Roping at the 2018 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo was not supposed to be in the cards for Derrick Begay. It’s pretty hard to win when you’re not even entered, and after a slow winter with Clay O’Brien Cooper, Begay had by springtime decided to hang close to home in the desert country of Seba Dalkai, Arizona.
All sorts of unexpected twists, turns, and curveballs followed. And now—suddenly, and with only this weekend left in the 2018 regular season—Begay is NFR bound for the eighth time, and in the eighth position.
“The feeling I have right now is a feeling I’ve never had before,” said Begay, 35, who last roped at Rodeo’s Super Bowl in 2015 with Cooper. “After taking 2016 off to go to the ERA rodeos, we tried to make it in 2017, but came up short. This year, we went to five or six rodeos in the winter, and things didn’t go as planned. I felt like I was too old and too slow. I wasn’t all-in mentally.
“We didn’t do very good at the winter rodeos. We actually got our butts kicked. I felt like I lost what I thought I had. I was burned out on the road, and from not doing good. When your mind’s at home, it’s hard to win. That’s where I was. And I wasn’t practicing when I was home. I lost confidence in my horses, and had decided not to ride Swagger (his trademark sorrel horse) anymore. It wasn’t fair to Champ. So after Houston we were done entering.”
Come spring, Cooper joined forces with Spencer Mitchell, who riding into this final, NFR-cut weekend was sitting in the 16-place heartbreak hole.
“I went home,” Begay said. “I needed to refresh. I was done.”
The next one Begay entered was the rodeo in Payson, Arizona, the first of June with his best friend and fellow NFR header, Colter Todd.
“Colter was picking up at the rodeo, so we just entered for the fun of it,” Derrick said. “Payson’s close to home. I told Colter I had so much confidence in him that I counted it as one of my official rodeos. We basically just entered it for giggles.”
If that’s not funny enough for you, the next rodeo Begay entered was with fellow header and reigning Champ of the World Erich Rogers in Flagstaff, Arizona. This time, Begay heeled. That was right before Reno, where Begay headed at both the BFI and Reno Rodeo for Jade Corkill.
“I’d won a roping in Marana (Arizona) this past winter—the week of Tucson—with Cory (Petska), and for winning that roping I got my fees paid at the BFI,” Begay said.
His little Reno rendezvous didn’t go as hoped or planned, either. But that’s where the negotiations began on the partnership that surpassed any and all expectations. Petska proposed via text that they give it a go starting the week of Sheridan and Casper, Wyoming, right after the Fourth of July run. Begay’s first response was a hard “No.”
Cory continued with a second text. Begay said he’d think about it.
“The third time he asked, I said yes,” Begay said. “The deal was that we’d go for one month straight, and the goal was to get enough won to get into the 2019 winter rodeos.”
Then they caught fire, and could not seem to lose. Begay and Petska won $50,000 the month of July alone.
“About $7,000 of it at the Days of ’47 (in Salt Lake City, which is a World Champions Rodeo Alliance event) didn’t count toward the world standings, but all 50 of it counted at our banks,” Begay said. “I loaded up Swagger and an 8-year-old bay mare, Hannah, and away we went. When we took off for the summer, I had no idea it was going to go the way it did. It was crazy.”
After a rocky start, that is.
“The first rodeo we went to was Sheridan, and I missed our first steer riding that young horse,” Begay said. “We came back again that morning on our second steer, and I missed him, too. I was wondering why I came back out.
“For some reason, when you start off with a new partner, there’s extra pressure to do everything you can to turn the steer and give your partner a chance. Roping with Petska’s a lot of pressure, just like roping with Champ. When you rope with anyone who ropes that good, you have all kinds of high hopes. And I missed twice. Driving to Casper, I told myself that I needed to trust the process.
“We expect so much of ourselves and get so picky. We overanalyze and try to be too perfect. Negative thoughts creep in when you’re not winning. I need to trust the horse I ride, trust the ability I have, and trust the partner I have. That’s all I’ve got. So I told myself all summer to trust the process.”
Begay can only come up with one explanation for the way things went this summer and fall.
“It’s all God’s plan,” he said. “Sometimes I stopped and thought, ‘I wonder why I’m doing so good.’ The only thing that came to mind is that it’s part of His plan. I’m the same guy, I’m riding the same horses, and I don’t think I’ve gotten any better. So that’s the only thing that makes sense to me.”
Begay headed back home to Seba Dalkai after the Pendleton Round-Up this fall.
“I had no intentions of trying to make the Finals this year,” he said. “I had no clue it was going to go like this. After two years away, it feels like I’m going to the Finals for the first time again. I’d about given up and thrown in the towel. It’s like the first time I’ll be roping there, only I know what to expect. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve already thought about my plan.
“My goal for the NFR is to catch 10 steers, and try to break Jake (Barnes) and Clay’s record (of 59.1 seconds on 10 steers, set by the Hall of Famers in 1994),” Begay said. “That’s my only plan for Vegas.
“As for my partner, Cory is the rankest. He rides the corner better than anybody else I know, and he can handle a rope better than anybody out there. I’m not saying that because he’s my partner. I’ve been saying it for three years. When the steer turns, he’s in position to throw. That had a lot to do with our success this summer. He’s so fast back there that I can take one more swing and keep my horses working. Cory gives me confidence. That’s how good he is for an old, retired header like me.”