Clay Tryan sent a text to Travis Graves after the 2009 season with one simple question: "Do you want to win a world championship?" Graves, in his direct and quiet manner, replied, "Absolutely."
Well, of course he did. Everyone who swings a rope does. But that was Tryan’s way of asking Graves to partner up—and they did.
If you’d been following the sport, at the time Tryan’s bold statement might have smacked too heavily of hyperbole. After all, he had just barely made the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2009—had missed it in 2008—finished 11th in the world and the horse that made his career, Thumper, would have to be retired.
Those facts didn’t hinder Graves’s enthusiasm.
"Our goals are pretty much the same," Graves, who made the NFR himself in 2008, said. "We like to practice a lot together. He’s a winner. He can run close or reach, whatever you want or need. He’s a good jackpotter, too."
As for Tryan, the logic is pretty simple. If you don’t think you can win it all, then you’ve already admitted defeat. What’s the point of competing?
"That was my goal when I first texted him," Tryan said. "Unless we get that done, it won’t be a success, but that’s what makes it fun. The last couple of years weren’t fun. When you don’t have a shot to win a world title, you’re not making any good runs and you’re not making any money. It’s hard to take when you’re losing every day. The last couple years haven’t been fun, but this year has been. We’ve done good at the jackpots and we’ve done good at the rodeos and we’ve worked hard for it. We practice everyday no matter what the weather is like—trying to get it down together—and hopefully it pays off."
So far, it has in record fashion.
Tryan and Graves broke the regular season earnings record set by Chad Masters and Jade Corkill last year. Tryan finished 2010 with $145,524, besting Masters’ record of $127,749.
"It means a lot," Tryan said. "It’s one of those records that needs to be broken for the betterment of the sport. I’d like to see it broken every year, but it means a lot because we broke it by quite a bit."
Graves ended the 2010 regular season with $147,654, topping Corkill’s record of $118,277.
"It means a lot and it’s one of your goals, I guess," Graves said. "But it doesn’t really matter if you don’t win it all. It’s nice to have it, it’s a record, but hopefully it gets broken every year, that means our sport is getting better."
The teammates had talked about cashing in big as the season wound down—many teams do—but they exceeded all reasonable expectations.
First, they won the Justin Boots Playoff in Puyallup, Wash., in dominating fashion. They placed second in the first round, fifth in the average after two, then won the semifinal and final rounds for a total of $15,830.
The win boosted them each to No. 1 in the PRCA world standings above Masters and Corkill. The very next weekend those two stepped out and won the 100th anniversary edition of the Pendleton Round-Up, reclaiming the No. 1 spot. As if in a game of anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better, Tryan and Graves dominated the second and final stop of the Justin Boots Playoff series in Omaha, Neb., at the River City Roundup.
"It’s going to be a battle, they’ve roped great all year and they’re one of the best teams," Graves said.
For all of Tryan’s accomplishments—including the 2005 world title—he’s never had much success in Omaha. Other than an arena record of 3.9 seconds he and Patrick Smith set in 2006, there’s not much of a track record there. Of course, that didn’t hamper the team’s outlook.
"We’ve been practicing the last couple of weeks to get ready for this," Graves said. "My horse worked good, my header did a great job and handled them great."
Tryan returned the compliment—crediting their success to Graves’s ability.
"We’ve been really working hard on our roping all year," he said. "I’ve got two new horses and my heeler ropes two feet every time. That’s the thing about it, there were a lot of guys who headed good this week but the heeler couldn’t get two feet, mine did. We have really good chemistry."
It paid off. Tryan and Graves beat out 11 other teams to win the first round with a 4.3. They came back and won the second round with a 4.2. Those two wins put them in the top spot for the average. In the Justin Boots Playoff format, the four lowest times in the average after two rounds are eliminated. Tryan and Graves led the average coming back in the semifinal round, where the previous times are erased and competitors start with a clean slate. Once there, they turned in a 4.7—second only to Britt Williams and Bobby Harris’s 4.2. Entering the final round of four competitors, they would rope second-to-last.
