Last year, in the third year of Denny Gentry's popular World Series of Team Roping Finales, he added a new twist to the event, the Thunder EquiGames. Now, while the World Series concept has been very popular among team ropers, fans weren't crowding into the equestrian center at Michael Gaughan's South Point Hotel and Casino to watch. Team roping has never been lauded as a stand-alone spectator sport.
The Thunder EquiGames, which incorporated freestyle bullfights, barrel racing and mounted shooting, looked to bring more fans into the stands. The first year wasn't an instant success, but after 2009's showing, Gentry is pleased that his concept is bearing fruit.
"The EquiGames broke its previous record by awarding $3,449,709 dollars in cash and another quarter of a million in prizes," he said. "The event exploded this year with every inch of available parking lot covered in horse trailers. The free style formatting mixed with traditional rodeo acts appears to be bringing a completely different feel to a highly traditional rodeo audience. This was clearly not a loose gathering of random horse events, but a complete production show."
In the following pages, we'll recap each of the World Series of Team Roping Finales, the barrel racing, bull fighting, mounted shooting and wild horse race, as well as the Double Dollar Horse Sale.
Bloomer Trailers No. 10 Finale
Lifelong Pals Find the Winner's Circle
As Jim Saunders and Richard Fry warmed their horses up in preparation for their final steer in the Bloomer Trailers No. 10 Finale, they didn't talk about their strategy, the steer they'd drawn or how to deal with the noise.
No, these two men, who as boys in Gatesville, Texas, were drug around to rodeos together by their fathers, talked about the money at stake and how they wished their fathers could have had the chance to run at the $100,000 they were about to have the chance to win.
"It was a fun experience," Fry said. "Denny puts on a great roping. He put it together and did an excellent job. Where else can two old wore-out sons-a-bucks like us rope for that kind of money?"
The answer is pretty simple. Nowhere. With the No. 10 (as well as the No. 13) offering $1,079,000 in prize money, they became the two richest ropings in history. In sum, Saunders and Fry won $106,000 each for roping four steers in 35.32 seconds. By comparison, the 2009 PRCA World Champions Nick Sartain and Kollin VonAhn won $106,292 on 10 steers during the Wrangler NFR.
And unlike the professional rodeo guys, both Saunders and Fry hardly roped together this year and until about five years ago, didn't rope at all since they were youngsters.
After making the Texas Circuit Finals in 1984, Saunders decided not to go to the winter rodeos and spend more time with his kids.
"I decided I wouldn't go to the winter rodeos and got involved in my kids' high school sports and next thing I know, I hadn't roped and barely been on a horse in 15 years," he said. "It wasn't intentional, it just kind of happened that way. I had some friends say, 'Man, you need to come rope with us. This new deal, this numbering system has come along.' But I still didn't do anything about it. Then when I started hearing about what Denny was doing and what these ropings paid, my friends told me I needed to get my ropes out. When I started back roping about four or five years ago, I was like, 'Where in the world did all these people come from?'"
Fry had a very similar experience. He walked away from rodeo to train racehorses with considerable success. Not only was he in the top 10 of American Quarter Horse trainers for 18 of the 20 years he trained, he had an All-American Futurity winner, Noblesse Six, in 1994.
Interestingly, legendary Quarter Horse jockey G.R. Carter, who won the World Series No. 14 in 2008, qualified the horse for Fry. Later, Fry retired to Arizona.
"I hadn't roped in 27 years. I didn't even want to look at a horse," he said.
After golf didn't satisfy his competitive urge, he found himself in roping country surrounded by ropers. So he got back in the game.
Once they were both roping, both Saunders and Fry made it a point to rope together at the big ropings like the U.S. Finals and the Reno Rodeo Invitational-however, they never practiced together.
"Jim and I were born and raised in the same home town," Fry said. "We've roped together since we were kids. We've been roping together probably 45 years, so we pretty well know what each other is going to do. Jim, the way he handles cattle, if you can't heel behind him, you need to find a new profession."
It seems the lack of practice made no difference. They found themselves as the second high call back in a tough No. 10 short round.
