BFI or Bust: Roping for Riches in Reno

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For as long as I’ve been roping for a living, I’ve been roping at the BFI (Bob Feist Invitational Team Roping Classic). I didn’t get to go to the first BFI in Chowchilla (Calif.) in 1977 because I went to the junior world championship, which at that time was in Allen, Okla. I won the junior roping in 1976 with Eddie Green (Rickey’s cousin), and went back in 1977. That was a fun deal, because kids like J.D.Yates and Jake Barnes were there. I went to my first BFI (the second annual) in Chowchilla with Bret Beach in 1978, and have been to every BFI since.

By 1978, I was roping for a living. And when you roped for a living at that time, the BFI quickly became the biggest roping to go to. The Chowchilla Stampede and Riverside Rancheros were the other big, prestigious ropings back then, but there’s only one BFI. Those were the ropings we looked forward to every year as an opportunity to make money, and also for the prestige. Anyone who wanted to rope and make a name for themselves didn’t miss those events. Those events were where a person could get some notoriety and endorsements. My first rope deal came from being successful at those big ropings.

Bob Feist also had the only roping newspaper that went across the country (Ropers Sports News). The people who won good at those ropings were the notable ropers of influence. If you could capitalize at those events and make a name for yourself, you could also put on roping schools. The BFI moved around over the years before finding its longtime home in Reno in 1984. After four years in Chowchilla, it moved to Las Vegas for a year in 1981, then to Denton, Texas. When Jake and I won the BFI in 1988, it was held in the outdoor arena (home of the Reno Rodeo, on the same rodeo grounds as the Reno Livestock Events Center indoor arena, where the BFI is now held), and it was raining and hailing when we ran our short-go steer.

Coming into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and learning the rodeo game was something that I had to really work on, because it was such a transition. Rodeo roping was different from my strength, which was jackpot roping coming in. Before I got my PRCA card, I made my living roping at jackpots. The BFI and those other big ropings were the events I really looked forward to, because that was my strength.

Early in my career, I had a lot of confidence in setting up my shot and catching two feet, so I felt like I had a really good chance to win every time I went. Over the years, because I had to work so much on my rodeo roping to be competitive at that, I didn’t do as good or have as much confidence at the bigger ropings. I’d worked so hard at trying to rope fast that I’d let up a little on that other style. When Jake and I would practice, we practiced going fast. We were always practicing with him coming across there, roping really aggressive and me trying to get a really fast shot. So there was a period of time, in the 1990s, when the big ropings weren’t as much my strength as they’d been in the 1980s. I wasn’t as prepared for them, and my horses weren’t really set up for it. I placed, but I didn’t set the world on fire.

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I went back and worked harder on my jackpot game around 2000, and have since placed at the BFI several times. I won second a couple times (with Matt Tyler in 2001 and David Key in 2003), and placed in the average several times (with Jake and Tyler Magnus). There were years I felt really nervous at the BFI, because it was the one shot we had at really big money and so much was riding on that one roping. My expectations to do well were really amped up. After all these years of competing at the BFI, it’s become such an annual get-together. The Reno Rodeo, the big crowds—it’s just such a festive week. So many people come watch, too, which is really cool. All that aside, from a roping standpoint, it’s just another roping if you want to be successful. Other big ropings have since come along, like the George Strait (Team Roping Classic), the USTRC Finals and Salado (the Wildfire Open to the World). We get to rope at more big ropings now, which is great. You have to be prepared for them, but things have to go your way too. You also have to draw decent. Years ago at the BFI, if you roped six steers straight up you won a ton. Last year, Tyler and I roped a pretty good roping, and ended up seventh. We drew two runners. Our first steer was the hardest running steer in the herd, and our last steer was the second hardest running steer in the herd. We made six clean runs, and barely got a check.

The strategy at the BFI years ago was to not make any mistakes. Now you can go not make any mistakes and not win anything. You need to put together aggressive, consistent runs, because that’s what it’s going to take to position yourself for a chance to win. There are so many good ropers these days, and so many teams who can rope a good roping that you’re not only going to have to rope fast and rope good, but draw right too. The horses of the rodeo guys who’ve been rodeoing all year come into play at the BFI. A lot of the headers have been reaching a little bit at the rodeos. Some guys are really mounted for that type of setup with a longer score and stronger cattle. The headers with the outstanding head horses that score and really run across the line definitely have the edge. The rodeo head horses can be tricky to get by in those conditions. At the end of the day, the BFI champs are the team that has everything go pretty smoothly; the teams that draw good and capitalize on those opportunities.

There are so many good teams out there now, and everybody’s prepared for the BFI. You just have to go let it happen, and back in there knowing your practice, preparation and competition skills are there. You have to go let it roll and make your runs, and it’s either going to work or it’s not. It’s such a big deal to win the BFI, so naturally you think about that, especially the young guys who are just now stepping onto the big stage. It’s the same way with the NFR (Wrangler National Finals Rodeo). When you back in the box on that very first steer, you’re having to deal with different thoughts than those Jake and I might be dealing with after all these years. The mind game and the mindset change over time, and everybody goes through the same stages. Nobody’s exempt from the mental aspect. What we do all know about the BFI is that if you go rope six steers by two horns and two feet, you give yourself a chance. That’s the goal—to execute the runs. None of the rest of it matters much. 

Editor’s Note: Jake and Clay’s 1988 BFI groom Judy Gillum filled me in on a pretty fun fact from that year’s event. Jake and Clay had just bought brand new trucks when they pulled into Reno that June. Jake’s was red, and Clay’s was blue. As fate would have it, the trailers they won at the roping that day were a perfect match to their new trucks—Jake’s red and Clay’s blue. If you look at the pictures, you’ll see that all that kept them from a clean color sweep that day was swapping shirts.