Standing beside his horse next to the stripping chute, header Daren Sims took off his straw hat and stared at the ground, shifting his weight back and forth. His heeler, Spunk Sasser, stood on a Priefert panel and watched out over the arena as 16 teams tried to out rope their 31.19 seconds on four head.
One by one, those 16 teams fell short of the mark set by the Florida cowboys at 17th callback when they got that last one down in 6.12 seconds. As the small crowd of behind the stripping chute realized what had just happened, shouts of sheer joy and disbelief exploded from the tunnel.
“When he faced, I knew we was pretty fast,” Sasser, of San Antonio, Florida, said. “And my thought was that we really put the pressure on the next seven or eight teams. I would have been satisfied if we got into the top 10.”
“That was the longest 16 teams I’ve ever seen in my life,” Sims, of Fountain, Florida, added. “I was praying and I was as nervous as any many had ever been. I sat there and roped my dummy at the house, just setting up scenarios like this. I’m just blessed to be able to have a good partner and good friends to loan me horses, this is a dream come true. My first year out here, to do something like this, it’s unbelievable.”
The pair have been friends for years, but they live six hours apart and estimate their short-round steer was maybe the 10 they’ve run together in their lives. They run into one another at amateur and ProRodeos across the Southeast, but Sims mostly amateur rodeos while Sasser is a 36-time Southeastern Circuit Finals qualifier and 15-time circuit champion.
“I’m a cowboy at heart,” Sasser said. “I’m a ranching cowboy, I rope, I give lessons, everything I do is a horseback. I’m fixing to be 52 years old. I see people win and I think, why can’t I ever win something that big? At the US Finals a couple years ago, I made eight different short rounds, couldn’t get no luck. This past year, I made the short round twice, never could get no luck. I said you know, one day it’s got to pay off. I love to rope, it’s all I want to do, is to be a’ horseback and rope. It ain’t really sunk in yet–$238,000. The most I’ve ever won in a year is $22,000 in an event. It’s amazing.”
Sims, whose own horse might have gotten a little tight in the South Point after a summer of amateur rodeoing, rode a borrowed 17-year-old gelding named Chicken from Justin Sands. The horse helped Sands win second in the #13 Finale in 2016, worth $190,000. He pulled him out of a pasture, put shoes on him, ran five steers on him, and loaded him into a trailer bound for Nevada.
On the heel side, rode a 14-year-old no-maintenance-needed ex-reiner named Shag—who was sure fast enough to put the Southeast Circuit heeler in the right spot when Sims spun that steer to be 6 in the short round.
Sasser lost his father September 28, a man who on his death bed left Sasser with a message he took to heart.
“He told me on his dying bed, ‘I did not raise no doctor.’ He told me ‘I want you to rodeo.’ He said, ‘I want you to promise me that you will go,’” Sasser said. “I know he was with me today.”