The New Breed of Horse Play

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The World Series of Team Roping, which hit a home run last year with over $1.1 million in prize money, has taken another step forward in payout and format in creating the Thunder EquiGames.

Denny Gentry, the founder and former owner of the United States Team Roping Championships, introduced the World Series concept to the team roping world in 2007. By the time the event wrapped up at Michael Gaughan's South Point Hotel and Casino last year, everyone in the industry knew it would be the next big deal. Gentry's innovative entry and fee setup guaranteed $1.1 million in prize money.

In 2008, he stepped it up to award $2.7 million in Las Vegas during December to every-day team ropers. Like in 2007, there were three divisions, a No. 10, No. 11 and No. 13 (in 2007, it was a 14). The No. 13 Cactus Pro-Am paid out $850,000-making it the largest mid-range roping ever. The Bloomer Trailers No. 10 Lo-Am was the largest roping in its category ever produced at $944,000 and the Priefert No. 11 was the second largest roping in the United States this year at $944,000. Added up, that's just under half of what the Wrangler NFR awards during its 10-day stretch. As a matter of fact, the NFR first awarded $2.7 million in 1993, it's 34th year in existence. The WSTR is in its second.

The action began mid-week and culminated with the Thunder EquiGames on Sat., Dec. 13, in an event that showcased the short round in each of the three team roping divisions plus the short round of the Charmayne James Invitational Barrel Race, the World Series of Mounted Shooting and the Rob Smets World Series Freestyle Bullfight Challenge.

Announced by 21-time Wrangler NFR announcer Bob Tallman and set to up-beat music, the Thunder EquiGames had a legitimate-event feel rather than merely the end of a long, drawn-out roping sparsely attended by the family and friends of the competitors and a few fellow ropers who didn't make the cut.

According to Gentry, 2,900 fans sat in the stands and circled the arena as witnesses to the first-ever Thunder EquiGames.

And as it turned out, they had quite a show.

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To say that Gerardo Valenzuela, a Spanish-speaking ranch hand from Sahuarita, Ariz., left a piece of himself at the World Series of Team Roping Finale in 2007 would be an understatement. The cowboy rarely leaves home to rope, and when he did come to the South Point for the first time, the heeler lost his thumb.

"I guess I can call this my arena, since a little of me is somewhere in that dirt," he said. "I knew there was no way things could turn out as bad as they did last year."

His header, George Ortega from Marana, Ariz., was making sure of that. Not only his partner, but his translator, Ortega had the team in prime position heading into the 15-team short round. By roping three steers in 30.21, they led the field by one-tenth of a second.

The pressure first came from the fifth-high team back, John Nichols and Randy Jackson. They roped their final round steer in 10.25 to have an even 41-second time on four. The fourth high call team was 14.08 and the second- and third-high teams turned in no-times.

As the Arizona team backed into the box wearing matching green shirts, they had almost 11 seconds to rope their steer for the title. They did it in 9.5 and proceeded to whoop it up around the arena.

"We've roped together for three years, but are just now clicking," Ortega said. "This is the first roping Gerardo has been to this year that is out of town. Maybe I can get him out a little more now."

With an $80,000 paycheck per man, he can at least afford the fuel.

The Arizona boys, however, weren't the only ones to cash checks. Any team in the X-team field to head and heel a steer got a check. With 30 average checks up for grabs, only 29 teams roped three to advance to the short round and each of those teams got a check. When the dust settled, nearly a dozen big checks were paid with legs and multiple legs, and five places were paid on three head.

Valenzuela wasn't the only roper to overcome injury for great success at the World Series of Team Roping. Heeler Bob Ferguson caught his foot in a rail and twisted it backwards, breaking his ankle, a mere two weeks before the World Series of Team Roping Finale in Las Vegas.

Showing true cowboy grit-and perhaps an opportunistic streak-he convinced his doctor he need to rope, had a special stirrup made to accommodate the cast, and then convinced his header he'd be good to go.

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Ferguson, who's a horse trainer and farrier from Eloy, Ariz., and his partner Daniel Nowlin, from Casa Grande, Ariz., hit the practice pen to make the necessary adjustments for the injury and have a legitimate shot at the top spot.

Nowlin, who's a dairy farmer, provided the pen and the cattle.

The practice paid off and they came into the 15-team short round as the fourth-high team with a 28.49 time on three. The No. 11 proved to be a tough short round with middle-of-the-pack teams turning in fast times. As Nowlin and Ferguson backed into the box, they needed an 8.95-second run to take the lead, they roped their steer in 8.66, bringing their total on four to 37.15. But, they had to sweat out the final three teams.

The third-high team roped a leg, as did the second-high team, and the fast back team missed the heel loop altogether.

