With a little help from their Gray Gang—Marty and Champ—Clay Smith and Jade Corkill won the long round at The American in March with a 4.75-second sizzler. Corkill will never know exactly what happened, but it’s pretty clear now that his heel horse finished the run on pure grit. Sixes Posse—the 16-year-old gray Corkill bought in 2019 from Clay Cooper, aka “Champ”—tore the straight sesamoidean ligament in his left front foot during that fateful run. He’s since had the best possible care. But sadly, Champ’s future is now uncertain, and longevity a longshot at best.
“It’s hard to see what happened, even if you watch the video of that run,” said Corkill, who won three straight gold buckles from 2012-14. “But I’ve watched it back enough to see his head drop about the time Clay headed that steer. When the head rope went on and Champ started gathering himself up to make the turn, I thought he was going to stop. From his back, it didn’t feel like he was going to go one step further. I felt like I was kicking as hard as I ever have.”
After they came tight on that winning run, Corkill said Champ pranced out of the arena.
“But once I got out of the arena on the hard ground, Champ stopped and picked up his left front foot,” Corkill remembers. “I could hardly lead him out of there. I knew it was bad, because he’s not like that. I took his boots off, and he walked a straight line OK. Then I got on him and rode him to the trailer. He walked like nothing ever happened. So I thought maybe he’d just hit and stung himself. I thought I’d dodged a bullet.”
Corkill took Champ straight home to Stephenville. When he went out to catch him the next morning, he was a little off when turning to the left. So Jade dropped Champ off with Dr. Marty Tanner in Brock, Texas, and finished out The American on his sorrel horse, Huey. Tanner injected Champ with the regenerative drug RenoVo, and prescribed stall rest as the horse’s best bet for recovery.
“Marty says Champ won’t be back anytime soon, if he does get better,” Corkill said sadly. “It could go either way, whether he can come back at all. If he does, and I have to lay him off for a year, it’ll be a while before I’d want to get on him again. Champ’s a little bit broncy.”
The book on torn straight sesamoidean ligaments in horses is that they’re caused by trauma and twisting forces, and recurrence is rather common. So sadly, the prognosis is “guarded to poor, depending on severity.”
Champ passed through some pretty famous hands on his journey to Jade. ProRodeo Hall of Fame header Tee Woolman originally owned and trained him, and had some heeling success on him at World Series ropings. He called him Lawman. Tee sold the horse to Andrew Hill in East Texas, who in turn sold him to Truman Magnus. Cooper bought him from Tyler’s son, Truman, and called him Maximus. When Corkill bought the horse from one of his heeling heroes, his name naturally had to be Champ.
“Truman mentioned the horse to me when he had him, then I saw him buck Truman off one day at Robertson Hill Arena,” Corkill said. “Tee had told me he was kind of an outlaw when he had him. I didn’t think he’d fit my style. But after I saw Champ ride him, he looked solid. I texted Champ out of the blue on my way to Salinas when he started slowing down (the summer of 2019), and asked if he’d consider selling him. He said yes, I ran four steers on him, and bought him.”
Corkill’s trust in and mad respect for Cooper sealed the deal.
“Champ really knew that horse, and he told me to a tee what he was and is,” Jade said. “Clay told me he was sound. That was my vet check. He hadn’t taken one lame step since I’d had him until that happened at The American. Champ’s the best horse. He’s just easy. But if he’s fresh or it’s cold, he’ll swell up in the middle and it feels like it’s about to get bad if you just saddle him and try to get on.
“Until now, Champ’s been as sound a horse as I’ve ever had. And he’s super tough. He scores, runs but never runs by, and just does whatever you need every time. He’s just as easy as can be to rope and catch on, and one of the best horses I’ve had. I’ve won a ton on him at the rodeos and the jackpots.”
Winning the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo on Champ early in 2021 shot Smith and Corkill straight back into world championship contention. But this horse has a special spot in Jade’s heart for more reasons than just how well he works.
“When I roped with Kaleb (Driggers) in 2012, we buddied with Chad (Masters) and Champ,” Corkill remembers. “That was the best. You don’t really know somebody until you rodeo with him. Clay’s everybody’s hero, but I got to see that it’s not an act. Champ walks the walk. It’s pretty cool to me to ride the last horse he rodeoed on.
“I used to think of Champ as my second-string horse behind Huey. Then I noticed one day that Champ was the one I kept taking. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as content with two horses. I’ve been able to switch back and forth between them without a thought. Anywhere, anytime, I knew I was good riding either one of them.
“Having Champ sidelined is a huge loss. It’s hard to remember not having him in the trailer, so it’s a pretty big blow. He’s as durable, big-boned, stout, big-legged and big-footed a horse as I’ve owned, so it never occurred to me that he could get hurt. I love that horse, and he’s done a great job for me. Champ owes me nothing. But I hope and pray he’ll be back.”