"This is the biggest roping in history, so nobody's had that chance before, but you don't get many chances to win something like that," Saunders said. "The opportunity only comes along every once in a while. We was just lucky to get it done on that last steer. About the only thing I thought about on that last steer is what a long drive it was going to be to Texas if I screw it up. I wasn't too worried about what Richard was going to do."
Riding his third-string horse, Lucky (that he had converted to his son's heel horse), Saunders spun the steer. Fry came in on a horse he calls Jake, that he bought from old-time NFR roper Harry Sloan.
"I weigh 300," Fry said. "So he can get me where I need to be, square up and really get in the ground."
They stopped the clock in 7.45 seconds-fastest of the round. When the high call team missed, they were the champs.
"Winning the All-American Futurity is a once in a lifetime feat," Fry said. "But winning the World Series, it's your own ability, you don't have a jockey up there, so you're the one that has to do it all and handle the pressure. So, I would say that at the present time that's the crowning victory. But to win $100,000 in one day in two equine sports, I don't know a lot of people who have done that."
Priefert No. 11 Finale
Experience Pays Off For Workman and Dahlke
Wane Workman had been in this position before. Last year, the 76-year-old Utah header was fourth high call in the No. 13 World Series Finale at the South Point in Las Vegas.
And he missed.
"I qualified last year in the Dynamite arena in Arizona," he said. "I qualified in all three this year, which I wanted to do. You got the same expense of going there, so you might as well be in three of them if you can qualify."
And the odds worked in his favor. He was the high call back for the Priefert No. 11 and the fifth high call in the No. 13, but his heeler missed.
For the No. 11, he was roping with retired Idaho rancher Bill Dahlke. Asked if he felt the pressure as the high call, he didn't miss a beat.
"One steer for $100,000, what do you think?" he said. "For the most part, everybody caught, other than a mistake here or there and hardly anybody changed position. I remember sitting there and about the seventh team I thought, What am I doing in this roping, these people can rope."
The second high call team went out when the header missed, taking some of the pressure off.
"It was so loud and the announcer had them all jacked up and my little horse was spinning around," Dahlke said. "When we rode into the box I didn't pay any attention, but my brother said the announcers said, 'If they can rope this steer in 10, they'll win $190,000.' He said he about passed out."
Dahlke's nerves notwithstanding, there was no way Workman was going to miss a steer with that kind of money on the line again. They stopped the clock in just over 8 seconds, bringing their total on four to 34.72 seconds. The win paid each man $95,000.
"I live in Arizona for six months out of the year," Dahlke said. "I used to be a rancher, but I sold them eight years ago and bought me an old dump truck and I kind of work that in the summers in Idaho. Of course, that's not such a good business now, so my only chance is to try to make some money roping.
"My friends, I told them I had to get back to Arizona where I could make some money roping. They all laughed at me, but now, I've got 150 calls from people back home and I live in a little community. The whole valley, that's all they've been talking about. But I'm just a plain, common sort of a guy that figured out how to make it all the time."
Part of the figuring out, was finding the right horse. And the palomino paint he calls Jesse was an accidental acquisition.
"A friend of mine had this yellow palomino paint horse. He stepped on her toe and she fell off once, but he was gentle," he said. "She wanted to sell him, so I bought him thinking I could take him to Arizona and sell him to some trail rider. Then I kind of started playing with him and roping a little bit and he's real cowy, but I hated him most of the time. I wanted to sell him, then I'd win some more money on him and get to where I liked him."
Interestingly, Workman also rode a paint his granddaughter nicknamed Cookie Dough-and like most headers, he understands his success is linked to his horse.
"I bought him two years ago and it's taken me two years to make him," he said. "I give him between 85%s and 90% of the credit for all my winnings. If you're not mounted, it doesn't matter how good you rope. The first six months, I didn't win a dollar on him, but last year he started working pretty darn good and then he's just kept getting better all the time. If you do the same thing all the time, whether we want to admit it or not, they do just what we teach them, bad or good. He's solid, can run and score."
