Not all Finale victories are simply happy endings to a story filled with excitement and joy. For Mark Aragon and Al Schultz, their win in the Cactus Ropes #9 Finale IX was a spark of light in a story previously filled with years of heartbreak.
In 2010 Aragon’s wife, and Schultz’s daughter, Kitty, succumbed to colorectal cancer. Not long after, Schultz’s wife, Judy died of cancer as well.
“Honestly, I’m not sure it was the cancer with my wife,” Schultz said. “I think she finally just gave up with all that happened to her daughter.”
It should be said that Schultz, 68, is a cancer survivor himself.
But team roping helped keep Aragon and Schultz together despite their losses. It was a way for Aragon, from Pagosa Springs, Colo., to stay close to his wife’s family, who he counts as his own.
The Schultz family operates Schultz Ranches in Cody, Wyo., and has, since the family homesteaded there in 1896. They are a “team roping family.” In fact, Al Schultz always keeps plenty of fresh roping cattle around so local kids can come and practice.
“I asked my dad one time for some money to buy a rope,” Schultz recalled. “He told me if I was a cowboy I could rope with bailing twine.”
So when Aragon met Kitty, it’s not surprising she convinced the then-bull dogger and tie-down roper that team roping wasn’t for the faint of heart.
“Kitty was one of those people,” Aragon said. “She came into my life when I was struggling. She kind of picked me up. She got me into roping and riding. She was such a beautiful woman. She could weld, she was a model, she could rope and she could ride.”
With her blue eyes and black hair, Kitty was a #5 header. She still roped after her first bout with cancer—her competitive spirit keeping her going.
But even before Aragon met Kitty, he had gotten acquainted with a few other guys who were pretty into the amateur team roping scene, you could say. Aragon shod horses for Denny Gentry when Gentry was busy building the USTRC. He also credits guys like John English, Emmitt Mundy and Enrique Salas for helping him learn some business sense in the horse world. Shoeing horses is something Aragon does mainly when he’s in Cody for the summers now.
“My buddy, Kenny Stanbaugh, he’s got a good clientele up there. He lets me throw in with him and keeps me busy.”
During the winter Aragon guides hunts from Colorado to Wyoming.
“My guiding thing, it’s not about money or horns, I like to make memories, friends and money; in that order,” Aragon said.
Aragon still ropes with the Schultz family regularly. So when he qualified with his father-in-law for Finale IX he knew it was going to be something special.
“The horse I was riding was a horse Kitty bought for me 10 years ago,” Aragon said. “She had the barn all decorated with Christmas lights. It was just amazing to win on High Tower and roping with my father in law. It couldn’t have been any better.”
Aragon credits his father-in-law with the rope-smarts for the win. When their short-round steer didn’t handle great, Schultz took the extra swing that made all the difference.
“That’s 55 years looking over the heels, guaranteed,” Aragon said. “Al ropes smart. He doesn’t take any silly shots. I’m thankful I’ve got a partner I know I can win with. That’s a good feeling to have.”
One year after the $240,000 win, Aragon still can’t believe it, but can’t wait to try again, too.
“All I know: you can’t afford not to go,” Aragon said. “I’m just blessed to be able to go do it again. You never know. When you get on a roll, you get on a roll. I’m just looking forward to showing up there and roping smart.”
When he ropes with Schultz, this time in the #10, he hopes to be riding High Tower, too. The gelding sports the Finale IX saddle, a rarity these days.
“I don’t’ see too many people that ride their Finale saddle, but it makes me feel like I can still remember parts of that day. I want to enjoy that saddle. It looked like it might be comfy and it fits my horse good. I’m glad I made that decision!”
When Schultz decided to take that extra swing in the short round of the #9 Finale, he knew it could have gone either way. They didn’t have a lot of time to spare, but the father and son-in-law team still needed to rope smart to take home the lion’s share.
“When I rode in that box I really didn’t have any pressure,” Schultz said. “I figured I was already a winner because I’d gotten there. As we were riding out the back of the pen I had told Mark, ‘Well, we got ourselves a check anyhow.’ The guy taking the rope off laughed and said, ‘Hell, you won the whole thing.’ It wasn’t until we were about half way around the arena during our victory lap that I even realized what had happened.”
After realizing that he’d just had the biggest single team-roping payday of his life, the emotions hit Schultz, who married long-time acquaintance Marcie on New Years Eve two years ago.
“I’ll tell you what,” Schultz paused. “This whole deal I went through with this win and everything has really hit home for me. It was a divine intervention thing. There was someone out there looking out for Mark and I. I’m not normally a religious man, but I had help there I guarantee.”
Schultz has served on the Cody Stampede Board of Directors for 30 years —currently serving his second term as President—so it’s no surprise that his hometown gave notice to his win. Upon his arrival the cowboy town rolled out the red carpet for their new team roping celebrity. The city council honored the duo one night at a meeting, while his inbox and mailbox were flooded with congratulatory notes.
“To know that in my 68 years I’ve touched enough people who would take the time to congratulate me, I couldn’t believe it,” Schultz said. “It’s the most humbled I’ve ever been in my life.”
Then this February, Schultz tore his meniscus on both sides of his knee, and surgeons scoped the joint in May. Everything that could have gone wrong did, so he underwent another surgery in July.
“I couldn’t ride until about six weeks ago,” Schultz said. “But I’ll get a couple months of practice in before the Finale.”
If it’s any resolution he had major shoulder surgery not long before his Finale win—that might be a sign.
Along with Aragon in the #10 Finale, Schultz will also rope with his daughter, Cherain Richmond, in the #9.
“To be roping with Cherain at the Finale this year is just another dream come true,” Shultz said. “I’ll be going back every year from now on, without a doubt.”