Of all the lingo and lore that make up the cowboy way of life, few outdo the magic of "Cowboy Christmas." The Fourth of July rodeo run has a magical mystique to it. Tis the season to chase charter flights and get on a roll you can ride all the way into contention for the world championship come December-when the guys with the gold buckles celebrate Christmas with the rest of society.
The Reno Rodeo-dubbed the Wildest, Richest Rodeo in the West-serves as the segue between the spring run and Cowboy Christmas. Complete with the prestigious Bob Feist Invitational Team Roping Classic and the rich rewards that come with the Reno Rodeo trophy spurs, Reno officially rings in the hectic summer season.
"Reno kicks it all off," noted ProRodeo Hall of Famer Jake Barnes. "And you can win a hundred grand, if you count the BFI. That's a huge opportunity. The significance of the Fourth of July run and the plans you make depend on what type of winter you've had. It's a chance to make a huge jump and get some good momentum going. You can get back in the race.
"The Fourth of July run has a different meaning for everybody, but wins are wins. I'm sure fuel prices will affect how hard guys go this year. It's a crazy schedule for a whole week. You're ramming and jamming during that little stretch right there. It's kind of fun, especially if you get on a roll and start winning. It's not a lot of fun if you aren't drawing good or roping good. But nobody goes into it with negative expectations. We all look forward to it."
There's a lot to look forward to. The list of Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeos cowboys and fans have to choose from, starting with Reno and running through the Fourth of July, includes Andrews, Texas; Woodstown Pilesgrove, N.J.; Pecos, Texas; Santa Fe, N.M.; Ponoka, Alberta, Canada; Greeley, Colo.; Clear Lake, S.D.; Davie, Fla.; Edgewood, Iowa; Lehi, Utah; Raton, N.M.; Chinook, Mont.; Glenwood City, Wis.; Miami, Okla.; Mountain Home, Idaho; Polson, Mont.; Ponca, Neb.; Steamboat Springs, Colo.; Marshfield, Mass.; Prineville, Ore.; Airdrie, Alberta; Strasburg, N.D.; Dickinson, N.D.; Augusta, Mont.; Prescott, Ariz.; Cody, Wyo.; Springdale, Ark.; Crawford, Neb.; Livingston, Mont.; Mandan, N.D.; Mobridge, S.D.; Red Lodge, Mont.; Oakley City, Utah; St. Paul, Ore.; Window Rock, Ariz.; Killdeer, N.D.; Belle Fourche, S.D.; Belton, Texas; Eugene, Ore.; Folsom, Calif.; West Jordan, Utah; Molalla, Ore.; Lake Luzerne, N.Y.; Galena, Ill.; Benalto, Alberta; and Manawa, Wis.
"Years ago, the Fourth of July run became known as the premier week of the whole rodeo season," stated Barnes' fellow ProRodeo Hall of Famer Clay O'Brien Cooper. "There were so many good rodeos all in a short span of time, and they added lots of money. The old phrase 'Cowboy Christmas' was a big deal. And it still is, really. It's the one week where there are four, five, six really good rodeos right on top of each other.
"We have to do quite a bit of traveling that week, but if you do good you can really boost your way up in the standings and it kicks off your summer pretty good. That's what everybody's hoping for. Plus, there are a few of my favorite rodeos over that week. I love Greeley, Prescott, St. Paul and Cody. I really like those rodeos up in the cool country. A lot of times we're up in the morning slack at those rodeos, when it's cool and crisp. Cowboy Christmas is all about great weather, great atmosphere and high expectations."
Ty Murray-the only cowboy ever to win seven world all-around crowns-owns the Cowboy Christmas earnings record. He went on a roughstock riding rampage and racked up a $37,630 Fourth Flurry in 1999. Bull rider Kanin Asay came close in 2007. Last year's high-money Cowboy Claus hauled home $36,031 over the Fourth. Event by event, the big-money men in 2007 included Chad Ferley, with $29,253 in the saddle bronc riding; Lee Graves, $20,375 in steer wrestling; Bobby Mote, $19,957 in bareback riding; Cody Ohl, $16,828 in tie-down roping; and Chad Masters and Allen Bach, with $16,774 a man in the team roping event. World Champion Brittany Pozzi-Pharr banked the biggest bucks among the barrel racers with $26,933.
