Drake and Lever Win it All at 2010 Reno Rodeo Invitational

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Kenny Drake and Robert Lever shook hands for the first time as they rode in to rope their first steer at the 2010 Reno Rodeo Invitational Team Roping. Four runs later, they rode out of the Reno Livestock Events Center $200,000 richer.

Oklahoman Drake and Texan Lever became fast friends at the 14th annual RRI on June 22, when their previously planned partners couldn’t be there.

"This is a new beginning, but I guess it’s the end of the road," grinned elated 2010 RRI heading champ Drake. "This day has been a long time coming. This is my eighth time here, and I finally got it done."

"This roping is a prestigious deal," added Lever, the heeling half in the 2010 RRI winners circle. "It’s a chance to rope with guys mostly my age, and it’s not every day you get to back in the box for $100,000. Win or lose, we all have a great time."

They realized right off the bat that grabbing the gold at this one and beating the 206-team field was the end of the line. Producer Perry Di Loreto, himself a past RRI champion, wants to spread the wealth and allow more ropers to experience that $200,000 feeling.

"I’ll be back," Lever laughed. "I just won’t be entered." In addition to their huge cash haul, Drake and Lever were awarded Gist buckles, Cactus saddles, D-Bar-M saddle pads, Resistol hats and Maloy rope frames.

Their fateful partnership came together when other commitments came up for Roy Shirley and Karl Stressman. Lever’s regular partner, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Commissioner Stressman, had to turn out at this year’s RRI to tend to PRCA business back in Colorado Springs.

"I’d never met Robert before," grinned Drake, whose heading weapon of choice was a Classic Heat. "He roped great here today. Heelers are always the heroes. They just clean up the mess us headers make."

Lever was tickled to win $100 grand in a day. And he was definitely grateful to Drake. But he was clearly missing his main man Stressman. "I hate that I didn’t win it with my buddy Karl," Lever said. "Kenny was a great partner to step up when I needed one. He runs up there, doesn’t miss and gives you a puppy dog handle. I thank him for that, my wife for all her support and Karl for all the roping throughout the years. I’m really sorry he couldn’t make it this year.

"I want to thank Rich Skelton for the roping lessons; Dusty Watkins for letting me ride his horse; Perry for putting on a great event; and Wrangler for being invested in this event, and for allowing me to live the Western lifestyle I enjoy. This roping and Billy Pipes’ (Wildfire) roping are my two biggest wins (Lever won the Wildfire Pro/Am heeling for Chad Masters this year). I won Rich Skelton and Tom Cusick’s Rich Skelton Invitational Roping with Clay Tryan about three years ago, and that was pretty cool too."

Reigning World Champion Header Nick Sartain hopped the fence for a heartfelt high five with his fellow Oklahoman Drake. "Good work," said Sartain, who’s never one to rattle on needlessly when he can get straight to the point.

Drake owns 4D Washout and Cattle Rest. His company washes out cattle trucks that stop to rest their cattle in his pens en route from the East to feedlots in the West. The 4D brand stands for his family of four, which also includes his wife, Jill, and sons, Dusty and Casey.

"Team roping’s feast or famine," said Drake, 54, a USTRC No. 6 header from Sayre, Okla. "You’re either going to win or lose. Today was our day to win. I went and roped the dummy between runs, and couldn’t even catch that right. Somehow, I roped all four steers around the horns."

Lever and his wife, Mickey—who have two grown children, Tiffany, 34, and Cody, 30—flew into Reno from home in San Antonio, Texas. Lever is Wrangler’s manager of special events marketing. Wrangler President Phil McAdams called right after the roping, while Lever was still standing in the arena dirt, to congratulate him for representing the brand to such high standards. It’s cool to see a company so deeply and genuinely entrenched in the Western lifestyle.

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"Perry puts on a great event here in Reno," Lever said. "I’m glad he gave us the idea for the Wrangler Patriot Program. We’re raising funds for wounded and fallen soldiers and their families. A good portion of the funds from every item sold with that logo goes into the program."

Drake and Lever came from back in the pack in the eighth high callback position. After an 11-second run on their first steer and being nine twice, they figured they had little to lose by raising the bar at the finish line. "I was trying to speed things up," Drake said of his strategy. "I wanted to run at it a little harder and pick up a little slack. We just knocked along until we drew a good one in the short round.

"I wasn’t nervous on the last one. I asked God to take my nerves. I was more nervous on the second steer than that last one. I don’t really know why."

"Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to win this thing coming from eighth, with such high-caliber ropers ahead of us," added Lever, who used a Cactus C4 to close the deal at his end. "We knew we were already in the money before we roped that last steer, so I decided to step it up and be more aggressive than I’d been all day. On the first three runs, I was just trying to be conservative and get to the short round."

Drake declared it Great Eight day. They were the eighth callback, it was his eighth time to enter the RRI, and "Eight is symbolic of a new beginning. Seven is symbolic of completion."

Drake hadn’t had the best of RRI luck in years past. He said his team never stopped the clock in the past couple years. He placed fourth with Shirley in 2007, but that’s been about it before now. Drake first entered the RRI with World Champion Bullfighter Rob Smets. "Coming back eighth leaves you wondering what’s going to happen, so our goal was to get him caught as quick as we could," Drake said.

Montana Silversmiths’ Steve Miller again crafted bronzes to honor the winningest American Quarter Horse Association-registered horses at this year’s RRI. Drake doubled down in the "firsts" department when it came to partners on RRI day. He flew to Reno this year, and threw a leg over Quarter Horse jockey G.R. Carter’s bay horse "The Brown Bomber" for the first time the day of the roping.

