The Heartland ProRodeo Championships in Waco, Texas, debuted in 2008 and ended-at least in name and current format-at the end of the 2009 season.
The legacy of the event is mixed. Smaller-sized rodeos love the concept and some competitors do as well. Others believe it was a step backward from their ultimate goal of creating an elite-level tour for the sport's best.
Regardless of the issues, for two years it played a role in punching some cowboys' tickets to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo and in the case of one if it's most outspoken critics, Stran Smith, played a role in him winning his first world title last year.
This year, header Luke Brown used his win there as a means to close the gap on world standings leader Chad Masters, although that wasn't the goal to begin with.
"I knew how hard it was to make the Finals last year and I thought how hard it would be to make the Finals again," he said. "I was so happy that I made it last year and did good, I thought, I don't want to be a one-hit wonder, I want to make them again so bad I can't stand it. I thought of every way I could do it: either go to Canada or get the Heartland Finals made, so if I needed to win some I'd have that for insurance. So we went to them. I went to 90-some ProRodeos this year because I had to unofficial 25 Heartland rodeos and I didn't want to mess up the other good rodeos that I wanted to go to. We got out and we drove where we needed to go and went to the extra rodeos just to get them done. Not many guys did that. We live in Texas, so it was way to my advantage to get them made. Most of them were within four hours of my house. It was a blessing for sure."
Basically, Brown counted 70-the most a team roper can count-of the top-paying PRCA rodeos toward his world standings total, then went to an additional 20 Heartland Rodeos-or PRCA rodeos that add under $30,000 and signed up to be a Heartland Rodeo-but did not count them toward his world standings.
However, he was able to count the Heartland Finals, which added around $500,000. Once there, he and Martin Lucero won $14,028.
After the first four rounds, the duo barely made the semifinal round of eight-they were the longest clean run.
"We came back in the semifinal round and we were the first team out and had the same steer that we had in the second round that ran pretty hard, and the rest of the steers were pretty good, so I was a little bit bummed about that. Actually it worked out better, I got a clean start and he didn't run as hard and we won that round, which let us come back as the very last team to go in the finals.
"By the time we went, we had to be 10.5 to win first. Bubba Bohac [last year's champion with Twister Cain] went first and he missed, Nick Sartain broke the barrier and Kollin [VonAhn] roped him and lost him and Bobby Baize [heeling for Wes Kent] was second high call and he slipped a leg. All we had to do was catch him."
They stopped the clock in 6.8 seconds and the win put Brown over the $100,000 mark for the year, at $105,442. Lucero, on the other hand, had a bookkeeping error and had officially counted too many rodeos and couldn't count his earnings at the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha or the Heartland Finals toward his world standings. Still, he looked at it as a tune-up for the NFR.
"The money counts as far as my bank is concerned," he said. "We had scenarios that might come up in Vegas. There were times when we needed to be fast to advance and the last one we just had to make sure we caught to win it. Both of those situations might arise in Vegas. Especially when you get to go toward the end of a go-round, whether it's tough or fairly easy, we were in both situations at the Heartland."
The momentum also gave Brown a boost of confidence heading into the NFR.
"I feel pretty lucky," he said. "My partner heels amazing. He hasn't messed up five times all year. Last year when I roped with Jade Corkill at the Finals, I knew if I caught I was going to win. I feel just like that again. I think I got a heeler that's just as good as last year. If I can practice hard enough and do a good job at the Finals, I can win more money than I need, that's for sure."
Tie-down roper Ryan Jarrett also made a move with a win in Waco. He added $12,771 to his world standings total and jumped from ninth to third in the world. Wade Sundell won the most of any cowboy in Waco, adding $16,985 to his total and moving from 12th to fourth in the world standings.
Steer wrestler Matt Reeves used the Heartland Finals to bump Gabe Ledoux out of the NFR after winning $2,200 in the first round. Chauncey Larson won the event and $16,542. In the bull riding, Tyler Willis won enough in Waco to win rookie of the year honors and Clint Cannon won the bareback riding to bring his regular season earnings to $233,457-an new PRCA record.