Reigning Heading Champ of the World Masters, who recently returned ahead of schedule after March 26 knee surgery in Dallas, says the knee feels good. But he's choosing to rope with a brace for safety sake.
"I don't have to wear the brace, but I'm going to because I don't want to go through those first two weeks again," he said. "I'd hate for something silly to happen."
Armed with 2006 PRCA Rookie of the Year Heeler Jade Corkill on the backside, Masters has plenty of rodeos left and plans to "enter up."
"I'm going to enter everything I can get to," Masters said. "There are two ways to go at the Cowboy Christmas deal. You can enter a few of the good ones, drive your own rig everywhere, and make sure you're well rested and prepared when you get there. The other way to do it, like Al and I did it last year, is to enter everything and try to figure out a way to get to every one you can. It costs a lot, but you're running twice as many steers, so you have twice as many chances. I agree with that strategy now, because you're gone anyway. You aren't home relaxing, so why not go for it?
"I have three or four horses now and Jade has three good ones. We have help from people who are willing to drive for us. So why not try it? A lot of it will depend on how we end up getting up everywhere. But the impact of that week can be really big. I won as much in that week or so last year as I did from the beginning of the year until Reno. The week after the Fourth, Britt (Bockius) and I won $12,000. In the months of June and July a guy can win enough to make the Finals."
Masters and Corkill each received a $33,075 injection of confidence when they won RodeoHouston in March.
"That was a huge win," Masters said. "It's like winning three or four humongous rodeos or 20 good ones. I dread the trading part of the Fourth. I just hate having to ask people for a trade. (When you get up more than one place the same day and have to try and trade positions with another team to make it work.) But we're excited. We're ready to go.
"Everybody loves Cowboy Christmas. It can be great. There are a lot of chances in two weeks and you get to run at least one steer a day. You have a chance at a lot of big money. You kind of get in the mood of things. Hopefully you stay on that roll, and you get closer and closer to making the Finals, to where you don't have to wonder right up until the end."
All four-time World Team Roping Titlist Bach asked for this Cowboy Christmas was an eight-time World Champion Header. Apparently, he's been very, very good, as his wish has been granted in the form of future Hall of Famer Speed Williams.
"Cowboy Christmas has built itself up to be a big deal to us," Bach said. "We go crazy over the Fourth of July. I personally love the challenge of entering over the Fourth. A lot of the really good rodeos happen over the Fourth, and they all take huge pride in being a part of it. We really start rodeoing hard at Reno, and between Reno and the Fourth of July my goal is to try to win $25,000.
"One year it was Jake and Clay, and me and Daniel Green. We kept confessing that $25,000 mark as our goal to each other. We got planes and entered up. It's a huge undertaking to get traded everywhere and send your rigs to the right places. It's huge business to get it all organized. I think we all won pretty close to that. It's just a special time of the year. It's right in the heart of the best rodeos, and we all have a lot of energy because we're kind of rested up.
"Speed and I haven't gone much in May and aren't going to go much in June. Then we're going to gas it and do the best we can starting our summer at Reno and the Fourth of July. We'll try to go to Pecos and Santa Fe the same time as Reno. They stretch out into the Fourth of July. Window Rock, Prescott, St. Paul, Molalla, Greeley, Cody, Livingston. We'll try to get to about eight of the very best ones. It doesn't sound like a lot, except that we're covering the four corners."
The team who takes it to 'em each year is the talk of the team roping town. Bach's been the man more than once in his 30-year reign of roping terror.
"Everybody pays attention to who wins the most over that run," he said. "I've been pretty fortunate the last few years. You get to looking forward to it, because it can catapult you. Cowboy Christmas might be what gets the Finals made for you. What makes this year even more fun is (Allen and Peggy's son) Joel's trying to win (PRCA) Rookie of the Year. He's roping with Paul Eaves (who won the Wildfire Open to the World earlier this year with Kelsey Parchman), and he's trying to win Rookie of the Year, too.
"The Fourth is exciting. Going to one rodeo a week doesn't do much for me. It's kind of boring. At certain times of the year, you can burn up a month going to four rodeos. But over the Fourth we'll go to eight really good rodeos in a week. If you're really competitive, you love having a shot at winning good money once or twice a day."
