With a 17.6 on three head, Begay and Todd clinched the Pendleton win Saturday, Sept. 16, and are expected to see the bright lights of Las Vegas in December for the 2023 NFR.
Before Todd’s retirement from ProRodeo in 2008, he had another chance to win Pendleton more than a decade ago but fell short. Finally getting the job done is a breath of fresh air.
“Let’s just say it was a relief,” Todd, 39, said. “You hate to let a friend down, too. I had a chance to win it a long time ago with Cesar (de la Cruz) and I missed, and I guess it’s just one of those—depending on the situation—where you really don’t want to win second. So, to finish the job is pretty dang special.”
Begay’s been the Pendleton champ two times before, the first in 2011 and the second in 2013, both with Cesar de la Cruz. While winning it again might be a familiar feeling, it’s still just as exciting as the very first time for the nine-time NFR header.
“The competition, these guys rope so good; it’s not every day you’re in that spot,” Begay, 40, said. “They only have Pendleton once a year, and it’s got to be your day, your year or your week to win Pendleton. You’ve got to rope three steers on the grass and there’s a lot of variables; a lot of things have to go your way to win rodeo like that. And the best part is I got my best friend heeling for me. I call them ‘sitting around the fire stories.’ This was something I could tell somebody sitting around the fire when I’m a lot older.”
For Begay, a chance to seize the coveted win with Todd really amplified the significance of the event, and the seasoned veteran felt the nerves going into it.
“The chances of that happening are slim to none, and then being able to do it with Colter, he’s my best friend,” Begay said. “Those times might not ever come again. Who knows, we might not go next year. So, the actual chance of, ‘Hey, we’re high call here at Pendleton, I have a chance to win it,’ there was a lot of pressure. I was nervous because there was a lot of stuff on the line just because that might be the only time and the only chance I get. That’s why I was so excited about it.”
For Todd, this win is confirmation that he’s following the right path at this point in time.
“I guess for me, it helps me to know that I’m actually where I’m supposed to be,” Todd said. “I don’t want winning to be the deciding factor, totally, but it’s almost one of the easiest ways to know, ‘Okay, this is where I’m supposed to be at this moment.’”
Play-by-play of the grass
Known for the nature of a long score where steers come from up over a hill behind the chutes, Pendleton can be tricky for teams to know their start. In all actuality, though, Begay feels it’s no different from any other rodeo: The better start you get, the better go you get; it’s all a matter of timing.
“Some people call it scoring but, there, I call it judging a steer on how fast he’s coming down the lane,” Begay said. “Knowing my horse and that there’s some give and take there, you have to pay attention to what the steer’s doing. And by the time you hit the end of the lane and hit the grass, you want to be going forward mostly when you’re going through the barrier. It’s just all about reading the steer when he’s coming down the hill and just being in time with him so, when you hit the bottom, everything’s flowing forward and the rhythm’s there.”
In the first round, Begay and Todd had a first run on their steer, which Todd prefers. They were sixth in the first round with a 5.8. Todd may not have gotten his dally as well as he’d have liked, but that run set them up solid for the rest of the week.
“That steer, we knew that he was a little bit stronger, but figured he’d be pretty good,” Todd said. “Begay wanted him more in the left lead, and he fit the bill perfect. I think I set him up good; he kind of checked off, which is always nice [because] then they’re not skating around the corner and are pretty easy to heel fast.
“I did not dally very good—that made me nervous,” Todd admitted. “We should have been a lot faster on that steer than we were if I could have just dallied good. But to place on that [first] one just kind of sets you up. If you’re in front of the pack now, it sets it up where you can draw whatever you need to on the second one to catch him and still make the short round.”
They traded their original draw in the second round for the Wednesday, Sept. 13, performance. They shaved off 0.6 seconds to take second in the round with a 5.2, a run that was just meant to happen.
“Our second steer was just amazing,” Todd said. “I might’ve messed up and slowed him up too much going down the lane, but Begay did a good job of pulling just enough. It was another one of those where I would say the situation was just meant to be because he could have broken the barrier just as easy as not, but he didn’t. He pulled just right, and it worked out just right. This steer was outstanding.”
They entered Saturday’s short round first high call with an 11.0 on two head. They needed to be 6.8 to get the average win and, despite it not feeling like a winning run, they wrapped it up with a 6.6 to tie for third in the final round and clinch the Pendleton win.
“We wanted to draw better but, then on the other hand, we drew kind of a stronger steer,” Todd explained. “We had to just go catch him and let the chips be where they are. Derrick had already told me we could be 6.8 and it’d be fairly easy. But it wasn’t. I lost track of time as we headed out through there. In my head, we got past where I thought I knew we were comfortable and then I, in a sense, kind of hit the panic button; I might have gotten wound up too much through it. I was thinking I might miss or rope him inside. When I did dally and there were two feet, inside there was a big steep sigh of relief.”
As a man of strong faith, this year has been Todd’s Gideon story, confirming that coming out of a 15-year retirement was the right decision.
“Gideon was told by God to lead the Israelites to war, but not in the sense that you would think,” Todd explained. “He kept throwing fleece for answers and he’d always get them, but he’d always throw another one. He’d throw out a different one, and say, ‘Okay, if this is what you want me to do, this needs to happen,’ Then that would happen. He’d say, ‘Now if this happens, then I know,’ and he ended up doing multiple of them, and I feel like that’s how it’s been for me all year.”
“There’s just that competitive part where I want to do the best I can for anybody and, then when it comes to my best friend, you just want to do better and hope for better,” Begay said. “And the main thing is—we’re really not doing it for the money or anything like that—one thing I don’t like doing is wasting our time because we don’t have much of it. So, when things work out, it’s absolutely worth the time. It’s like, ‘Hey, we left the house trying to do this and do that, and it worked out.’ So, it was worth our time.”
