the roping," Koontz said. "But I don't get frustrated to the point where I let it affect my next run. It's a maturity thing. I keep my head up and rope good for both guys to finish and win what I win. I knew I could still win first or second with Travis and eighth with David."

That's exactly what happened, and Koontz rounded up 13-year-old twin daughters Harlee and Ashlee (on spring break that week) and headed home to Sudan with $44,030. That was just after he'd watched calmly as his partner cut his earnings down by about $53,000 and a new hauling rig.

Staying cool was Tryan's win ticket, as well. He told Billings Gazette reporter Joe Kusek that he'd made mistakes at the Strait in the past because he-like many others-tended to try too hard. This year, he quit trying to win and just roped.

Tryan and Koontz actually discussed Tryan's two-run situation before their final steer.

"We talked and figured we'd just win whatever the steers dictated," Koontz recalled. "He told me there'd be no playing favorites, and Travis is full of integrity. He did exactly what he would do in all situations-Michael's the one who took the chance."

But Jones, well-known as a guy who can't resist a good gamble, will tell you his quick shots really aren't risky because of the way Tryan sets his cattle up.

Best in the Game
It doesn't hurt that Jones and Tryan ride two of the best rope horses of all time.

Jones' hard-stopping dun, Jackyl, packed former owner Koontz to a few NFRs early this decade; in 2004 carried Jones to the NFR average title, arena record and earnings record; and in 2006 took Allen Bach to his fourth world title.

Jackyl, about 18 now, can't win the AQHA's Horse of the Year honors because his registration papers were lost long ago.

And what more can be said of Tryan's beloved Walt? Part of the reason Koontz chose Tryan as his second partner this season was because of Walt's move on the corner. The bay gelding registered as Precious Speck has twice been chosen AQHA Head Horse of the Year, in 2003 and again last year (he was also third in '04 and '05).

This is Tryan's ninth year in the PRCA and he's already been to seven NFRs-nearly all on Walt. The year after he bought him, Walt packed both Clay and Travis Tryan at the NFR to fourth and fifth in the world.

"He's the greatest horse that ever lived and the toughest for sure," Tryan said. "He's 18 and came back from ringbone and is working better than he's ever worked. No money could buy him."

The joints in Walt's feet were fused to alleviate pain from the degenerative bone disease in 2006, so the typically career-ending diagnosis isn't even slowing him down now. There's so little "cheat" in this horse that, in Tryan's words, he'll let you reach and be 4 every time, then go run in there and let you just catch the last one. He can switch from a nod-and-ride setup to a 20-foot score in one day without missing a beat.

His ability is no surprise considering Walt's daddy was a son of the great sire Doc's Jack Frost, out of a Driftwood/Poco Bueno mare. But Walt most resembles his half-Thoroughbred mama, who goes to Three Bars and whose grandsire was a half-brother to Doc Bar.

Walt and Jackyl together have poured somewhere close to two million dollars into ropers' coffers, and Tryan and Jones wouldn't mind a million more. The partners won the first two rounds of the NFR last December and looked as though they'd run away with world titles-until the rest of their Finals fell completely apart. This year, don't be surprised if these guys (at least for a little while) thumb their noses at $4 diesel and pull into Las Vegas in their new Chevy trucks with another good shot at gold.