The BFI has paid out nearly $9 million since the first one was held over a 35-foot score in Chowchilla, California, in 1977, some 40 years ago. With checks totaling $214,111 at the richest one-day open roping in the world alone, three-time Champ of the World Clay Tryan is the winningest BFI roper of all time. Tryan has won the BFI three times—with Patrick Smith in 2005, Walt Woodard in 2008, and Travis Graves in 2012. Tryan will again team up with Graves at the 2018 BFI.
Tryan is quick to humbly hand it to the winningest heeler of all time, Rich Skelton, who’s a close second in the BFI earnings column with $209,906, and also has won the roping three times—all three times with Speed Williams.
“I’ve won more money, but it paid better when I won it than when Rich did,” Clay said. “Winning it as many times as anybody means a lot to me. I’ve done good at the BFI, and it’s cool to be on top of any list in any sport. But Rich has won so much at the BFI, including when it didn’t pay as much.”
Only four men in history—Tryan, Williams and Skelton, and Charles Pogue, who won it in 1991 with Steve Northcott, and Britt Bockius back to back in 1999 and 2000—have pulled off the BFI Hat Trick and tripled down on BFI buckles. What’s it take to make that magic happen, even once?
“To win the BFI, you have to have a good head horse and a heeler that’s on that day,” said Tryan, who twice won it on the warrior black horse Thumper, who had the tips of his ears frozen off in a Montana snow storm as a youngster, and won it that last time on his bay great, Dew. “And don’t draw terrible. You don’t have to draw the best steer every time, but if you can avoid the really bad ones, it helps.”
Times keep getting tougher, but the 18-foot scoreline being about half of what it used to be has a lot to do with that.
“Another reason is because there are so many smaller jackpots all the time, especially in Texas,” Tryan said. “Guys are getting good at it and showing up ready, because there are more ropings now. That wasn’t always the case.”
Clay credits originator Bob Feist with coming up with a concept that has stood the test of time as the industry gold standard.
“Bob was ahead of his time on a lot of things, and for sure with this roping,” Tryan said. “He started it all for the open ropers, and it’s cool that it’s kept going. He had a vision, and the BFI is like The Masters in golf. A lot of the other big open ropings have gone away. The BFI is the granddaddy of ’em all, and it’s still standing.”
The six-steer marathon makes for a grueling day. In fact, “It’s the longest day in team roping,” Tryan said. “It’s hard to stay focused that long, and it’s a tough set-up. It’s not easy, and you have to be on your game all day long to stand a chance. I’ve never celebrated a win at the BFI. I was too tired, so I went straight to bed.”
To Get Rich, You’ve Got to Have Speed
Skelton earned that second slot on the all-time BFI earnings list alongside Williams, his partner in eight-straight gold buckles from 1997 to 2004. The most dynamic duo in team roping history won the BFI in 1998, 2001, and 2002. Speed, by the way, is #8 on the all-time BFI career earnings roster with $152,201 won under the roof of the Reno Livestock Events Center.
Skelton’s not one to eye the record books too often, so was touched when told he’s the winningest BFI heeler of all time.
“When I was a little kid, I couldn’t wait to see the pictures from the BFI in the Ropers Sports News,” Rich said. “People are spoiled by technology today, but back then we waited all year long by the mailbox to see who won it, and the pictures of those guys. Bob Feist’s Ropers Sports News was the only game in town, and that’s how we found out about what the big dogs were doing back then.
“As kids, we used to dream about roping in the BFI, much less going out there and winning it. The BFI was the first big roping you ever really heard of. All the best ropers in the world were there. I went and watched it in Denton, Texas, that year (1982) when I was a little kid—the day Bret (Beach) and Clay (O’Brien Cooper) won it. It was my chance to go watch all the good guys. We videoed some of it, and watched it on the eight-track cassette. I’d never met those guys you take for granted knowing now. Tee Woolman ended up being one of my best partners and best friends, and at the BFI that year when I was a kid is the first time I got to see him rope in person.”
Texas native Rich will rope with New Mexico’s Lee Kiehne at the BFI this year, and yes, he will have some words of wisdom for his 2018 partner.
“You have to have a really good horse that can run to succeed at the BFI,” Skelton said. “It seems like almost every time I’ve ever done good there I got off to a good start in the first round, and that sets the tone for the day. Once you get that first steer or two down good, if you draw a runner it’s not so bad. The exception is the first year Speed and I won it. We were 12 on our first steer—we caught a runner at the back end—then came back and made a better run each round.
“Every good roping in the world is getting tougher nowadays, and the BFI is no exception. It used to be that if you would go rope six steers by two feet, you were in good shape. It’s more than just a catching contest now. You have to ride the barrier and rope sharp all roping long to place good at the BFI now.”