For some, the decision to rodeo might not affect their family or day-to-day lives much, but that isn’t the case for Todd, who has a family of five and a Wilcox, Arizona, ranch to consider when he makes big decisions.
“I’ve got a lot at home, [and] I don’t want to make it that I’m anything special or anything more important,” Todd said. “And I don’t want to make decisions that make for bad outcomes later, whether it be for my kids, my wife, the ranch, finances, friendships or whatever. I hate to feel like I’ve made a decision that caused a bad reaction. This year’s been extremely special and fun, and it’s been fun for my kids to get to grow up and them see me be successful and have to deal with stuff that I never thought I’d have to deal with again. I’ve had to put my money where my mouth is a lot more [with] them being able to almost be the coaches on the other end.”
Pendleton: A league of its own
Set on a high school football field, the Pendleton Round-Up’s grass is a setup not seen anywhere else in the ProRodeo world. And while Begay and Todd epitomize the true definition of working cowboys in the industry, even they don’t believe you can prepare for Pendleton.
“You can be excited for the fear factor of it, but you cannot prepare for it,” Todd said. “I can’t speak for anybody else but me, but I get nervous about that place. It’s the feeling of how your horse moves, how the steers handle—you can’t practice for that. Where we were staying, we did try to set up a mock Pendleton out in the grass pasture. I think more of it was for the headers—they wanted to see how their horses were going to feel and check them out. So, I guess you’d say we practiced for it, but we knew that it wasn’t preparing us for there, because that’s its own place.
“And that’s what’s cool about it,” Todd continued. “Because cowboying is not anything like that because you’re not trying to win out in the pasture. You’re trying to get a job done or catch an animal, but you’re not trying to win.”
Begay would almost compare it to the NFR. You can try and imitate it on a similar practice setup, but it will never actually come close.
“It seems like Pendleton and the NFR are the only two places where it’s like that,” Begay said. “You can put the exact dimensions up for the NFR at home and you can practice there for over a month, but there’s nothing that simulates the actual NFR, so it’s hard to prepare for it. Pendleton’s the same way. Pendleton’s probably even worse because you’ve got to have a grass feel and then you actually have to let them out and go an actual faster speed than you do at the NFR. So, no one can truly practice for Pendleton.”
That uniqueness is part of what makes earning the win so prestigious, though. And for Todd, having some of his family there for part of the week made the win grander yet.
“My daughter, wife and my oldest boy were there for the first two rounds,” Todd said. “They had to go home, but they didn’t really want to just because it’s a cool rodeo. The short round’s pretty cool watching with everything that goes on. It’s one of the few rodeos where you truly feel like you’ve done something to win it. I mean, just the way it goes and the prizes and the way they present it. They saddle your horse, and you get on him and then you get to do whatever you want, whether you try to jump the track and knock the fence down and break it and whatnot. It was pretty fun.”
Bright lights are coming
Begay and Todd won $16,932 over the weekend just in Pendleton. Begay should now have $117,830.24 won on the year and Todd with $132,997.44, keeping them well within the top 10 in the world standings. They’ll be making their first appearance as a team in Vegas come December.
For Todd, this will be his fourth NFR qualification but his first on the heel side, adding him to the elite crew of NFR switchenders. And that in itself makes the feat special, but a little nerve-wracking.
“Your goal is to make the Finals and now that’s a reality,” Todd said. “I know what it’s like to go there and rope bad or do bad, and that’s got me nervous. I want to say almost scared, but not scared, because I’ve never heeled there before, and I would say you can’t practice for it. Sure, I can set up an arena and have somebody turn cattle all day long but, as far as the energy, the nerves and your reactions there, you can’t practice for that. And I also don’t want to do bad but, if I do, how am I going to handle it? Stuff like that. That’s where my thoughts are.”
Begay, a 2023 Indian National Finals Rodeo qualifier as well, isn’t too worried about how Todd will handle it, though. For him, he’s just excited to have this opportunity with his best friend. And, despite having roped with some of the best heelers of all time—Cesar de la Cruz, Cory Petska, Clay O’Brien Cooper, to name a few—this is the opportunity of a lifetime for him.
“That’s what makes the whole year,” Begay said. “I’m friends with all those guys, too, but I guess that’s the part where it says ‘best’ in front of ‘friend.’ So that’s what means more to me this year than anything. I’ve had good years and I’ve made the Finals, but you’re going and that becomes all you do. It just becomes kind of a habit. You step away and you don’t really go that much and, then, you come back to do it with your best friend. Then, it actually means a lot.”
Begay is fully aware of how significant Todd’s year was, too. At the end of the day, Begay’s just rooting for his friend.
“This has dang sure been Colter Todd’s year, and I’ve just been part of it,” Begay said. “That’s what I like about it. Everybody that I run into, they all talk about him. They’re like, ‘Hey, that’s neat to see Colter’s going to be going to the NFR,’ or ‘Hey, that’s cool that you won Pendleton with your best friend.’ He’s just the main guy. He’s a good guy.
“Everybody around here in Arizona loves him,” Begay explained. “To see him step away from rodeo for 15 years or something like that, and [have] him come back and do what he’s done, it’s like, I’m his partner and I’m part of what he did, but it’s still neat for me to sit back and watch it. Even if he were to do it with someone else, I’d still be just as happy for him as me roping with him.”
With two weeks left in the 2023 ProRodeo season, Begay and Todd will head next to Texas for the Amarillo Tri-State Fair and Rodeo, Thursday, Sept. 21, and then to California for San Bernardino’ Sheriff’s PRCA Rodeo, and the Poway Rodeo Saturday, Sept. 23.