"After we roped that steer, I knew that we had won something big," Nowlin said. "It worked out good. This is the biggest thing to happen in my roping career. I was riding three different head horses practicing for this roping and if it wasn't for Bob Ferguson pushing me to practice I don't know if we'd have roped as good."

Whatever pain Ferguson felt vanished the instant he realized he and Nowlin were $80,000 richer.

"I didn't want to miss this roping," Ferguson said. "I'm going back to the doctor and get a walking boot, but I'll have a big smile on my face when I see him. My smile hasn't gone away yet. That's a lot of money for me."

The final team roping of the day provided perhaps the most excitement. Of the 16 teams (there was a tie for the last hole) in the short round, there were a few recognizeable names. Brent Lewis, the 11-time Wrangler NFR tie-down roper from Eloy, Ariz., was heading for Mark Smith at the fifth-high call back position. Steve Smith, 2008 World Champion Tie-Down Roper Stran Smith's older brother, had qualified in the fast back position heading for Clint Buhler. And Jared Udy, the 2007 WSTR No. 11 champion, came in at the second-high team spot.

There have been big-paying ropings for the top professional ropers for years and ropings that were huge for ropers at the bottom of the scale, but until December 10th, 2008, there had never been a mid-level competition to rope at $850,000. In fact, there has never been a professional roping in that price neighborhood.

Udy, from Newton, Utah, and his partner, Ky Oberg from Ephraim, Utah, had roped a total of three steers together coming into the No. 13 short round-the three that put them at 25.47.

In the short round, they roped their steer in 9.46 seconds to take the lead with only Smith and Buhler left. They had almost 11 seconds to get the job done and they would be the champions. Things started out well, but a five-second penalty for a one-leg catch put them at 13.60 seconds. Udy and Oberg's family and friends were on their feet-none more so than Udy's wife, Emily, who made the west side of the building wake up and take notice.

Smith and Buhler fell to 12th in the average while Ben Tibbets from Blackfoot, Idaho, and Paul Freed from Morgan, Utah were second. Lewis and Smith finished third.

"That was awesome," Oberg said. "It was great hearing them in the stands. The whole thing was a little bit nerve wracking. I'd settled for second. Then the next guys pulled up a leg and we'd won it. I haven't even put the check in the bank."

The check was worth $75,000 per man.

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There's no doubt that Oberg will get his check in the bank before the end of the year, but the construction company owner is going to enjoy the big win as long as he can. "I keep looking at that check and thinking it's a lot of money," he said. "The bronze and the saddle, all the awards that we got, it was a great experience."

Udy lives in northern Utah and Oberg is in the southern part of the state. Udy's original partner qualified with someone else, so he called Oberg to see if he wanted to go.

"I've roped four steers with him (Oberg) and they were all at the South Point," Udy said. "I'd seen him rope and knew that all I had to do was get them turned for him."

The cattle rancher spent about an hour each night practicing after working all day. Then when it got too dark to be in the arena, he spent time in the barn roping the dummy. To make up for time practicing and then at Las Vegas, he was moving cattle in sub zero temperatures a week after the roping.

"When you go to a roping like that you want to be prepared. I concentrated on doing my end," Udy said. "I was pretty lucky to win it back to back. I had no clue that I could beat 300 teams to do it again. It helps to go into a situation like that being ready."

The Charmayne James Invitational Barrel Race Krystal Jones almost didn't compete at the Charmayne James Invitational Barrel Race held Saturday, Dec. 13 at the South Point Equestrian and Events Center.

She's glad she did. Jones won the brand-new event with a total time of 30.675 seconds, $15,000 and a $20,000 Bloomer horse trailer. She and Andrea Cline-Herron had both decided to enter so they could make the 1,500-mile drive together, share the expenses and the workload. The morning of the barrel race, Cline-Herron went out to feed and discovered her horse had a swollen knee, so she wouldn't be able to compete.

Jones was left wondering if she should also draw out. This was her horse's return to competition after being injured and she thought maybe they should just start their journey home. With encouragement from her traveling partner, she decided to go ahead and compete. She made her first of two runs that morning and found herself in third place in the first round.

The ten fastest times made their second run during the Thunder EquiGames Grand Finale that afternoon. The remaining barrel racers had their second appearance that morning. When it was all said and done, Jones was atop the leader board and crowned the champion.

"It doesn't seem real," Jones said of the win. "There were great barrel racers and horses there. Winning this is a huge confidence booster and gives me a lot of faith in Jonetta."

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Jonetta Fame is an eight-year-old mare that Jones got as a four-year-old. Last year they decided to hit the rodeo trail and make a run at qualifying for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. In March they were third in the Women's Professional Rodeo Association standings and she had high hopes for the remaining season. Then, Jonetta had an allergic reaction to an all-natural leg rub that required surgery and months of tender loving care to get her sound again.

