Jake and Clay. No last names necessary. Simply said, they’re legendary ropers and living proof that nice guys can, and do, finish first.
The seven-time World Champion Team Ropers and ProRodeo Hall of Famers struck again at the 2007 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Rope bags packed with nerves of steel and tunnel-vision focus, they closed it in the clutch and left Las Vegas the team roping average victors for the third time in three different decades. They also came out kings at Rodeo’s Super Bowl in 1985 and 1994, the latter at which they set the still-standing record of 59.1 seconds on 10 steers.
“The NFR is our big payday,” said Jake, 49, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife, Toni, and sons, Bo and Tuffy. “It’s our big chance to make or break our year, because the whole year’s built around what you win at the National Finals. Winning $75,000 ($75,845 a man) was fantastic.
“But if I was going to grade my performance for 2007 in general and the NFR, I’d give myself a C. It had its highs and lows. Leo Camarillo called me after we won it and said, ‘That was outstanding what you did.’ It is a big deal to win the average at the Finals. But every year I’ve gotten my card and started the year off, it’s a letdown if I don’t win the world championship. There’s only one spot for me, and in my eyes I didn’t get it done. My expectations of myself are so high. That’s what keeps me going.”
Barnes finished fourth in the world among headers, behind Chad Masters, Clay Tryan and Colter Todd. O’Brien Cooper was fifth on the heeling side, in a line headed up by Walt Woodard, Cesar de la Cruz, Patrick Smith and Allen Bach. Cooper called their NFR strategy anything but crazy.
“Not doing anything crazy, and just trying to be solid and consistent and go make smart runs was the name of our game at the Finals,” commented Clay, 46, who hangs his hat in Morgan Mill, Texas, with his wife, Alisa, and his two daughters, Bailey and Quinn, and a stepdaughter, Jessica. “It seems like the teams who weather the storm and rope a lot of steers win the most money at the Finals every year. We wanted to stay in the average, because that’s where the big paycheck is.
“Early on in our careers, when Jake and I went to the Finals, the plan was to win every round we could. But when you’re trying to win every round, it’s hard to be consistent and a lot of mistakes are made. There’s a fine line at the Finals, and part of the game is to figure out how much you can get away with.”
Both were pretty impressed by the performances of their peers at the Finals this time around.
“Overall, I thought the team roping was really good this year,” Jake said. “There will always be about two rounds where everything falls apart and legs place, so that was the norm. And the average was subpar. But if you can make it through the National Finals and only have one or two mistakes, you’ve done really well. We ended up having three. I jerked that one steer down (in round six), Clay roped a leg and lost a leg. It’d be ideal to rope all 10 clean and win $100 grand. That’s what you’re shooting for.
“Colter and Cesar had a couple hiccups early, then went balls out all week. There are different ways to get to your mark, which is having a successful financial week. The way the cookie crumbles is different for everybody, but overall I thought it was a good team roping.
“I was extremely proud of Walt Woodard. It’s pretty amazing how he’s revived and rejuvenated himself the last couple years. He almost won it all last year (2006), too. Chad got the short end of the stick last year, too, so it was neat to see him pick right back up where he left off and finish it. Walt’s 52 years old. To be out of the rodeo industry all those years, then come back and dominate like this is amazing. Roping has changed. To change your game and win it-that’s incredible. Chad’s been one of the up-and-comers the last few years. It’s good to see guys like that win.”
“Everybody did a good job,” Clay added. “Colter and Cesar made some amazing runs, and just kept making them. I thought Travis and Michael Jones would win the world going in, because they make so many fast runs throughout the year. Then they won the first two rounds.
“I thought Walt out-heeled everybody at the Finals, and he heeled great all year. I thought he roped better than I’d seen anybody rope last year, and he didn’t win it. So he’s very deserving. He roped outstanding at the Finals, and that’s where it’s won and lost. So he’s the man.”
Both banked on one horse for the whole 10-round shootin’ match. Jake rode his 12-year-old chestnut horse Peppy Doc, and Clay stayed hooked aboard his most recent sorrel model, Jazz, 6.
“Peppy Doc’s a horse you can-and I do-ride all year long,” Jake said. “He’s better outside and at the ropings. He’s a better jackpot, big-event horse. I’m not real fond of riding him inside, because he does want to anticipate and get a little quick. But he’s a phenomenal horse.”
Green as grass not so long ago, Jazz has been a pleasant surprise for The Champ.