The Jake-and-Clay Days
Seven-time World Team Roping Titlists Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper are another Dream Team Dynasty. After Clay won the 1982 BFI with Beach, Jake and Clay won it together in 1988. Clay is fourth on the all-time BFI earnings list with $172,716—last year’s heading champ, Luke Brown, has won $175,347, and two-time BFI Winner Kory Koontz has won $164,514 over the years, to round out the top five in third and fifth, respectively—and Jake is 18 with $116,144.
“What I remember most about the day Clay and I won the BFI is that it was held in the outdoor arena at Reno that year, and it came a big old storm right before the short round,” Jake said. “I remember being down in the back, and having to rope in a back brace. It clouded up and started pouring rain, and the wind was blowing hard. That storm blew in so fast.
“I think it paid $50,000 a man at the time, and that was the most money I’d ever won in one day. The go-rounds at the NFR were paying about $3,000 back then. The BFI was almost like winning the world, because it paid so well. I’ve gotten to rope at the BFI in Chowchilla, Las Vegas, Denton, and Reno—indoors and out. You hear the cliché that it’s a ‘cowboy event,’ and it’s true. The BFI is a true test. I’ve been trying to win that roping again for 30 years. That tells you how hard it is to win.”
Clay O concurs.
“Both days I won the BFI the conditions were tough,” Champ said. “When it was held outdoors, we roped rain or shine. When Bret and I won it, we roped in a foot of mud. It hailed the day Jake and I won it. But back then, and coming from out West, we were used to roping in adverse conditions. Most major events today are held indoors. But that wasn’t always the case.
“Over time, the BFI has become an iconic roping. It’s the most prestigious and the longest standing. It’s a badge of honor and a mark of success to win the BFI. When you win the BFI, you’ve won the endurance contest.”
Father and Son Claim Fame
Walt Woodard is best known as a serious and stoic champion. But the two-time world champ’s soft center showed up on the 2003 Monday when his son, Travis Woodard, won the BFI heeling for Mikey Fletcher. On that day—standing on the perimeter of the BFI winner’s circle—Walt Woodard cried.
“For him to win it at 19 years old was amazing,” said Walt, who’s #14 on the all-time BFI earnings list with $143,298 and won the roping five years after his son with Tryan in 2008. “I was so proud of him and happy for him. What an accomplishment. I was just overcome with emotion.
“It’s all about the challenge at the BFI. It’s enter one time, a longer score, stronger steers, and $5,000 a team to enter. It takes a tremendous amount of talent and horsepower to stand a chance. You might get lucky and catch one steer under BFI conditions, but you don’t get lucky and catch six steers there. I just think it’s a great test. If you can stop the clock five times, you get paid—just like the circus. But they don’t give you money for catching five steers because it’s easy.”
When Walt missed the first steer at last year’s BFI, the crowd gasped and he about broke his neck throwing his head back in disbelief and disappointment.
“I’ve thought about missing that first steer at the BFI about every day since,” he said. “I came up with this idea before I got there that I was going to lay off on the first one. But that’s not how I rope. Bad idea. If I’d had a coach, he’d have told me no. You have to ride great position and heel the steer the first chance you get. Do that six times in a row, and see what you win.
“Come to find out, the ball does not really fit in the hoop every time. The guy I take my hat off to here is Rich Skelton. The record for winning the most money at the BFI—wow. I entered the BFI 31 times before I won it. That’s how hard it is. To win a major against the level of competition today is an amazing feat.”
It’s never over ’til it’s over at the BFI, and strange things do happen in that building.
“You can be the greatest roper in the world, have the greatest partner and the greatest horse, and things still have to go your way that day,” Walt said. “I had a steer run in a circle one year, and it was over. Another time, my horse stepped on my rope. That hadn’t happened since I was 11. Then it happens at the BFI. Are you kidding me?
“I’ve shown up thinking I was going to win the BFI more than 30 times. And only got it done once. My hat’s off to anyone who’s ever won this thing. It’s very hard to do.”
The year Walt won it, he’d been having huge success on a little sorrel horse he called Dudley. On BFI game day, he was met with an “are you kidding me?” at the barn, when Travis saw him putting a halter on a different horse, Little Gray.
“Dudley was one of the best horses I’d ever ridden, and I’d just won the world on him in 2007, and won Cheyenne on him with Jake,” Walt remembers. “Dudley was an amazing horse. But for whatever reason that week of the BFI in 2008, he felt bad. He was too strong, and I was struggling to catch. So the morning of the BFI I decided to get on my old gray.
“Travis said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m going to catch six steers by two feet. I might finish last, but I know I can catch two feet on this horse six times.’ And I did. Does it take work ethic to win the BFI? Yes. A winning attitude? Yes. But to win the BFI, the stars have to be aligned.”