As Keven Daniel took laps in the warm-up pen in preparation for the finals of the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver, Colo., he looked around and saw the stout competition riding with him. He saw the kings of consistency, Charly Crawford and Russell Cardoza, the almost-champs Luke Brown and Martin Lucero, the world-record holders Chad Masters and Jade Corkill, the veterans David Key and Rich Skelton, not to mention Jake and Jim Cooper and Clay Tryan and Travis Graves. In sum, there were 10 gold buckles represented in the short round.
But Daniel, who is acutely aware of the history of the sport, turned to his fellow-Tennessean, Chad Masters, and said, "If you could bet somebody $1 million that you'd get to the short round in Denver and win something, they'd probably have to give you that $1 million."
Daniel has seen that Masters always comes up big in the Mile High City and knows that he was not only the defending champion of the event, he won the rodeo in 2004 as well.
This year, Masters?roping with Jade Corkill?came in as the sixth high-team back, stopped the clock in 5.4-seconds and finished sixth in the round and the average.
But while Denver's buckle didn't end up with Masters again, it did find its way back to Tennessee when Daniel and Brad Culpepper roped three steers in 15.7-seconds to win $7,065 each in nail-biting fashion.
And as the team ropers rode out of the arena, Masters searched Daniel out, rode over, got off his horse, shook his hand and said, "I guess they'll owe you that $1 million now."
While the win didn't earn Daniel and Culpepper any six-figure payday?it didn't even get to five figures?it meant something to both men to win what was probably the toughest short-round of team roping in Denver in recent memory.
Youngsters Caleb Mitchell and Justin Copp started it off when they drew the gem of the pen and stopped the clock in a round-best 4.6 seconds, moving to 16.3 on three. Crawford and Cardoza drew a stronger steer to turn in a 6.0. Then, Utah cowboys Seth Gurney and KC Curtis upped the ante with a 5.1 to move in the lead with a 16.2. Masters and Corkill started the fast half of a tightly-packed short round?two seconds separated first from 12th?with a 5.4. David Key?reborn as a bomber?threw a ton of rope and Skelton stopped the action in 5.2, taking them to the lead with a 15.9. Jake Cooper nodded next and roped his steer fast, but got into the left wall and his brother Jim Ross slipped a leg?one of only two penalties in the entire short go.
It was down to Daniel and Culpepper and Tryan and Graves, who led by 0.3 of a second.
"Our steer was supposed to be really good," Daniel said. "I kind of pulled my horse and rocked him up on the start. That steer was kind of heavy so it helped that we ran him out there a ways just to keep everything moving. Brad heeled him good. I knew that those guys had a little bit on us, but I wanted to put the pressure on them. When I missed the barrier, I thought, I'm just going to go catch, it worked out good."
The 5.6-second run put Daniel and Culpepper first in the average with a 15.7. Tryan and Graves would have to rope their steer in 5.9 to tie and 5.8 to take the lead.
"The steer was so good," Culpepper said. "He was supposed to be slow and check up a little bit when the head rope went on him. I let Keven and the steer leave before me and I just kind of stayed behind him. We gave him a pretty decent head start, and just kind of went up there and caught him pretty good. He handled great, I just wanted to make sure I caught two feet."
Tryan, who rodeo fans have grown accustomed to seeing on his big black horse with the frozen ears, Thumper, was on a new mount, Dew, he bought from Tess Hanson in North Dakota last fall.
"Thumper is just a little bit sore and so I'm giving him some time off," Tryan said.
When the chutes banged open, Dew performed up to snuff, but the steer ran hard and the high-call team couldn't get a flag until 6.0 seconds, putting them second in the average by 0.01 of a second.
"I knew those guys today had a steer that went on a little bit, for them to go be six flat that steer tried them a little more than I thought," Daniel said. "If they'd have had a little better steer, they'd have won the rodeo. We just kind of outdrew them a little bit. But I give all the glory to God."
The Daniel-Culpepper partnership was one of the favorites heading into the 2010 season. Not only had they rodeoed together off and on in amateur associations in the Southeast (Culpepper is from Georgia), they were teamed up for the 2009 Wrangler NFR when Culpepper's partner Kaleb Driggers and Daniel's partner Kory Koontz each missed qualifying.
"We amateur rodeoed in 2005 over there and won a couple of associations and roped at a few finals together," Daniel said. "We've always been back and forth. I've called and asked him to rope once or twice and he's called and asked me to rope once or twice. We talked about it last year at the end of the year after the Finals and he's going to move out to Texas and try to find him a place and it's going to be awesome. Brad, if I do it right and set it up right, he won't miss very many."
At the NFR, the team won $46,719 after roping nine steers and finishing fourth in the average.
