The Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo came down to the very last team, and Clay Smith and Coleby Payne executed the challenge, taking home the 2024 title with a 4.5-second run for a $20,000 payday on Feb. 6.
“In these formats, going last is super important,” said Smith, 32 of Broken Bow, Oklahoma, referring to the tournament style rodeo featuring a clean-slate final round. “If you go early, you have to catch to know you’re going to win something. But if you’re last, then it’s like the ball is in your court, and, obviously, it pays good enough—$20,000 for first—so it’s hard not to try to win first if you’re last.”
Smith and Payne added $25,000 to their pockets at the close of Fort Worth, giving them a cushion to start the winter on. It’s also 25-year-old Payne’s best start to a season since he jumped on the ProRodeo scene.
“I’m super excited,” Payne, of Stephenville, Texas, said. “This early on to get a jump like that, I’ve never had this big of a jump. It’s a long ways from over, but it’s pretty awesome to get a big win like this right off the bat.”
Smith and Payne’s Fort Worth play-by-play
Smith and Payne started their journey to the winner’s circle in the sixth bracket. The won the first round with a 5.3, worth $2,000–a–man, which locked them in for the Semifinals. With a 4.8-second run in the first Semifinals, Smith and Payne advanced to the Finals with $3,000 added to each of their names.
Fort Worth brought in a new pen of steers for the Semifinals and Finals and, while the team felt they had drawn great in their first round, they appreciated the switch.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Smith, a two-time World Champion Header. “The steers in the brackets were the NFR steers, and some of them were coming left and some of them were a little tricky, it seemed like. They brought in a good set of steers right here for the Semifinals, and it evened it up a little bit where it was like nobody drew anything that just completely took them out. That was huge; the steers were great.”
Smith and Payne were the last team out in the clean-slate Finals Saturday night. While being last our has its clear advantages, it also takes a mental toughness the young gun on the heel side understood.
“I just tried to do my own thing, really,” Payne said. “I believe in our run enough that if it’s our time, it doesn’t matter what anyone else does. He’s the quarterback and, if somebody really smokes one down in front of us, I know that he’s going to try to give me a chance to win first.”
With a good steer drawn and knowing a 4.6 was out in front, Smith walked the line between going for it and making sure they stayed in the money.
“We knew a decent, clean run was going to win no worse than third, so I was trying not to break the barrier and catch the cow,” Smith said. “And we just so happened to be fast enough. He heeled him super-fast, so that’s what made it up.”
Smith’s and Payne’s winning horsepower
Smith rode “Flinty,” normally his long-score, jackpot horse that helped him bounce back from his broken leg in 2022.
“The steers over here seemed like they were pretty fast, so I stuck on him,” Smith said. “I’ve been riding him quite a bit, and I thought he did ok for me. Typically, he isn’t super strong pulling, but he’s gotten stronger and keeps the steers moving. But if Coleby heels them in a decent manner back there, I don’t have to pull them very long anyway.”
Payne rode “Coon,” a 15-year-old he bought as a 3-year-old then sold as a 6-year-old to Dustin Davis. The gelding found his way back in Payne’s barn two years ago after he bought him back from Rich Skelton.
“He is super forgiving,” Payne said. “He can really run. I just bought another horse, too, that I really like, but I knew in this setup with steers going left, you don’t want to leave on top of them. With [Coon] being so fast, I knew I could still get up and around them and heel them in a good spot.”
Reflecting on the past, looking toward the future
Smith won Fort Worth in 2016 with now two-time World Champion Heeler Paul Eaves. While Payne jokes that the chutes were “made of wood” the last time Smith won Fort Worth, the world champ admits things have changed since 2016: What was once the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show at the Will Rogers Coliseum is now the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo at Dickies Arena, and Smith now has three babies running around.
The major payday marks 25-year-old Payne’s biggest single check in the ProRodeo regular season and his first Fort Worth title.
“It’s pretty special,” Payne said. “This is by far my biggest rodeo win, and it’s one of my favorite rodeos; it’s 45 minutes from the house, you get to run over every night in a stock trailer and my family gets to come and watch. It’s very convenient, and it pays a lot of money. I love it.”
The win is a step in the right direction for Smith, who hasn’t felt like he’s been roping his best.
“We’re just going to try to keep winning,” Smith said. “It’s a great start, and it’s been one of those things where I haven’t done a great job here the last few years, I hadn’t thought. So, I’m going to try to change that and going to try to work harder at it and hopefully keep winning.”