Carter, who also roped at the 2010 RRI, won the All American twice. He won the renowned race in 1998 aboard Falling in Love Again, and headed to the 2008 winners circle riding Stolis Winner. He is the all-time leading money-earning jockey in Quarter Horse racing history with over $50 million in mount earnings. He’s been named American Quarter Horse Association World Champion Jockey a record eight times, including six consecutive years from 2003-08. Carter lent Drake "The Brown Bomber," 10, whose registered name is Hes Doin the Deal.

"I thank G.R. for letting me ride his horse," Drake said. "He’s a great one, and he sure did the job here today. Ray Charles could have caught those steers."

Lever, a USTRC No. 5 heeler who’ll be 58 on August 18, rode Watkins’ horse Double Shot Peppy, AKA "Starlight." Lever has a little history with the 8-year-old sorrel horse that earned Best Heel Horse of the 2010 RRI honors. "I’ve ridden this horse before, and he’s awesome," Lever said. "I don’t own horses like him—not this caliber. He’s a great horse, and I sure appreciate Dusty letting me ride him."

Watkins got a little something extra in his thank you card. "Dusty wouldn’t take mount money when I rode him before," Lever laughed. "I told him I wouldn’t ride him here unless I paid mount money. That horse was everything here today."

Riding Starlight was a welcomed change of pace for Lever, who was down in the back on RRI day. "One of those great horses I have at home stopped on his front feet," he grinned.

Drake planned to spend his windfall win on "bills and roping." Lever was being a good sport and thinking more about his net than the gross. Besides the mount money he owed Watkins, he promised his son Cody a new heel horse if he won the roping. Then there was the IRS’s cut to consider.

This year’s reserve RRI champs, Glen Crane and Bob Strander, finished half a second behind Drake and Lever in 38.44 seconds. They won $110,000, Gist buckles, Myler bits, Resistol hats, and Cactus headstalls, breast collars and nosebands. Woody Richins and Wayne Baize were third in 39.22 seconds for $55,000, Myler spurs, Resistol hats, and Cactus headstalls, breast collars and nosebands. Buddy Rose and Howard Gwynn finished fourth in 39.36 seconds for $50,000.

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Chuck Tarbell and Steve Simons came out on top in the three-steer average with 23.90 on three steers for $12,000 and Gist buckles. Tony Lyon and Jeff Busby, 23.99, Dick Yates and Jim Brinkman, 24.63, and Forrest Wheeler and Chris Cox, 27.28, rounded out the first four finishers in the three-steer for $10,000, $8,000 and $7,000, respectively.

This year’s RRI go-round winners received $8,000 and Gist buckles. Jack Lewis and Joe Moore won the opening round with a 7.30-second run. Heavy Sursa and Chad Craig won round two with the run of the day in 6.57 seconds, which was also worth the overall fast time D-Bar-M spurs. Denver Gilbert and Cory Clark led the way in round three with a 6.71-second run.

This year’s Reno Rodeo Invitational sponsor partners included Wrangler, Cactus Saddlery, Pro Equine, Priefert, D-Bar-M, Southwest Fence, Resistol, Silver Legacy, Gist Silversmiths, Myler Bits & Spurs, Heel-O-Matic, Inland Erosion, Absolute Identity Solutions, Bob Scott Saddlery, Bill Maloy and CSC Manufacturing. CSC Manufacturing, which is owned by military veteran and RRI roper Charlie Quinn, donated a walk-in therapeutic tub, which was auctioned off at the contestant welcome reception to help raise money for this year’s worthy cause. Many of Quinn’s employees are veterans, so his company tied in perfectly with the generosity and loyalty of this year’s RRI theme.

Everybody wins at the RRI, where a quarter of the teams entered get in on the payoff action. Every 2010 RRI contestant received a custom-embroidered Wrangler shirt, Cactus leather jacket, Wrangler/Cactus ball cap, Cactus rope, D-Bar-M gift certificate, Heel-O-Matic DVD and Roger’s Cowboy Supply coupon.

The 2010 RRI this year benefited the Nevada Military Support Alliance, which is a non-profit organization with a serious purpose. "None of the people we help are charity cases," said NMSA President and Chairman/RRI Producer Di Loreto. "These are military people and their families. The mission statement of the NMSA is to promote, support, recognize and appreciate the men and women of the U.S. armed forces in the state of Nevada—residents or those stationed here."

The military cause is close to Di Loreto’s heart. His oldest brother, Anthony, is a disabled Vietnam veteran. "Fifty-two Nevada soldiers have been killed in this war we’re fighting right now," Di Loreto said. "I carry a list of their names in my wallet, and have been to most of the funerals."

The Nevada Military Support Alliance is joining forces with Homes for Our Soldiers, which could be described as something similar to a military-based Habitat for Humanity. Job One will be to build a home for a soldier who lost both legs in Afghanistan. The RRI has donated $100,000 to the NMSA to date.

"This is the greatest roping there is for us," Drake said. "There are so many ways to win money. And Perry’s a giver. It’s great what he does with some of this money. You give and you shall receive. That’s God’s principle.

"It’s been a neat trail getting here. Funny how the Lord directs your path. Winning this roping has been a dream. Now that I won it I can’t come back, but it’s been great. I want my sons to get to come rope in Reno."

RRI Arena Director Jerold Camarillo ran a fair, tight-ship roping with the help of announcers Reed Flake and Ben Clements, who called the action, Philip Murrah on the flag and Lee Legasey, who led the barrier and timing-system crew. Linda Davis and Jodi Clements served as this year’s RRI timers and secretaries, Russell Funk returned as the livestock manager, and Cathie and Rowly Twisselman’s Flying T Cattle Company of Carrisa Plains, Calif., supplied the steers.