Cactus Saddler No. 13 Finals
A True Rags to Riches Story
Clint and Jeremy Buhler, who dominated the No. 13 Finale of the World Series of Team Roping in Las Vegas, were by no means born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Two of five children raised by Jim, a trucker, and Lydia, who works at a grocery store, they didn't even get into roping until Clint, the oldest was around 15 years old.
"Me and my brothers and parents pooled our money together and bought one horse and we'd go roping," Clint, the 27-year-old elder brother and header said. "We could each only take a couple of runs on her because she was the only one. After that, we kind of got hooked."
Lydia camped at high school rodeo grounds all over Canada with her five kids in a tent to give them a chance to compete in something they loved.
"I credit everything-getting started roping and staying in it-to my mom and dad," said Jeremy, 22. "My dad got us started, he built a roping dummy for Christmas and I still remember being a little kid roping it for hours on end in our house. My mom hauled us to high school rodeos and they've been behind us the entire time."
Clint went into horseshoeing and rides a few outside horses. Jeremy, meanwhile, left home for the warm weather of Texas.
"In Canada, it's cold all the time so you can never rope," he said. "I just wanted to be able to rope during the winter. When I went to South Plains [College in Levelland, Texas], I was able to practice in the winter a bunch. So, I guess I just went there to rope."
While Jeremy was improving his roping in Texas, Clint was working just as hard in Canada.
"I couldn't really practice with my brother much," he said. "I've got another guy I practice with and I just kind of did my thing. Right before I left to come down, I took a roping school with Byron Wilkerson. He kind of tweaked a few things and helped me out. He's a good teacher and what he said made a lot of sense. Little things that you don't really think of but made a world of difference. He said, 'Make sure you're deliberate with everything. You're in control. You're the pilot and you do what you need to do.'"
Clint and Jeremy qualified for the World Series of Team roping together at a roping in Canada.
"I was so broke in the summer I didn't take the shoot out, I took all the money," Jeremy said. "We were fortunate enough to buy back in."
In fact, big brother Clint paid the fees. But he had special motivation to come back to Las Vegas for a little vindication. Last year, he was the high team back with Steve Smith (2008 World Champion Tie-Down Roper Stran's big brother) in the No. 13 and slipped a leg to win it.
"That's haunted me every day since that roping last year," Clint said. "I was coming back to win it. I was there last year and I seen what it took and how one leg drops you down in the checks. I was out for blood and I was coming back to win it."
He came across a great heading horse he calls Homer and switched ends for the 2009 edition.
"There's good ones and there's great ones and a great one makes a world of difference. I bought him from a guy a year ago from Vancouver Island. The guy's name is Mike Cullen and he worked with me and let me take a little time to pay for him and I got him bought and it's been great."
Jeremy, meanwhile, borrowed a horse for his trip to Las Vegas.
"That horse I was riding, his name is Buster, he's 20 years old and I don't own him My roommate in college, Clay Paige, let me ride him. In my opinion, he's the best going. Last year I was riding an old cripple horse at the college rodeos and he let me take his horse and use him for the 2009 spring season and I ended up making it to the College Finals on that horse. He really helps me out by letting me ride him. I'm going to end up buying him now. He wouldn't sell him before, I think he just knew I was broke and didn't have what he wanted for him. Now I think we're going to work out a deal."
So, after roping four steers in 29.07 and winning $109,000 each-including $18,000 in the rotations for fast times-how will they spend all that money?
"Honestly, I still have no idea," Jeremy said. "I drive an old beat-up '96 Dodge that's painted three different colors. So I'll probably end up painting it all one color. I still love that truck. I was going to have to borrow money to get home from that roping, I've been broke my whole life. I don't know what I'm going to do with it. Invest it somehow, I know I'm not going to blow it."
Clint is nearly as flummoxed as his brother by the windfall.
"It is unreal," he said. "I talk to my brother pretty much every day and we'd say, 'Can you imagine winning that much money?'
"It meant a lot because we've never had money at our fingertips. It's always been a pay check to pay check kind of life. This has totally changed my life. I'm not going to go out and blow my money, I bought a horse trailer and I'm going to pay my truck off and maybe buy some good horses and a chunk of land somewhere.