It was just two months before the Charmayne James Invitational that Jones started riding Jonetta again and getting her into shape. While the mare felt good and Jones had high hopes, she was not sure if Jonetta would return to winning form.

"I didn't think that she would come back as strong as she used to be," Jones said of her horse. "She's been through so much. This win is huge for us. I'm so ready for next year. I can't wait for all those rodeos to come up."

Jones' interest in barrel racing started at an early age. Her grandfather trained calf horses so she spent a lot of her youth on horseback. They bought her first barrel horse at the sale yard and trained it so she would have something else to do on a horse. And, now according to her, it is a full-fledged addiction.

"This was a great barrel race and it was a huge win for me," she said. "It's got me excited and ready to go. They went out of their way to make the setup good for us. This is going to be good for the future of barrel racing."

Finishing second was Norma Wood from West Jordan, Utah, with a total time of 30.74. Wood also won the second round and earned a total of $12,000. Nancy Hunter, an emergency-room nurse from Neola, Utah, finished third with a total time of 30.767 and won $6,000.

The World Series of Mounted Shooting
While the sport of Mounted Shooting is gaining serious momentum, few in the mainstream western and rodeo world have seen it. Thunder EquiGames organizer Denny Gentry, however, felt its unique flair and growing popularity warranted it a spot on the program.

Teaming up with the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association, the World Series of Mounted Shooting provided an interesting break in the regular rodeo line-up.

The CMSA brought in a group of their top competitors to compete for over $55,000 in prize money. Friday evening preliminary rounds paid over $27,000. Saturday's event featured the best seven from ladies and men's divisions after CMSA's preliminary runs from the night before. Whitney Vickers of Manchester, Tenn., captured the top spot in the Grand Finale for the Ladies and Jimmy Allen of Spokane, Mo., finished with the fast time for the men. Top money earners at the World Series of Mounted Shooting for the ladies were Kenda Lensiegne of Ellensburg, Wash., who took home $8,718 followed by John Clark, Morrison, Tenn., who took home $7,630.

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The Rob Smets World Series
Freestyle Bullfight Challenge

Wrapping up the Thunder EquiGames was a blast from the past: bullfighting. Not seen on a national level since the Wrangler Bull Fights ended in 2000 (they began in 1981), Denny Gentry and Rob Smets-a five-time world champion himself-teamed up to bring the crowd favorite to the South Point.

The bullfighters originally scheduled to fight were Dusty Tuckness from Meteetse, Wyo., Ross Hill from Muscle Shoals, Ala., Wacey Munsell from Ulysses, Kan., and Andy Burelle from Wilson, Okla. At the last minute, Tuckness's contract as an alternate at the Wrangler NFR was activated and he was replaced by Toby Inman from Davis Junction, Ill.

Lawrence Borba brought in an outstanding set of fighting bulls from California that gave bullfighters a chance to showcase their skills and thrilled the crowd. Hill thrilled the crowd with his close contact to the bull and took home the $10,000 with a score of 90.

"This was a great event and a great win," Hill said. "This makes me hopeful for the future of freestyle bullfighting and I'm proud to be a part of it."

Speed Williams Invitational Match Roping
Speed Williams celebrated his 41st birthday in true team roper fashion: by hosting a team roping. This, however, was no ordinary team roping by any stretch.

Held the day after the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo wrapped up at the South Point Hotel and Casino as part of the Thunder EquiGames, Speed's Invitational Match Roping provided a unique format. The premise is to loosen up what pro ropers have come to know as a "knife fight" between equally talented ropers on a weekly basis. The match format was a last minute addition to the EquiGames and scheduled on Sunday to honor the PRCA agreement that prevents professionals from competing in outside events during the NFR.

With 30 entries, the match was a double-elimination tournament. The teams went head-to-head, with the winning team advancing and the losing team falling to a loser's bracket.

There are some unique twists. Each roper is only allowed one loop, so instead of a no-time, a miss is considered to be a 30-second time. There is a five-second barrier and a five-second leg penalty. Each head-to-head match between teams consists of three steers. So, the three ways to lose a match are to fall more than 15 seconds behind, have the longest total time on three or have a total time of 90 seconds on three.

Luke Brown from Rock Hill, S.C., and Ryan Motes from Weatherford, Texas, finished atop the leader board and won $25,000 each. They won by beating out six other teams.

A lot of eyebrows were raised as time and again big name ropers seemed to get caught in no-man's land between going fast and practice pen roping.

In a fast-moving format, fans were encouraged to keep tabs on the action with a participatory bingo game. Spectators could buy a bingo card and mark off teams eliminated. Bingo winners were awarded prized donated by sponsors.

"We knew exactly what we wanted to accomplish our first time out and I feel comfortable that we can develop a very tight program in the next twelve months." Williams said. "We have big plans and we will go over a quarter of a million in payoff, you can count on it."