“This horse has amazed me,” Clay said. “I started out riding him at the BFI, then hauled him over the Fourth, and have ridden him everywhere from that point on. He was really green, but I could sense that he was going to make it through without blowing up or giving up. He kept learning and getting better every week, every rodeo. I was a little concerned when we got to the little indoor buildings in Omaha, Dallas and Vegas, because I’d only ridden him outdoors. But he came right through it and tried his little heart out. He pinned his ears and turned into the right spot every time, got down and got ready for the jerk. He fits me, and he’s easy to rope on, so I feel confident on him. I’m really proud of him. Not many 6-year-olds can take the pressure of coming from behind a barrier at Salinas and Prescott, then the grass at Pendleton. I rode him everywhere. He’s just a good-minded horse.”
What about that two-footed partner of yours?
“Clay’s Clay,” Jake said. “He’s incredible. He’s Mr. Consistency, and has been throughout his whole career. It’s just amazing how many steers that guy can rope by two feet, time and time and time again.”
“I thought Jake did outstanding at the Finals,” Clay said. “He just stayed with the game plan. He didn’t panic, and stayed solid. He turned every steer and didn’t break a barrier. As a heeler, you want a chance. That’s been the mainstay of Jake’s career-he bears down and grits his teeth. Nobody has more tenacity. He always comes through. I have all the confidence in the world in Jake. It’s just a great feeling to back in there and know that the guy you’re going to do battle with is going to be there. He’s not going to let you down, and he’s going to get the job done. It’s an awesome feeling. Jake loves to win so bad that when you win it’s such a reward. He has so much intensity, and loves to win so much. When you get it done with Jake, it’s like job well done-accomplishment times 10.”
How does this average title compare to the other two?
“I have a hard time keeping up with all that in my mind,” Jake said. “All the years kind of blend together, and it feels like yesterday I went to my first NFR. But a win’s a win. And the last win is the greatest one ever. The pressure’s still the same, regardless of the year. I left there happy and disappointed. I was glad financially to come out of there with almost $76,000 with the performance that I had. With a couple different breaks we could have won the whole thing. But it is what it is. Everybody would like to go back and do some things differently. Now the year starts over, and it’s time to go back to the drawing board. It’s time to focus on 2008. The race is on again.”
“Personally, I’m in such a different place at this point in my life,” Clay said. “The winning keeps on being such a good feeling, because as you go through different eras and different places in life, things change. We look at the world and our lives differently. We look at what we do with greater appreciation now. I’m a lot more thankful nowadays than I used to be. I was just in a grind going full blast when I was younger. I wasn’t really evaluating things like I do now. I still compete with the same intensity, but I’m a lot more appreciative of the blessing of what I get to do and experience. To live in a country that’s free is not something to take for granted, and neither are the people who sacrifice for our nation so that we can live like we do and do what we do.
So, give it to me straight: Will your 59.1-second record ever be broken?
“I thought we were on track to do it this year,” Jake said. “That would have gotten me buzzed up if we could have done that. Shoot, they’re all made to break. It’ll happen. But it’ll take some soft steers that are pretty easy to catch. You aren’t allowed very many bobbles. When we were 59.1, we had one leg. So we’d have averaged 5.4 without that. To not have one mistake there will be pretty tough.”
“After we were a few 5s in a row (four 5s and a 4 in the first five rounds), people started talking about it,” Clay continued. “Clay Tryan is our stats man. He said, ‘You guys can do it. If anybody can do it, you guys can.’ I said the only way it can be broken is to go at it like we were; not when you’re trying to be 3.9 on every steer. When you do that, you’re going to make some mistakes. To go at it like we were, it’s very possible. Because everybody there can make 10 good, solid runs and be 5 flat. But because of the way the money is, it’s very tempting to go for the rounds. And it is hard to run 10 steers without a little bobble.”
You are record-holding, seven-time champs (1985-89, 1992 and ’94) and ProRodeo Hall of Famers (inducted together in 1997). What single accomplishment in your career are you most proud of?
“More than anything, to be 49 years old and still at the top of my game and competitive enough to be able to compete for a world championship,” Jake said without hesitation. “It’s not so much that I want to beat everyone else, but I always want to strive to be better. It just goes to show you how much a mental game this is. The older guys and veterans are still in the hunt and leading the pack.”
“Still being around and being competitive is the best thing,” Clay chimed in.
OK, guys, the moment of truth has arrived. We’ve all theorized throughout the years and put perfect pairings down on paper, just knowing they’d be the next Jake and Clay. But it never works that way. There’s some mysterious factor that can’t be explained in a word. “Chemistry” doesn’t even cut it in my book. Take Speed and Rich as another prime example. Tell me you picked them out of the herd and wrote them up as the “second coming” before their reign of eight-title terror, and I’ll have to hook you up for a polygraph test.