"I shoe horses for a living one horse at a time, and bending over you get to realizing the value of a dollar. It definitely changed my life and it will be a highlight forever."
Woods-Gates Wins Equigames Barrel Race
The payoff for the EquiGames Barrel Race presented by Charmayne James jumped from $40,000 in year number one to over $120,000 in 2009. That point is pretty indicative of where it appears this event is headed. In less than thirteen months, this event has emerged as possibly the biggest barrel race on the west coast. Certainly no event can grow 300 percent each year, but by all appearances the EquiGames Barrel Race is far from reaching its plateau.
This race was a three-run average, which included the top ten racers after two rounds running in the EquiGames performance with all ten receiving average checks. Other features included a two-horse combination bonus, and a 2D incentive. The two-horse combination allowed racers to combine their times after two runs on both horses for a $10,000 side pot.
The big winner for 2009 was Terri Woods Gates of West Jordon, Utah. She won round two (15.682) and the average (47.592), for a total purse of $33,400 and a beautiful Cactus Saddle. A great short round run moved her from 3rd prior to the short round to the top position.
"I came home and my husband and I celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary the next day," said Woods-Gates, who won on GW Britlyn, a mare out of First Dunn Express and Miss Kizzy Kay. "We raised her and I'd taken her the year before and she didn't work well at all. This year she ran good at the Circuit Finals (Wilderness Circuit) and here."
Rachael Ross of Murrieta, Calif. took second in the average (47.594) and collected a check for $17,800.
The two-horse combination feature played out interestingly in that both Sydni Blanchard, Albuquerque, N.M., and Kyra Stierwalt, Leedey, Okla., hit barrels on their number one horses and placed in the main race on the second horse. Sydni placed in one round and 6th in the average, and eventually won the two-horse combo. Kyra placed in two rounds and third in the average (47.609) for a total earning of $13,900.
Ross Hill Makes it Two In A Row
The EquiGames Freestyle Bullfighting presented by Rob Smets has become the showpiece of the EquiGames. Thirty-two bullfighters from around the United States applied for the limited slots offered. Twelve fighters were selected, and they battled in head-to-head competitions during the first weekend of EquiGames for the right to return for the Finals on the last weekend. This was the largest payoff in the sport's history, paying out $50,000, nearly double the previous year.
In week, one 2008 defending Champion Ross Hill advanced along with Frank Newsom, Andy Burrelle, Toby Inman, Lance Brittain and the top performer of week one, Wacey Munsell.
The remaining six returned to the final EquiGames on the last weekend of the NFR to determine the winners of the three paychecks. Ross Hill repeated as champion of the 2009 EquiGames winning $15,000 for first place by doing plenty of fender bumping with his bull. Second place went to Lance Brittain, and third went to Andy Burrelle. Lawrence Borba brought in an outstanding set of fighting bulls from California that gave bullfighters a chance to showcase their skills and thrilled the crowd.
Wild West Shoot-Out
EquiGames brought back the highly popular EquiGames Mounted Shoot Out present by Outlaw Annie Ellet. The competition is big and getting bigger by the day, but few in the mainstream cowboy world had actually seen it.
Prize money rose from $55,000 last year to $84,000 in 2009. This year's event ended in a special head-to-head format that featured the top shooters from three men's and three ladies' divisions. The crowd loved the speed, color and excitement of the event.
The Men's Limited Champion was Cody Shryock, and the Ladies' Limited Champion was Rebecca Molle. In the Pro-Limited division, Billy Montgomery was men's champion and Whitney Alderson was the ladies' champion. In the Open-or professional-division, Mark Zueger won the men's division, and Kenda Lenseigne was the champion ladies' pro.
Professional Team Bronc Riding
The latest addition to the EquiGames was certainly a crowd favorite as the Professional Team Bronc Riding Association brought their season finals to South Point. Six of the top teams in the country competed in four full rounds to determine their champions. When the dust cleared and the crowd quit screaming, the 2009 PTBRA World Champion Team was the Jason Smith team from Warm Springs, Oregon. Team members were Jason Smith, Pat Vargas, and Jesse Rhinehart