Mentor extraordinaire Bach has a bit of friendly advice to the up-and-comers when it comes to a healthy Cowboy Christmas mindset.
"If you don't do any good over the Fourth it's tough not to let it discourage you," he noted. "You spend a lot of effort entering and getting traded. If you don't do good you have to be careful. You just have to watch your attitude and not let it get you down. You need to understand that it won't keep you from making the Finals."
Walt Woodard's been on the roping school teaching trail, and is darn near drooling at the thought of the opportunities that pave the Cowboy Christmas superhighway.
"For me it's huge, because I just came off of a five-week break," said the defending World Champion Heeler, who will hang up his rodeo ropes at season's end. "I'm not out there nickel and diming my way along. The Fourth of July this year is longer and more spread out. We're (he and partner Clay Tryan) going to have three rigs on the road with three sets of good horses.
"I really look forward to it-big rodeos are exciting. If you don't get pumped up at Reno, you shouldn't even have a rope. I think Reno's the toughest rodeo of the year. I'm not sure why it is. You have got to rope your heart out there to make the (short round) cut. The plan for Clay and I over the Fourth is to get to Pecos, Ponoka, Prescott, all the Gateway rodeos, St. Paul, Molalla and Greeley. We're going to try to send rigs everywhere and fly in between the rigs. Clay does a wonderful job managing our team, and it's a big job."
Big Brother Tryan and Big Daddy Woodard are buddying with Cody McMinn and Woodard's son, Travis, over the Fourth. When Walt Woodard returned to roping for a living in recent times, he set his sights at the top of the charts.
"My goal for winning the world in 2007-08 is still in place," he said. "I want to go as hard as I can and dedicate myself as much as I can to getting it done. I'm throwing myself into it. It's easy to do now, because the season is short. We only have until September 30 (when the regular rodeo season ends). You can pour yourself into anything for 120 days. We're all in."
It's last call in his career, and the golden goal is as lofty as they get. Classic Woodard, and he just proved he's worthy of the ultimate prize-again. Part of his success package is pressure management.
"You have to think fundamentally and not about the prize or the emotion," stated the 1981 and 2007 World Champion Team Roper. "Get in a good spot, focus on the target and put the bottom strand on the ground. It's worked all my life, and it worked in that 10th round at the Finals last year, when the entire season was riding on one steer. When Clay O'Brien Cooper gets in time and puts his bottom strand on the ground, no one does it better. That's why he's the best roper in the world and the toughest guy in the world to beat. It's all very fundamental."
Baby Brother Tryan, as in Travis, currently tops the world team roping leaderboard alongside his heeler, Michael Jones.
"These coming weeks are pivotal in the world championship race," Travis said. "The Fourth of July run is a huge week. Then you come right out of that and into more huge weeks. Cowboy Christmas is a big deal. There are so many good rodeos that add a lot of money.
It's hard to get to them all and get your horses there. But if you have a good week and win $20,000, you can get a jump on the field-get a lead, get caught up, get the National Finals made-whatever you need to do. It's not ultimately going to make or break you, but it's a very important week of the year.
"We're going to go to as many rodeos as we can get to-as long as we can get horses we know there. We don't want to charter to every rodeo just to do it. But I think we'll be able to get to at least seven or eight of them, and they'll all be two headers except one. So we'll get to run a lot of steers.
We don't want to spend a lot of money to get mounted on something we don't know. We'll spend money, we just want to be sure we have a really good chance when we get there. It's possible to rodeo over the Fourth and need to have a big week just to break even. But we're not into that. We don't mind spending money, but we're going to try to make money over the Fourth."
Tryan and Jones's 2008 Cowboy Christmas buddy team is the twins, 2004 PRCA Team Roping Rookies of the Year Jake and Jim Cooper.
"I'm looking forward to the Fourth of July run," Tryan said. "I think it's fun. It's a mental and physical challenge. It's a challenge to stay focused and not worry about getting to the next rodeo until you're done at this one. It's tiring at the end of it. When you get done, you need a couple days. But going into it, most of us haven't been rodeoing for the month of May. We're rested and ready to get somewhere and back to winning again."