What is the magic of Jake and Clay?
“Keeping up with the times, more than anything,” Jake said. “We’ve been willing to do whatever it takes to try to be the best. When I was younger, there was more ego involved as far as trying to be the fastest. As time’s gone on, I’ve realized there’s a lot more to it than that, and that being smart is a big part of this game. What makes Jake and Clay is the consistency more than anything. It’s hard to rope with Clay, because Clay, in my mind, is the best heeler of all time. He doesn’t miss. His catch ratio is so high. So your job as a header is to eliminate your own mistakes. If you can do that, your winning percentage is going to be really high. There’s a lot of pressure when you rope with Clay. How do you handle something when you have a guarantee? Turn enough steers and you’re going to win. That’s how phenomenal he is. He’s such a smart roper that he does not put himself in a vulnerable position. He doesn’t get you in a bind by crossfiring, and he doesn’t kick over them. He ropes steers on the second and third jump all day long.”
“Jake’s an easy header to heel behind,” Clay said. “Jake just presents the steer where I can figure him out and get a loop down there. We think the same. We made a commitment in 1985 to go for our dreams together. Our work ethic comes from realizing we had to outwork everybody to get the job done, and we put in the time to do it. There’s really nothing magical about it. We were at the right place at the right time, and we worked hard enough to get it done. All success stories are made from those principles.”
5.1, fourth in the round
Jake: I felt really confident coming into the Finals roping-wise. Things have been going well. I was a little skeptical for the fact that my horse is not a great indoor horse, and he wants to get a little quick. We had a pretty decent steer tonight, and the barrier rope hooked my foot and got me leaned over pretty good. I missed my slack, because I was all out of position. But we placed, and it’s always good to get the ball rolling and get some momentum. It takes some of the pressure off.
Clay: I usually get my info on our steer from Jake. The scouting report on our steer tonight was that he ran pretty good and was strong. Our game plan was not to try to rope completely all out, but as snappy as we could within a realm of safety. We just made that type of run tonight, and went and executed a high-percentage run. Usually, the first few rounds aren’t all that tough, so a long 4 or short 5 will place. After we roped, we watched the rest of it on a TV up in the tent (at the end of the tunnel, where they ride out of the arena). We ended up winning fourth, and considered that a good start. A good start on opening night gives you some confidence. We’re rolling.
4.9, split third, fourth and fifth in the round
Jake: We had a good steer tonight. He didn’t run that hard, and took a step to the left, which makes things a little easier. This Finals setup’s a little tricky. Steers that run straight or take a step to the left are a little better. Bingo. Checks two nights in a row. The average, which pays $42,000, is in the back of my mind. But you can’t be only laying for that, or you can end up with nothing. Placing early and leading early feels like déjà vu of Kory (Koontz) and I a couple years ago. Clay and I came here with kind of the same strategy, too, of not sticking our tongues out so far that we’d make mistakes.
Clay: Jake told me that steer ran and went to the right on the film. So I got a really good start, because I didn’t want him to go right. That steer didn’t break real hard, and he saw me right in his face on the right, so he went left real hard. Jake did a real good job of scoring when that steer didn’t leave. We made a good run, and watched the rest of it up in the tent again. Two checks in a row. Not bad.
5 flat, split third and fourth in the round
Jake: We came back and made another good run. We aren’t going for broke, but are making pretty much the same run every time.
Clay: Jake said that steer was strong and ran good, but that he was good and honest. He got another good start and roped him good. I heeled him, and we watched the rest of the teams go. Placed again. Things are going pretty good. No firsts, but racking up some money and good in the average. All is well.
Jake: That steer tried a little bit. We’re in a groove. We’re placing and getting good checks. We’re in the perfect position for where we want to be. It’d be nice to have one of those big go-round checks, but to knock out a first-place check you have to be in the mindset of going for the rounds. You have to be gunning for first. We’re not in a position to be doing that.
Clay: Tonight was the first round that got pretty tough. We made about the same kind of run that we’ve been making, but some of the guys out of the average are really trying to be fast now. Quite a few teams connected tonight, so we were one hole out of it. At this point, the average is starting to shape up a little bit and we start to see who’s put a few runs together pretty good. Chad (Masters) and Allen (Bach), Travis (Tryan) and Michael (Jones), and us are all in pretty good shape at this point.