First out were Luke Brown and Martin Lucero who were forced to take a no-time when Brown missed. Next came Travis Tryan and Rich Skelton. They put down a smooth 5 flat. Armed with the knowledge that if they just roped as well as they had all week, they could finish no worse than second, Clay Tryan and Graves went right back to work—stopping the clock in 4.6. Tryan rode his sorrel mare, Cate, while the bay gelding Superstar carried Graves.
"The steer just went one time, I thought he was going to be pretty good," Tryan said. "I didn’t think he was the best one out there. But they’re all good and so we made a decent run and it worked out."
Williams and Harris let it all hang out and roped their steer in 4.1—but had to add a 5-second penalty for a slipped leg.
"The key is for no one to make any mistakes," Tryan said. "If he ropes a leg or I break a barrier, we wouldn’t even be talking. The key is to go fast but be consistent enough to catch every steer. That’s what it takes to make it all the way through and make big money at those Finales."
In sum, both Tryan and Graves won $35,955, most of any competitor in Omaha. The win was significant for the cowboys, but clearly their eyes are set on a higher prize.
"It means a lot to have the lead, but it’s not over until it’s over," Graves said. "There’s a lot of money at the Finals and whoever does the best there will win it. It’s our goal to do good here."
And if the back-and-forth continues with Masters and Corkill, the Wrangler NFR should be one of the most entertaining face-offs between two teams in recent memory.
"They’re a great team," Tryan said. "We’ve kind of been watching each other in the standings all year and we see them every day. Those two guys rope good. We’re going to have to go home and work on it and keep sharp and see what we can do out there."
The biggest move in the world standings came from a little-known tie-down roping from Stillwater, Okla., named Trent Creager. Despite being 30 years old, Creager didn’t join the PRCA until 2003 and besides an 18th-place finish in 2008, hasn’t made a major impact in the sport until this year.
At his first Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo in March, he drove out of Pocatello, Idaho, as the champion. In July, he won the 100th anniversary-edition of the California Rodeo Salinas. Yet coming into the Justin Playoffs in Omaha, he was 17th in the PRCA world standings.
"I’ve been in the standings all year, but I haven’t won a lot the last month," Creager said. "I didn’t even look at the standing for about 10 days now. I just tried to go rope and let that stuff take care of itself. I had to come here and make a good run and make some money and it worked out real good."
His first two runs weren’t spectacular. He missed the barrier in the first round and bobbled his tie in the second. Still, he was able to hold on to the No. 5 spot in the average and advanced to the semifinal round where his previous times were disregarded.
"I guess I got the kinks worked out," he said.
After that he came alive. He won the semifinal round in 7.5. In the finals, he watched Trevor Brazile break out, Cimarron Boardman go long (10.5) and Jerome Schneeberger put some heat on with an 8.6.
"This is the way I like to rope," Creager said of the format—an identical one to the DNCFR’s. With that comfort level, he backed into the box, nodded his head and when the dust settled, the clock read 7.7.
He won $23,195 and leapfrogged from 17th to sixth in the PRCA world standings to make his first-ever NFR.
The most historic feat of the 2010 River City Roundup came in the barrel racing. For the fourth consecutive year, Lindsay Sears and her horse Martha rode out of Omaha in the top spot.
Winning a rodeo four times in an entire career is practically unheard of—winning one of the biggest rodeos of the regular season for four straight years is just short of miraculous.
"Martha loves it, the ground and the setup," Sears said. "She loves Omaha."
In past years (2007 and 2009), Sears has swept the event—winning every round. This year, however, the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association changed the format to one round and a finals for the barrel racers. Sears placed third in the first round and then won the finals, bringing her earnings for the weekend to $6,500. Her final-round time was a 14.45. Sears held her No. 2 spot in the world standings.
Saddle Bronc Riding
The saddle bronc riding at the Justin Boots Playoffs in Omaha was ugly. After two rounds, Taos Muncy and Bradley Harter tied for the lead. With scores wiped away, the semifinal round saw buckoff after buckoff. In fact, as it came to Harter, the last cowboy to ride, there were only three qualified rides: Cody Wright, Jesse Kruse and Jeffery Willert.
