Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper teamed up for a pretty grand total of 14 gold buckles, each winning seven world team roping titles during their reign as one of rodeo’s all-time great Dream Teams. Jake and Clay have 56 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo appearances between them at 27 and 29, respectively, along with a long laundry list of records. One of them that’s stood a pretty amazing test of time is their NFR average record of 59.1 seconds on 10 steers, which they set all the way back in 1994.
I thought it would be fun to ask our two in-house industry icons which team in this year’s NFR field they think has the best shot at breaking their record on 10 coming into NFR 2K17. These were their pre-party predictions coming into Rodeo’s Super Bowl, where the only sure-thing odds are that you just never know. Luke and Jake went out in the first round, as did Dustin Bird and Russell Cardoza. Both teams bounced back for money in Round 2. That’s why this rodeo is so much fun to watch!
It’s hard to say. That record has looked like it was going to be broken several times the last 10 years or so, but then something’s happened right there at the end. Luke Brown’s had a couple chances, and has been so consistent here in Vegas. So I’m going to pick him.
Generally speaking, one of the reasons I think this record has lasted so long is because the average is distracting. Thinking about that can hold you back from trying to win first in the go-rounds and going all out. That’s why legs sometimes place in the go-rounds.
I’ve said all along that the average is what’s going to win you a world championship, because it pays over $67,000. But it’s enticing to go for the go-rounds at $27,000 a night. You win a couple of those and you win as much as the average. But in the past few years, since it became two loops (it previously was three and one partner could rebuild), the average has sometimes been won on nine steers.
Every team has a strategy coming into the NFR, so they have some decisions to make. Do you rope really aggressive and try to win every night? Or do you go for third or fourth every night instead of first, and put yourself in contention to win the average? That was my mindset all the years I roped here.
The Thomas & Mack arena is so small. A lot of little things can go wrong, because things happen so fast. If you miss the start, a steer goes hard right or hard left it can be a real curveball. It’s easy to make mistakes here, especially when you’re going for broke.
Head horses have a tendency to want to get quick here. All JoJo (LeMond) and Junior (Nogueira) needed to win the average and the world a couple years ago was just basically a practice run in Round 10, JoJo’s horse got quick and he lost his rope.
I was sitting really good in the average one year, and it was falling apart. About the eighth or ninth round, all I needed to do was be smooth on one or two more steers, and I hickeyed a horn. I’d roped with the strategy of just placing along in the rounds, then banking on being deep in the average. Suddenly, I had two go-rounds left to try to make bank. I was forced to try to win first in the last two rounds to get out of here alive.
It’s all about having a good Finals to make your year financially, if you haven’t won one of the major ropings during the year. A $30,000 finals is pretty disappointing with the opportunities here now.
Speed Williams and Rich Skelton went out of the average in the first round here several times and still won the world eight years in a row, because going out of the average early let them let their hair down. Going out of the average early opens the door for that go-for-broke mindset. That average lurking over your head is a mixed blessing. You want that, but if you stub a toe late in the week—ouch.
The first three or four go-rounds tend to be a little easier. Then the jitters wear off, the cattle soften up a little bit and guys get lined out. This place has a way of keeping you juggling. I always had the strategy of not being stupid and trying to win first. Go be aggressive, and do what the steer allows you to do with high-percentage shots.
The name of the game is a gold buckle, and whoever wins the most money in Vegas is almost always the world champion these days. I bet on Luke to win the average this year, because he ropes so aggressive. He’s just got a knack for roping in the Thomas & Mack. He’s roped phenomenal here. On paper, Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill would have to be another strong bet (Clay and Jade were 5.6 on their first steer, and no time on their second one and a no-time on their third).
They’re roping a little smaller cattle here this year, which should give guys a better shot at the record. When they bring bigger, heavier steers into this little building, it’s a lot bigger hill to climb.
These are the best teams in the world. That’s why they qualified to come here. They all have the ability and the capability of doing whatever they want to do. That being said, I would say off the top of my head that a guy I like to beat our average record is Chad Masters (Chad and Travis Graves are currently 21.1 on three; Clay Smith and Paul Eaves’s 14.1 leads the way in the early going.)
Success starts with the header of the team. Us heelers just rope two feet. I’ve roped with Chad, and he’s the kind of guy who can back in there and try to be 4.7 or 4.8 every time. That’s an aggressive, high-percentage run here, and that’s what will break our record—no bad starts, no bad throws and no misses. Bad starts and bad throws produce misses.
Chad’s a veteran, as is Clay Tryan. They’ve been here a lot, and that experience is obviously valuable. (Kaleb) Driggers has a lot of range, but it’s not just crazy, stupid shots. He has a high-percentage reach shot, and he’s very smart with it. He can do it virtually every time. Some of the other guys try to bomb and be 3, and it’s pretty hard not to make a couple mistakes trying to be 3. You have to be virtually mistake-free to break the record.
That record’s stood for a long time, but it’s really an easy record. It could be broken by 10 seconds. Averaging 5.9 on 10 runs is nothing here. The perfect scenario here is like when Chad won the world in 2012. We were 4 most runs. We had a couple hick-ups, but we were basically 5 flat or under every time. That’s an easy run that gets money most nights.
Luke Brown has put together some nice heading performances here, too, as have other guys roping here this year. Off the top of my head those guys have proven at this place that they can go turn every steer without trying to be world-record fast. I don’t think you can be 3 every time. But you can be 4 every time.