In an effort to continue to move the sport of rodeo further, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association recently unveiled the Ariat Playoffs of the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour. The Tour concept, which began in 2000, has gone through several phases, including a summer and winter finale concept and overall finale concept. The playoffs format, however, is something new. After 21 regular season rodeos (of which cowboys could count 15 toward Tour standings) the top 35 cowboys in each event from the Wrangler Tour plus a wild card qualifier-the person who won the Dodge National Circuit Finals-had the opportunity to compete in the first round of the Ariat Playoffs at the Caldwell (Idaho) Night Rodeo. The Puyallup (Wash.) Fair and Rodeo, River City Roundup (Omaha, Neb.) and Dallas Stampede round out the final playoff sites-all of which culminates at the Wrangler NFR in Las Vegas in December.
The top 22 in the Tour standings plus the DNCFR champion and Caldwell champion automatically advance to Puyallup.
So, that made Caldwell a must-win situation for 13 people in each event. Among them were Colter Todd and Cesar de la Cruz. For the Arizona duo, 2006 was a magical year, making their first Finals together and ending up third in the world. Up until Caldwell, 2007 wasn't holding that same magic. Prior to that weekend, they were ranked 19th. What's more, they made it into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth.
"We barely got in by a couple hundred dollars," de la Cruz said.
In fact, Todd was ranked 35th-the last hole-and de la Cruz was ranked 34th.
"When we got there, I told Cesar, 'All we've got to do is win this deal,'" Todd said. "I didn't really know how it paid, but if we won first, we had our automatic bye into Puyallup."
At first, it didn't look good for the two best friends. In the first round, de la Cruz roped a leg to be 4.4. A 9.4 made them nervous.
In the second round, Todd and de la Cruz watched the action. First, Garrett Tonozzi and Caleb Twisselman went out and nailed a 3.8. Then, Ty Blasingame and Ryon Tittel stopped the clock in 3.9. The uncanny calculator Colter was crunching numbers. He had it figured that a 3.9 would probably advance them and a 3.8 would for sure.
"It was one of those deals. In the Bible it says to make your requests known unto God. It was kind of like that. I said, 'If it doesn't happen, that's fine, but we need to be 3.8 right here,'" Todd said. "I knew the speed pattern for me was going to be about right. He was one of the first steers that I had seen go that I said, 'A guy could be fast on these steers.' I knew as far as me getting it on him that we had a chance. The heeling part, Cesar just did a really good job."
In response, de la Cruz deflected the credit.
"You can only heel one so fast, so I'm going to have to give the credit to my header on that one," he said. "The start was real tricky there, he was a real slow steer. My partner really scored well and obviously had it on him faster than anyone at the rodeo. I watched the steer earlier, Tommy Zuniga had him, he got a little heavy and he told me to make sure I got my first shot because he wasn't going to give me much after that."
The mark set a new arena record and put the duo into the semifinal round at Caldwell. De la Cruz had been three before: a 3.31 at the George Strait Team Roping Classic with Derrick Begay and was 3 with Begay's father at an Indian Rodeo. For Todd, however, the mark was a lifelong goal.
"One of my goals was to be under four," he said. "To do it there, when I had to be 3.9 possibly and 3.8 to for sure make it back was really special."
As it turns out, they could have been 4.1 and still made it back.
After the first two rounds, the short go first has a semifinal round of eight cowboys-and teams-in each event with a clean slate. Then, the top four from the round of eight advance to a final round where scores are again wiped clean and the winner of the final round wins it all.
Todd and de la Cruz entered the semifinal round in the sixth hole, along with teammates Matt Sherwood and Allen Bach (yes, Caldwell marked the first time the two reigning world champs roped together at a PRCA rodeo since winning last year). David Key and Kory Koontz, Charles Pogue and Rich Skelton and Matt Funk and Bucky Campbell were among the other qualifiers.
"In that first set of eight, we had a steer that run pretty hard and went to the left and we just thought, we had to make a clean run and see where it put us," de la Cruz said.
They stopped the clock with a 5.6.
