Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” In rodeo parlance, Travis Graves has followed that advice: He speaks softly, but hauls two “big sticks” in his trailer.
Since he was a youngster, the 26-year-old from Jay, Okla., has been viewed as a can’t-miss success in ProRodeo. What happened, initially, though, was he made a reputation as a jackpot roper—a title he wasn’t excited to have despite being well earned.
In 2005, he won the U.S. Open Finals in Oklahoma City roping with Matt Sherwood. As a 21-year-old, it signaled his entrance into the big time. Then, in 2007 he won the Wildfire Open to the World with Colter Todd, then won it again in 2009 with Turtle Powell and this year with Clay Tryan.
All this incredible jackpot success Graves enjoyed on a bay horse he calls Superstar. David and Iva George bred and raised the grandson of Dry Doc, named him Startime Diablo, and in 1996 sold him as a two-year old to Bruce Guthrie, who in turn sold him to Graves’s father, Ronnie, the next year.
Ronnie trains horses and puts on ropings. When Travis was 14, Ronnie turned Superstar over to his son.
“I got him from my dad when he was four years old,” Travis said. “He bought him as a prospect when he was three. He’d never been roped on, he was broke and that was about it. He’s pretty much a natural. From day one you knew he was going to be good. We just took it slow and didn’t rush anything with him. We took him to jackpots for a while. When I turned 18, he was ready.”
As a play on his registered name, Superstar quickly earned his moniker.
“He thinks he’s the main man,” Graves said. “When you’re trying to saddle him, he’ll push the door on the tack room shut. He just plays with you and is ornery. He thinks it’s his world.”
Within a few years, Graves realized that Superstar was indeed a super jackpot horse. He was even named the top heel horse at the 2008 Bob Feist Invitational. Even though roping with Keven Daniel he had major rodeo titles to his credit, his breakthrough in rodeo came later in his career than perhaps everyone—including him—expected.
That potential was realized on a large scale when he made the Wrangler National Finals rodeo in 2008—so far his lone qualification. He has even said that making the NFR gave him the opportunity to emerge from the jackpot roper pigeonhole.
Oddly enough, Superstar needed a stable mate for Graves to breakthrough that barrier. That came in the form of a mare he calls Baby Doll.
Similar to how he came up with Superstar, his dad found Baby Doll—or Siloam Pretty Baby. Rhonda Brown Blair bred the horse and sold her to Melvin Farley as a four-year-old. Then, Ronnie and Travis bought her when she was seven.
“I got her from my dad, she was a little older and I brought her along,” he said. “My dad found her for me and I bought her. She’s real, real cowy and a big, big stopper. She’s more of a rodeo-type horse, I would say.”
By the time she was 11 (she’s 13 now), Graves won the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo on her in 2008—jump-starting his first trip to the Finals. Later that same season, she won top heel horse honors at the Spicer Gripp Invitational Roping. When he and Powell did make the Finals, he rode her and finished second in the average race and 11th in the world.
“Hard running steers and longer scores, I ride Superstar,” he said “Faster and shorter setups, I ride Baby Doll. I rode Baby Doll all 10 rounds at the NFR and was happy with the way she worked.”
Interestingly, though, he goes through phases of which he prefers. This past winter, for example, he rode Superstar almost exclusively.
“He can run—he’s got a good amount of speed,” he said. “At the winter rodeos he’s so consistent and never takes my throw away or never tries to cheat me. I’m just more comfortable on him.”
But now that there are more rodeos and more traveling, Baby Doll is getting her share of runs.
“That bay gelding has been on the money every time,” Graves’s partner Clay Tryan said. “It seems like he lets him throw fast or catch—whatever he needs to do. It’s easy for him to do that. He’s got a mare that he hasn’t ridden as much, but he’s starting to as the year goes on. It seems like he throws faster on her.”
At press time, he was third in the world standings with plenty of short rounds and average checks but no signature wins for the 2010 rodeo season.
Graves acknowledges that the two horses are hooked on one another and Superstar has fallen in love with Baby Doll, as geldings are prone to doing with mares. Nevertheless, both horses are seasoned enough that separating them for rodeoing purposes doesn’t affect their performance.
“A lot of heelers just have one, but it’s a freak deal that I have two,” he said. “It’s really cool to have two, because that way when you fly around you can leave one somewhere and it’s easier on the horses. The other day I left my bay at Logandale and drove the mare to Oakdale. Over the Fourth of July, we’ll do the same thing. They’re both so good, I can hardly pick them.”
“For some reason, it seems like all the guys that rope good have the best horses,” Tryan said. “I don’t know if it’s because they’re better with them, or it’s a better combination, or if the horse makes them good. But the guys that rope better end up with the better horses.”
Graves says, however, that developing the good ones—rather than buying them—is a matter of timing and volume.
“They’re just so hard to find. If you do find them, they cost so much money. They don’t always turn out this way, I’ve got a bunch we’ve started that didn’t turn out this way.”
Still, by carrying around two “big sticks,” the expectation for Graves to go far continues.