If a ProRodeo world title is like hitting the big payout lottery, RodeoHouston is a scratch game. The $50,000 won at the highest-paying regular season rodeo dramatically changes a cowboy’s season and, with apologies to Larry Gatlin and his brothers, Houston gets the cowboys one step closer to a world title, but it guarantees nothing. In fact, since the advent of the $50,000 winner-take-all format three years ago, only two competitors have won the $50K and the world title in the same year: Bobby Mote in the bareback riding in 2007 and barrel racer Lindsay Sears in 2008.
While that may be an ominous sign for this year’s crop of champions, none of the statistics, history—or even the deluge of rain coming down outside the Reliant Stadium on March 20—could dampen their day.
RodeoHouston is an elimination-style format, with a wild card round, that slowly whittles down the top 50 in every event to a top 10 semifinal round. From that semifinal round, the top four advance to a Championship round immediately after the semifinals.
From that March Madness, Turtle Powell and Cory Petska emerged as the latest RodeoHouston team roping champions by roping their final-round steer in 4.1 seconds. Each man added $56,250 to his world standings and immediately vaulted to the No. 1 spot.
“Houston, Texas, is so prestigious, it’s so fun to come to and everybody gets so pumped up,” Powell said. “They’re paying so much money and you get real excited in that atmosphere. A big arena is a little bit different, but the competition is great. You get the top 15 and it’s a great environment to be around because I think everybody gets a little more competitive here. I’m not saying we’re not competitive everywhere else, but here you just get a little extra adrenaline rush, like you’re at the NFR or something.”
In the semifinal round, that competitive spirit came through strong with guys letting it all hang out. Starting with another chapter of disappointment in big moments for Luke Brown, Martin Lucero roped a leg to be 5.5 (not that it would have mattered, it ended up taking a 5.2 to advance). Matt Robertson reached a mile for Chase Tryan, and got a flag in 5.5 seconds to set the early pace. B.J. Campbell took a chance at the barrier and broke out, preventing his partner Mike Beers from getting another chance to win Houston again after they were 5.1 plus 10. Next, Ty Blasingame threw most of his rope but only caught the right horn.
With only one clean run on the board and five ropers left, a fast but safe run would advance. Turtle Powell stuck right to that strategy and he and Petska stopped the clock in 4.8 seconds. JoJo LeMond turned his steer for a 5.3-second run, but Randon Adams legged up. Chad Masters and Jade Corkill had a 5.1, Clay Tryan and Travis Graves went 5.2 and then Justin Yost and Kyle Crick bested the field with a 4.7.
Other than Yost and Crick, the Championship round featured a battle-tested group of NFR veterans and two world champs. Powell, as the second-to-last team out, prepared and mulled over his options.
“I thought about it before the final four of steers,” he said. “I thought with $50,000 for first and $15,000 for second you need to kind of go at it a little bit. Fifty thousand, I mean, that’s your year. I was thinking about that in my mind, but I was trying to slow myself down and say, ‘Do what you do and let your horse do what he does.’”
But before he could do what he does, he watched Clay Tryan and Travis Graves go 5.1. In the winner-take-all format, ropers all assert that leaving the arena in first place is all that is in their control, so Chad Masters and Jade Corkill did just that, turning in a 4.8 and riding out in first.
“I was like, well, we’ve been 4.8 before but it’s not that easy here,” Powell said. “So I told myself, don’t be late. I knew I had a steer that started a little sharper and I got an outstanding start. The start, I don’t know how I got out of the barrier, but it worked. It could have gone either way and it was my day. And then Cory Petska, what can you say? I knew he was going to try that steer on. That’s my deal, I was going to try to run closer and he’s going to try to shut the clock off.”
They shut the clock off in 4.1 seconds—catapulting into first and putting the pressure on the young team of Yost and Crick.
“He ran straight and we knew he ran straight,” Petska said. “I’d been hanging back all week and just making sure I caught, but when they went 4.8 in front of us, I knew I had to go fast, so I just let my horse get up real high where I could take one fast shot. We went 4.9 on our first steer and 4.8 in the semifinals and I didn’t even throw fast, so I knew Turtle was getting out and turning them fast. I just needed to do my job a little faster this time.”
Trying to beat them, Yost came out slinging, but couldn’t connect and Powell and Petska pocketed the $50,000 and an equal measure of confidence in their partnership.
“It’s an amazing deal,” Powell said. “We were 4.9 on our first steer. Then we were 5.8, then 5.6, 4.8 and 4.1. It just kept getting better. I was telling Cory, ‘You start feeling your run. You run a lot of steers in one spot, you can kind of start to feel your rhythm.’ That’s why it’s hard in the wintertime, guys get discouraged and go home, but you need to stay out and keep going because in the summer time you can kind of get on a roll.”
Interestingly, that’s something neither cowboy was able to do last year. Petska scrambled up until the final rodeo of the season to qualify for the NFR with Clay Tryan.
“Winning the $50,000 will take away going to Canada and a lot of those overnight drives,” Petska said. “We’re still going to go to the big rodeos, we’re just not going to go crazy like you do when you’re on the outside looking in. We got so much won now that we can pick our good ones and enjoy the summer. That $50,000 allows us to just relax and enjoy the summer.”
Powell, meanwhile, did have a great winter last year roping with Travis Graves, but never did get on a roll once summer came around and missed the Wrangler NFR.