"Coming into the round of eight, that was not what I wanted to do at all," Todd said. "I wanted to be under five, short four even. These steers were so good that everybody was going to be able to be fast without going fast. I missed the barrier, the steer a lot harder and so then it was like, don't be stupid, make sure you do catch and give yourself the opportunity. When we went, I really didn't think we'd make it back."
Incidentally, the steers they used were the same ones from Vernal, Utah, where it took an 8.9 on two to win, and another 3.7 run was made by Derrick Begay and de la Cruz's uncle Victor Aros.
As it turned out, the 5.6 from Todd and de la Cruz was the second-fastest run in the semifinal round. Justin Young, who is leading the rookie of the year heading standings, and Richard Durham won the round with a 4.7. Young and Durham had never roped together at all and were randomly paired by the PRCA's computers prior to Caldwell.
The final round saw David Key and Kory Koontz clock a 9.9, and then Matt Funk and Bucky Campbell turned in a 7.2.
"In the final round, all we had to do was catch, basically," Todd said.
For his part, de la Cruz just put it on cruise control.
"I thought if Colter just got a good start and got it on him like he does, I could just kick around there and stop the clock," he said. "I was just thinking about making a good run and winning some money, because we were in a tight situation."
By stopping the clock in 6.7, the situation suddenly became a lot looser. Then, the rookie Young missed his head loop and Todd and de la Cruz were $10,396 richer and the Caldwell Night Rodeo champions.
"I hadn't seen Colter that happy since Oklahoma City," de la Cruz said, referring to their U.S. Open win. "He was dancing around, giving me high fives, smiling, playing with his daughter-it was just great.
"I've only got one word to describe it, and that's 'blessing,'" de la Cruz added. "We've struggled and I've made my mistakes this year that I didn't make last year. That's why we were in a rough situation. This got us up there right where we need to be again and it got us comfortable again so we can just go to winning. It was huge for us. It was awesome. I'm so happy to have that header heading for me, because he's spun me steers everywhere we've went for first. He's done a great job."
From 19th, the duo immediately vaulted to 11th in the world standings with a chance to keep playing for the big bucks in Puyallup and possibly Omaha.
"We'll see how it all shakes out, whether we make it or not, but it sure jumped us right back to where we think we have a really good chance," Todd said.
While everything is coming up roses all of a sudden, the hardships for the first part of the year put the partnership to the test. Mid-summer, when it seemed like every team out of the top 15 (and some in it) hit the panic button and began switching partners, Todd and de la Cruz separately wondered if they should do the same.
"I've never talked to him about it," Todd said. "I've told him a few times that he needs to find a new partner because I'm usually messing up too much and he's not. I feel like he could be in the race for a world title a lot of times if he had a partner who was just turning him more steers. But he's comfortable with me and I'm comfortable with him. My wife's on me all the time: 'Don't get caught up in it,' she says. 'Once you start swapping, you're always swapping.' It's the rules of the road out here: If it ain't working try something else, and I agree to a point. But then there's that other point where if they'd have just stuck it out a little bit longer, they'd have been all right.
"If you can find that comfort zone, it's going to be better in the long run. I'm not trying to make it sound like we'll never find other partners, I don't know that, because I have thought about it, but it's never seemed like that's what I'm supposed to do, so I never did. I'm really glad I haven't. When I get to knocking, it seems like that's when he shines through and catches steers that are totally crucial-just like in Caldwell. There's been lots of times when I've fallen in the hole. I've thought about it and weighed the pros and cons and I keep coming back to saying that there ain't nobody better for me."
First, the duo didn't fare well in Cheyenne, which they won last year. Then in Nampa, Idaho, and Salinas, Calif., things didn't go as well as in 2006. Caldwell was almost a tipping point.
"I missed a few shots and he missed a few shots and we were down a little bit," de la Cruz said. "But because of our friendship and our families, it's worked out really well for us. That's one of the main things to this roping thing; a team has to be thinking alike. We weren't drifting away from that, but we were having problems and it was putting a test to our partnership and to the team. I think now it just made us stronger. I learned a lot more this year than I did last year. I had to work through my mistakes, and I'm a person who works off of confidence and momentum. When the momentum wasn't there, I had to go back to basics and rely on my partner and feed off him. Now it's working out. I want to thank God for that. I was ready to give up, I really was. We mentioned to each other that we need to win or we need to go home, Colter's got a family and he's got to take care of everything. At that point, we just really went to winning."
