“A bird in hand is worth two in the bush,” the saying goes. But when a team roper is hunting a California Rodeo Salinas buckle, he might just give up whatever he’s got to go for it.
Entering the short round at one of the most meaningful and historic ProRodeos in the annals of team roping, Jake Cooper and Tyler “Knightrider” McKnight certainly had a bird in hand. As high team back, they were virtually assured a top-three place and some good money toward their ProRodeo World Standings and overarching goal: the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. But how often are you high team back at Salinas?
For the entire 2015 season, Cooper and McKnight have resisted the temptation to take high-risk, high-reward chances. Their patience was rewarded with one of the more solid seasons either has enjoyed for a long time.
“We’ve won second at a lot of rodeos and we seem to place a lot,” Cooper said. “We haven’t really won first at any. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and we see Jade (Corkill) and Clay (Tryan) not miss very many and they end up winning a lot. That’s what we’re trying to do. I try not to take any stupid shots and turn Tyler a lot of steers. He ropes really well and throws fast. I’m just trying to chip away at it and not do too much.”
Knightrider, as his nickname implies, lives a bit more on the edge.
“I kind of like to get a little faster,” the Wells, Texas, heeler said. “Sometimes I get a little carried away, but that’s one thing I have done a lot better is knowing what I need to do when I get to a rodeo: stay solid. Jake’s worked on me on that.”
If there’s one rodeo where patience is the key, it’s Salinas. Most literally, ropers are forced to wait for one of the longest scores in ProRodeo. Plus, the format features four steers plus a short round. While there may not be room for error, there are plenty of chances for a team to take themselves out of contention.
As the 12th team out of the box for the entire roping, their strategy was simple. Years ago, when Cooper first entered the rodeo, he consulted Tryan—a five-time champion of the rodeo—for advice.
“He said just rope the way you rope,” Cooper remembers. “Don’t try to take extra swings or do anything you don’t normally do or you’ll mess up.”
Cooper, as the header, sets the pace. And despite his more rapid tendencies, McKnight has bought in.
“We just wanted to catch every steer,” McKnight explained. “We’re just going to do what we do: go knock five of these steers down and see what happens.
The first steer they drew was one of the best in the pen.
“I just roped coming to him instead of taking an extra swing,” Cooper said. “My partner always throws fast—he borrowed Kinney Harrell’s horse Taz—that horse is one of the fastest ones out there. He can get up and around those steers where he needs to be.”
They stopped the clock in 8.0 and split second and third. Up in the performance for their second steer, they drew the strongest one of the five they’d end up running. They got him down in 9.4. Then, their third steer in 9.3.
“We started realizing we were sitting pretty good in the average,” Cooper said.
After an 8.6 in the fourth round, they moved ahead of Chad Masters and Travis Graves and Matt Sherwood and Quinn Kesler for the lead in the average and high team back to the short go.
“Our game plan didn’t change. If we drew good enough, we’d have a chance to win first or second.”
They did, however, confer over strategy.
“Tyler and I talked and he was funny about it,” Cooper said. “He just kept telling me how bad he wanted the Salinas buckle because he didn’t have a good rodeo buckle to wear.”
“I wanted to win first—that was my goal,” McKnight said. But quickly added, “But we’re out here for other reasons: to make the Finals. So I wasn’t going to do anything stupid.”
Sherwood and Kesler turned in a sizzling 8.5. Next, Masters and Graves posted an 8.4.
Suddenly, it was the kind of atmosphere where highly competitive athletes start out-dueling one another until someone tries to do too much and goes bust.
“Chad and Travis made a really nice run,” Cooper said. “I really didn’t think we were going to win first. I didn’t remember our steer as being one of the better ones. I told Tyler, ‘I’m not going to do anything dumb here.’ We had quite a bit of time to win second, so I just tried to get a good start.”
The steer was a good one and Cooper got it on him fast. For McKnight, the suspense and drama of the moment was eliminated due to the horse he rode.
“Riding Taz at that set up is the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “He’s so fast, you’re never behind, so it wasn’t a challenge on him when Jake turned the short round steer.”
So, while they were content with the bird they had in hand, the other two in the bush figuratively gave up when the steer was better than anticipated.
“I looked at the board and we won first and I was shocked,” Cooper said.
“It was by far the greatest feeling I’ve ever had roping,” McKnight said. “I was shaking more after I won it than before I ran the steer. It was overwhelming after I realized what we had just done.”
Cooper, whose only trip to the Wrangler NFR came in 2007, was asked if the win meant more in terms of his quest to return to Las Vegas or having his name among the California Rodeo Salinas team roping champions.
“Both,” he said. “Every team roper wants to win that rodeo growing up. It’s on my list. We didn’t have a good week the week before. We went to five rodeos and didn’t win a dollar—I just didn’t rope as good as I needed to—so that stopped the bleeding and got us back on track. It was good for both things.”
When the dust settled, they added $9,141 a man to their PRCA World Standings total by roping five steers in 43.9 seconds.
Fans of team roping might see this win as a sign of resurgence for Cooper. But, truth be told, he’s been feeling better about his game since last fall. Since 2007, he flatly states that he didn’t rope as well as he needed to. He suffered from a lack of horse power and never had a stable partner situation.
“In team roping, if you don’t rope very good for a year or so, it gets harder to get the kind of partners you’re used to when you were roping good, and that makes it even harder to win, and it just kind of snowballed on me,” he said.
But last year things began to turn around when he bought a gray horse named Quattro from Brandon Webb, then teamed up with McKnight.
“I thought he was the best younger-type guy that I could get,” Cooper said. “He had a lot of talent and it clicked for us pretty good right away. We didn’t make the Finals last year, but had a pretty good summer and ended the Northwest on a high note—placed at Pendleton, Albuquerque and a few other ones—and just decided to keep roping this year. It’s been a pretty good year for us so far.”
Even injuries haven’t slowed them down much. In Rapid City this January, Quattro went down (Cooper expects him back), but the momentum Cooper had built kept going with his backup horse, Tanaka. Then, McKnight suffered a broken collarbone this winter when a horse fell with him. Cooper picked up other partners for a few rodeos and won money with them.
In fact, with the Salinas win, Cooper moved solidly into the top 10, while McKnight was just outside the top 15.
Even with some ground to make up, Knightrider isn’t worried.
“I think my horse is better, me and my partner are on the same page and I learned a lot over the past couple of years about staying more solid,” he said. “I just feel like this year, if we just beat our steer every time, we’ll be fine. If we have one that runs, go catch him. If we have one that we can place on, place on him. That’s my goal, to catch every steer that he turns.”
Stick to the plan, keep the bird in hand, and you never know when a bird or two in the bush might just fall in your lap.