5.2, fourth in the round
Jake: This was a psychological go-round for me. Two years ago (at NFR ’05), I was basically in the same position, in the lead in the average, when I cut my thumb off. So those thoughts ran through my head. It was almost the exact same scenario. Crazy things start running through your head, but I had to get over it. It didn’t affect the way I roped, but it was in the back of my mind. It was cool to get past this steer and get through the fifth go-round. Conditions are a little harder this year. The steers aren’t big, but they’re the strongest cattle we’ve roped here in a while. They’re extremely hard to heel, because they’re just fresh enough that they don’t have a pattern yet. You can already tell that the average is going to be a little bit softer.
Clay: That steer came out and moved to the right a little bit. We roped last, and the round was pretty easy. When you’re last and see that, you know there’s just money laying there to pick up if you make a good, solid run. Jake didn’t want to break the barrier in an easy round, so he was a hair hesitant on his start. Then he had to take an extra swing or so. He roped him around the neck and the steer slowed up a little, then the steer went to the right a little. I roped him, and we won fourth. Riding out, Jake said we should have been faster on him, but he didn’t get the start he wanted. But he didn’t want to make a bad decision and gamble. It turned out good. We got more money and stayed in the average. All is still well.
Jake: The steer we had tonight was pretty strong. I can’t be really aggressive on my horse, because he tends to get quick inside. He’s a much better long-score, average horse. My horse dropped his shoulder and I went over the top of the horn when I tried to dally. I ended up getting it the second time. I could easily have lost my rope, so we kind of got a lucky break. With that steer being that fresh, and my horse being so strong, I jerked the steer down. I honestly thought Clay was going down, too, when he got on top of the steer. The steer got up with either a broken leg or dislocated hip or whatever it was. Clay getting him by two feet was an incredible shot. It was disappointing, because we were in the lead for the average and could have been a short 5. It would have been awesome to beat our own average record, and we were on track todo that. That was kind of disappointing, but we only dropped to second in the average so that was fortunate. It just goes to show you that anything can happen in this building (the Thomas and Mack Center).
Clay: When Jake roped that steer, he went over the top of the horn and missed his dally, so he was headed the other way when he got it around the horn. It jerked the steer real hard and the steer went down. My horse was a little late in reacting to the steer going down, so he kind of got on top of him. For just a split second, I thought my horse might go down. I was moving to the right and the steer was down underneath me. It felt like it could sweep his front legs out from underneath him. Amidst all the chaos-I honestly don’t know if I said it out loud or was just thinking it-I told my horse to stand up. Right at that moment, he lifted his right leg up, put it on the right side of the steer, stepped plumb over the steer and kept his balance. The steer came out from under me on his side. I had to wait for him to get up. Jake had a weird dally situation, and with such a hit it got his rope up underneath the saddle horn. He couldn’t get it off. I saw him in trouble, scrambling. The steer got up, Jake finally got his rope off (the horn) and got the steer on a shorter rope. When the steer got up, his left hind leg was dangling. I don’t know if he broke it up high or stifled, but his leg wasn’t working. I still had to try to heel him and try to catch what I could. As he came off the fence, I threw a big loop in there. I caught the left front leg and both hind legs. All I could do was dally and hope the front leg came out. As soon as I came to the horn, the front leg immediately came out and I had two feet. After the run, I was a little bit bewildered. That was kind of a shock. I’ve run 236 steers at the National Finals, but I’d never tried to heel one with a leg like that before. Everything had been going really good until that point. There was even a sneaky thing in the back of my mind. I thought it’d be really cool if Jake and I could break our own (NFR average) record. When this happened, that went out the window. We have to regroup after that run.
10.2, split sixth in the round
Jake: We had a steer that was really strong tonight. He ran so dog-gone hard. We actually made an awesome run on that steer. Clay pulled off an incredible shot to rope him by two feet. He got a leg out at the last second. It was just one of those things where the heeler loses a leg. We still won a little money and maintained our spot in the average. Who’s really in contention for the championship is really starting to shape up now. To start with, it looked like Travis Tryan and Michael Jones were really clicking along. Clay Tryan and Walt Woodard started off pretty good, too. Chad and Allen are kind of in the same boat as us, placing along in the rounds and good in the average. It’s all a momentum game at this one. Colter (Todd) and Cesar (De la Cruz) went out on the very first steer. That opened the door for them to go full throttle every single night. They had heck at first, now they’re dominating.