Saddle Bronc Riding
Like Todd and de la Cruz, the Ariat Playoffs and Caldwell were Bobby Griswold's only chance. Coming into the event, he was 34th in the Wrangler Tour standings. In the world standings, Griswold was out of the top 30.
With a 160 total on two in the preliminary rounds, Griswold entered the semifinal round of eight in the fifth spot. However, he liked his chances versus Calgary Stampede's Gallant Warrior. He spurred the horse for 82 points, third in the round, and advanced along with Anthony Bello, 2005 World Champion Jeff Willert and Bradley Harter.
The round of four draw had been released earlier in the day, and among them was Calgary's Fearless Warrior.
"After I drew Gallant Warrior, I was hoping for another warrior," he said. "I was pretty sure I had him and so I went and got his halter off of the fence and carried it around waiting for them to make it official. Then somebody said Jeff had him so I put the halter on his bag. Then they changed it and said I had him, so I ran back over and got the halter."
Apparently, the two warriors were exactly what the battle-tested Griswold needed. After Bradley Harter was bucked off of Powder River's Miss Congeniality, Griswold seized the opportunity and scored an 85. Willert bucked off of Powder River's Touch of Silver and Bello rode Big Chill for 82.
Even the next morning, as Griswold sat in the airport waiting for a plane to take him back to flooded Geary, Oklahoma, he couldn't stop grinning. He knew the opportunity in front of him. With an automatic seed into Puyallup, $8,143, a 25th spot in the world standings and a shiny new buckle, even the rain in Oklahoma couldn't dampen his spirits.
Unlike many of the other winners in Caldwell, Lee Graves's position in the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour was secure. In the top 10, just placing would get him as far as Omaha pretty easily. But the 2005 world champ had a bigger target in his sights than his ninth Wrangler NFR qualification. A world title was on his mind.
Potentially, he and 2004 champ Luke Branquinho were setting 2007 up to be a clash of the titans at the Finals. Their back and forth race for the top spot in the world standings had already begun.
Graves drew first blood in the playoffs by winning the semifinal round with a 4.0-second run and then the final round with a 3.8. In total, the Calgary, Alberta, cowboy took home $10,396 and claimed the top spot in the world standings.
In addition to team ropers Colter Todd and Cesar de la Cruz, Arizona represented itself well in Idaho. Tie-down roper Joseph Parsons of Marana withstood fierce competition to win the final round and the Caldwell Night Rodeo title with an 8.2-second run.
The $8,245 he won moved him from 16th to 12th in the world standings, gave him the automatic bid to Puyallup and a new buckle-important considering the 23-year-old was still wearing a high school rodeo buckle despite being last year's Turquoise Circuit Champion.
Continuing the Arizona contingent was Tom McFarland of Wickenburg. McFarland rode Burch Brothers' Strawberry Wine for 83 points in the semifinal round and Burch's Pinball Wizard in the final round for 88 to win the title.
The $8,550 McFarland won put him in the No. 16 spot in the world standings and edged him closer to his fourth Wrangler NFR qualification. Plus, he represented his traveling partners, Will Lowe, Royce Ford and Wes Stevenson, a.k.a. the Wolf pack, well.
Barrel Racing and Bull Riding
In the barrel racing, two friends, Lisa Lockhart and Jill Moody, both of South Dakota, tied for the title when each ran 17.39-second runs. Officially the title fell to Lockhart due to her faster time in the semifinal round, which, interestingly was also a 17.39 and won the round. Lockhart left $7,505 and Moody went home with $6,098. Each is in the top 10 in the world standings.
The bull riding, on the other hand, fell to Logan Knibbe when everyone else fell off his bull. Knibbe qualified to the final round after a 90-point trip aboard DHT's Mud Duck. However, he, reigning World Champion B.J. Schumacher, Cooper Kanngiesser and Lucas Dick all bucked off their final round bulls. Interestingly, Knibbe won the Caldwell Night Rodeo the same way last year. He won $4,956 and was ranked 24th in the world standings.