Harter nodded his head on Beutler and Son’s Holy Water. The horse had no timing and little kick. Harter stayed on, but it wasn’t pretty, and the judges awarded him a 49-point score and a reride. Knowing he had an automatic berth into the final round and his score would be thrown out anyway, he declined.
As he brought his saddle from the locker room to the chutes for the final round of four, he stopped a passer by in the hallway and said, "Hey, did you hear I set an arena record?" An awkward pause followed as the object of his statement tried to understand. Harter smiled, raised his voice and shouted, "For the lowest score ever!" followed by his signature loud cackle.
While it probably was the lowest score ever in the Sherman Berg Arena, Harter had a chance to redeem himself aboard Barnes ProRodeo’s Cat Power.
"I was first out and I had that horse before in the 10th round at the Wrangler NFR and I was 87 on him the last time," he said. "I made a good ride, I was 80, and there were three of the best guys in the world left and three of the best bucking horses. I just kept my fingers crossed the whole time."
Unbelievably, none of those top riders were able to pull down a score. Willert missed his horse out and Kruse and Wright bucked off.
"It was just a blessing, I thank God," Harter said. "I didn’t want my buddies to do bad, but I wanted to do good I was so worried about them catching me, I was right on the edge of my seat the whole time."
After winning $28,446 in Omaha, Harter moved into the top spot in the world standings. Now, he’s just got to follow up his best finish of a regular season with a strong showing at the Wrangler NFR.
"It’s the best season of my life," he said. "Rodeo is a learning experience. I don’t know if I’m riding any better, but mentally I’m more mature this year than I have been ever. I would say that and glory to God. I just need to keep the ball rolling going into the NFR and hopefully be in first place at the end."
Native Nebraskan Steven Dent took top honors in the bareback riding and whipped the crowd into an early frenzy with his 90-point final-round ride on Buetler and Son’s Forward Motion, a colt by the legendary bareback horse Comotion.
"I’d never seen him before," Dent said. "I knew that Justin McDaniel was like 87 on him in Greeley and won the short round on him. He’s a young horse that was supposed to be unreal. I was just glad to have the opportunity and skill to capitalize today."
Coming into Omaha, Dent was in a solid second in the world standings, but his fall had been slow.
"I’ve gotten into my fall workout routine and gotten ready for the NFR and refocused," Dent said. "I knew that there would be 14 rounds for the gold buckle between Omaha and the end of the NFR for a world title and this is a great way to start it out."
Dent seems to thrive in elmination-style tournaments. Two years ago, when he finished second in the world standings, he competed in five of these events: RodeoHouston, Caldwell, Puyallup, Omaha and Dallas, and won four of the five.
"The only times I’ve been 90 points or more is in the four rounds at Houston, Caldwell, Dallas and now here," he said. "I don’t know if it’s the format or if it’s just the great horses they have. It’s a great opportunity."
The $29,003 he won helped him maintain his second-place spot in the standings heading to the NFR.
Curtis Cassidy entered a new phase in his career this year, as his signature horse (and four-time horse of the year) Willy is enjoying semi-retirement.
He’s been putting together new horses to replace Willy and borrowing some proven ones from his friends, including Lee Graves’s horse Jesse.
"Jesse gave me a heckuva chance at that steer," he said. "He runs so hard and gets your feet on the ground so much faster—most of the horses out there give you a good chance—so when you have a great horse and a great steer it just comes together."
Cassidy stopped the final-round clock in 3.4 seconds and moved from third in the world standings to first on the strength of a $25,747 weekend.
"It feels great," he said. "This is literally the second-biggest rodeo we go to all year to the NFR. It feels really good going into Las Vegas."
Bull rider Steve Woolsey came in second to Tryan and Graves for the highest win total after he won $33,491 for splitting the first round, winning the second round and average, placing third in the semifinals and winning the final round.
Aboard 4L Rodeo’s Big Iron, Woolsey scored 93 points in the most entertaining and wild rides of the weekend.
"It’s hard to explain because everything was happening so fast. He’d dive away from me and then I’d try to get back in, then he’d dive away from me again. You just have to go to him and try to stay in the middle."
The win moved Woolsey from 10th in the world standings to third.