Clay: This was an extremely easy round. Ryan Motes had our steer earlier in the week and said he hopped really fast and had beat him with his fast timing. Ryan couldn’t get his loop there on time. He was a strong, nasty steer; the worst steer we’ve had. Jake did a good job roping and turning him. When I turned the corner, it looked like his feet were going 100 miles an hour. It kind of bummed me out, because I threw a good loop. He went in the loop and I hurried to the horn in one motion, and I let him get out of it with one foot. Going to the horn a little early let him slip one on me. That bummed me out, because I thought I’d done a good job getting him in the loop in the first place. It also cost us third in the round. I had to regroup after this round, too. Everything was going so good, now two runs in a row things are turning the wrong way.
Jake: I thought we had a pretty good steer tonight. Trevor Brazile had had him, and spun him really fast. So I thought he was a good chance to place deep in the go-round without doing anything crazy. He ran a little more than I expected. I thought he was going to be a lay-up, but I ended up having to drop a coil and reach a little.
Clay: Jake turned a good steer. I felt like I was in a good position to get a good shot-one of my quicker shots-and as I was delivering my loop, the steer did a little something. It didn’t look like he took a hop. I didn’t even know what kind of loop I’d thrown, because I couldn’t see anything. I thought I’d totally missed him. When I finally could see something, I saw a right leg in the loop. I considered myself lucky to get one foot out of that deal. I was a little bit unhappy that I didn’t perform very well, but considered myself fortunate to get a time and not go out or have to build up.
5.4, split fifth and sixth in the round
Jake: Things are really starting to unfold. By now, the race is between Clay Tryan and Walt Woodard, Chad Masters and Allen Bach, and Clay and myself, and those other guys are out there quite a ways ahead of me. To me, this is a business and I’ve endured for many, many years. The ego part about going for first-those days are over for me. I try to be smarter than trying to win every go-round. I went to Clay and talked to him before we roped tonight about what he wanted to do, because we were in an interesting position. I agreed with what he said, which was that we’ve been about half a second off of winning a go-round the whole time. So to change things completely now would be crazy, especially on the really strong steer we had. We decided to keep playing our hand the way we’ve been playing it. We made our run, and placed in the round again. By now, what’s going to make our week is winning first or second in the average. To get greedy and try to add a round to that was not smart.
Clay: Before we roped, Jake came up and asked what we needed to do. It was time to look at where we were in the average and consider things. We were still winning second in the average, and were 9 seconds out of first. But we were 10 or 15 seconds ahead of third. So Jake asked what I wanted to do, based on the world standings and all that. After we talked, I told him I thought we should just go rope our steer the same we had been doing. If we can place in the round, fine, but keep our spot in the average and not be crazy and take a chance on going out of the average. At worst, keeping our position pays $34,000. And I figured Walt and Allen were too far ahead to try to catch for the world. We had a steer that was really strong. He was probably our second worst steer. We went and made a good run on him, and won some money on him. Clay and Walt broke a barrier, and so did Chad and Allen. That changed the scenario to where we’re two-tenths of a second out of the lead in the average.
Jake: Going into tonight, after Chad’s barrier last night, we were two-tenths off the lead for the average, which left us in the same boat. We had another strong steer that hadn’t had anything done on him all week. I wasn’t about to do something stupid now. We were far enough ahead of third that a barrier or a leg wasn’t going to move us to third, so I decided to take a downtown start. I got a good start, but the go-round had already gotten pretty tough, so I took another swing or two, got my tip down and roped that steer around the neck so I didn’t risk popping it off. Clay came around there and made sure he caught him by two feet. Chad and Allen had the steer Clay and I had in the seventh round, and I knew he was strong and was going to be a handful for them. My strategy today was to make a good, solid, 5-something run to put a little pressure on them. I knew the steer they had was tough. He wasn’t a gimme.
Clay: Going into the last steer, all we needed was a good run to win something good. We drew another strong steer, and all we needed to do was catch him for second in the average and $34,000. He wasn’t an easy steer to work with. Jake got a good start and roped him around the neck, got his dally, his horse left there pretty hard and that steer was running. Things looked pretty wild when I was turning in there. My horse worked good and got into a good position. That steer took a good hop, I got a good loop in there and as soon as he went in it we came tight. We did what we set out to do, and what we had to do. Then all we could do was go up and watch the rest. They told us to stay close to the gate in case we happened to win the average. We were watching on the TV monitor right outside the gate. I don’t know what happened, but when Allen came tight I saw he had a leg. So the realization hit that we’d won the average. The first feeling was relief. The second feeling was being thankful. It all came together at the end for a nice week. It was special to win the average with Jake-to experience that with my old buddy. It’s really neat. It’s a blessing and a gift to get to do that and be a part of it.