“This year, to start out with $50,000, if I don’t make it I’m quitting,” Powell said with a laugh. “Cory and I were talking about that. I always said if I win Houston, I’m just going to ease around. But once you win it, it’s like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ If you do go out and you have a really good year and you get a big lead on them at the Finals who knows? Although you have to have a good Finals, Houston doesn’t mean that you’re going to do really good. I’ll tell you what it does do for us, it makes it where we don’t have to fly around as much, or drive all night somewhere. We can set it up a little easier where the horses are feeling good and we’re feeling good and we should perform better. It’ll be interesting to see how it happens this year.”
Powell will be aboard what he calls the best horse he’s ever had, a grey gelding named Vegas.
“I thought maybe he was getting sore a little bit and everything wasn’t feeling as good, but I think it was me,” he said. “I think I was overriding him and not letting the horse work like he had been. I’ve been at home really working on that, not driving him as much and letting him do it. He’s a great horse.”
Petska, too, might have just found his next great horse. And, in his style, it’s a mare named Daisy.
“I just started riding her,” he said of the eight-year-old daughter of Mel Potter’s Dinero (PC Frenchmans Hayday). “I had her a couple of years ago and she wasn’t doing real good, so I let Sherry Cervi run barrels on her but they didn’t really like her, so we were going to breed her. I got on her for one more chance two months ago, and she’s just been awesome ever since.”
Saddle Bronc Riding
In 1989, Rod Hay won RodeoHouston and $8,854. Then, in 2007, he was second when Dusty Hausauer won the title. In 2008, he and Billy Etbauer rode to a tie in the final round. In the ride-off, Billy edged the Canadian.
“I’ve always had good luck here,” Hay said. “But it’s been tough to get the buckle.”
Now, in 2010, some 21 years after his first one, Hay will have his second RodeoHouston buckle. This time, the payday was worth $54,250.
“This sure made it a lot easier and I’m going to rodeo for sure,” Hay said. “But I’ve already got more money won than I did last year. That makes a guy feel really fantastic. I never take anything for granted, but today’s a good day for me.”
But after 19 straight Wrangler NFR qualifications, missing last year’s edition might have been just what he needed for a successful 2010.
“The biggest thing that helped me was I’d been rodeoing for 20 years and never really had a break,” he said. “I didn’t realize it, but it felt pretty good to have three months off. Every thing feels good and I’m excited to be on the road. Sometimes, it gets to where you drag yourself to the truck, but this year I’m excited and that’s the difference.”
Plus, he was reunited with an old foe, Cervi’s Brown Bomber, for the semifinal round.
“That was probably one of the horses that everybody wanted,” Hay said. “I know he’s been around for a long time because I’ve seen him for ages. For that horse to be as good as he is now, at his age, and he’s perfectly sound, easy to get out on and he tries to buck you off every time. This is the sixth time I’ve had him. He knocked me out the first time and ever since then I’ve made it past the corner. He was just his old self today. Generally, he’ll really blow out of there and I was ready for that, but he kind of hesitated and then shot forward and ran down the gate. After that he just had a fantastic day and did really good. You kind of have to open up and let ‘er hang if you’re going to beat the guys on the other ones.”
The judges like the match up too and rewarded Hay with 81.5 points, putting him in the third-place hole for the Championship round. There, he rode Burch Rodeo’s Lunatic Fringe for 87.5 points. Young guns Taos Muncy, Cort Scheer and Wade Sundell couldn’t match the cagey old veteran.
“To get it against such a bunch of good bronc riders going right now is unbelievable,” Hay said. “There’s guys you’ve never heard of that ride like Billy Etbauer. It’s going to be tougher than a guy’s ever seen going down the road. They all want to go and win and they all ride real good.”
In the steer wrestling, Cody Cassidy carried on a family tradition at RodeoHouston by riding his family’s famous horse Willy, to the winner’s circle. Last year, Cody’s older brother, Curtis, took the $50K back to Canada on the horse.
In fact, Cassidy almost gave up on the 2010 ProRodeo season.
“Before San Antonio, I hadn’t won much,” he said. “This is the first winter I’ve tried to come down and make it to the National Finals in Las Vegas. For a couple of days I thought about going home, but it’s turned around in the blink of an eye. To win here and get this boost and know that I’m going to get to go to Las Vegas is awesome.”
And, of course, Willy will be along for the trip.
“He’s 24 years old and I owe all my success to that horse,” Cassidy said. “He’s maybe not as fast as he once was, but he’s more consistent. He probably knows more about steer wrestling than I do if he could talk. You can count on him every time—especially in these clutch situations when the money is up. It seems like where the big crowds are, he seems to excel. He’s great.”
Speaking of clutch, bareback rider Ryan Gray entered the Championship round matched up against two of the past three RodeoHouston $50,000 champions: Bobby Mote (2007) and Steven Dent (2008). Steven Peebles also made the cut.
“All three are riding as good as anybody,” he said. “It’s the four best horses we have going and we were fortunate to have them all here in Houston. I wouldn’t count anybody out. What an honor to come out on top.”
Gray scored 90.5 points, and won $55,350 riding Classic ProRodeo’s Fancy Free. In fact, all four short-round horses were owned by Classic ProRodeo’s Scotty Lovelace.
“I’d never been on that horse, but I’ve seen the horse a lot, she’s been around a long time,” Gray said. “I didn’t really know what to expect, everybody said she’d rear out real hard and then come around the post and stay in one spot and be good. That’s exactly what she did.”
In the bull riding, things went off script when none of the four finalists made the 8-second whistle. But not wanting to reward failure, RodeoHouston simply ran four more bulls in and gave them all another chance. Shawn Hogg proved up to the task on the mulligan and rode Classic ProRodeo’s Sweetwater for 86.5 points to win $56,250. Incidentally, the next day Hogg’s traveling partner Luke Haught won the Xtreme Bulls championship and between the two men, they took $99,003 out of RodeoHouston.