"We've roped together for a couple years and knew each other," Culpepper said. "He takes his job real serious, he scores good and catches a lot of steers."
After their success in Las Vegas, Daniel expected it to come easy in 2010?and it didn't at the first big rodeo of the season. In Odessa, they were outgunned and immediately the header got worried.
"Odessa, when we showed up I had my horse running, it's a little longer score and you have to run them out there a ways," Daniel said. "Odessa was kind of a slinging contest and it reminded me of being back home. It shows that anybody can win, you know. Steve Purcella, a guy that doesn't reach, won, and JoJo LeMond is a reacher, and he won. It just shows that I needed to ride a different horse there."
So instead of shrugging the first rodeo off, he and Culpepper regrouped and Daniel focused on getting his horse, Little D, right for Denver.
"Coming here, I knew the steers would be bigger and stronger so I went home and made sure my horse was running," he said. "In the first round, our steer was supposed to be good, he checked off a little bit and we were 4.5 and won third. We had a runner in the second round?bigger, stronger steer. He was real fat?these steers are always a little bigger?but good. So we just went and made a good run and were 5.6."
The success in the rounds were a huge relief not only for Daniel, but for Culpepper, too.
"We were just needing to get off on the right foot and this is our second rodeo of the year," he said. "It was a big deal for me to win San Antone last year and this year to win Denver, is a big accolade. I like it. It's a great way to start. We got our confidence up and we feel like we can make the NFR. That's the main goal. It's been awesome weather here in Denver the past two or three days and it's just been a great experience."
On Trevor Brazile's chest, he has a logo that reads, ?Relentless.' While it's the brand name of his new line of horse tack and equipment made by ProEquine Group, it's also probably the best description of his approach to rodeo.
After a gutsy performance at the Wrangler NFR in which he won his second tie-down roping world title and record-tying seventh all-around world title, he might be forgiven for resting on his laurels?at least for a month.
What's more, for the last two years, he hasn't had a strong presence in the early winter rodeos due to injury. So, after all that it takes to win an all-around title?and for a timed-event all-around hand it takes plenty?some might argue that a month to recharge his batteries would be the best idea.
"Last year they were taping my knee here in Denver and I tried it, but there's no substitute for health," Brazile said. "You don't realize until you've been down, but it feels good to be healthy. To be able to do your job, you take it for granted."
So there he was, at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver, leading the tie-down roping average coming into the short round.
In a short round that featured only two NFR qualifiers, Brazile and Houston Hutto, the competition was surprisingly stout.
J.D. Kibbe and Murray Pole both turned in 8-second runs to put the pressure on. Then, Hutto?who trailed Brazile by one second in the average coming in, tied his calf in 8.3. After the second high call, Shane Hatchley, got a flag at 9.4, Brazile knew that in order to beat Hutto and win his second National Western Stock Show and Rodeo title, he'd need to tie his calf in 9.2.
Riding his signature small-building horse, Jaguar, Brazile roped and got to his calf quickly. However, the calf was down and it seemed nothing Brazile did was enough to encourage the calf to get up.
"I thought the calf had more life to him than that," Brazile said. "I just had to be 9.2, so if he was down just a little, he'd come up fast. I just misjudged that one, that's all there was to it. I got a clock in my head, and even when something goes wrong, I can calculate how long I'm going to be, but man it's hard to calculate how long stuff like that's taking. I knew it'd be close but it might go either way."
When he looked to the clock, sure enough, it read 9.2. Relentless. After a hard-fought battle in Las Vegas, just a month later, there he was battling out a 24.7-second time on three for the win and $11,299. He added another $662 in the team roping to win the all-around title in Denver, too, as he begins building his run toward a historic eighth world all-around title.
"I haven't quit practicing," he said. "The harder I practice the luckier I get, that's been my motto for a while. I got an indoor arena now and that has made my practices a little easier, but they're no less frequent.
"I've won pretty good in the winters. I've never had an outstanding winter. My horses are good and I don't see any reason not to. You can't choose when you run the good cattle?when you get your chance with the draw. You want them to be at the big rodeos, but you have to be ready for it no matter what."
Another defending world champion, Brittany Pozzi, also showed up in Denver to show up the competition.
At the Wrangler NFR, Pozzi introduced a new palomino horse to the world, Duke. While she has been campaigning him for a couple years, her signature sorrel, Stitch, always got the call in the big, pressure situations.
After Duke carried Pozzi to a third-place finish in the average (the only barrel she tipped was in round 7 when she rode Stitch) and the world title, many observers of the sport expected to see the yellow flash at all the indoor rodeos this winter.
So when Pozzi ran the cloverleaf pattern on the sorrel, everyone wondered where Duke was.
"Stitch has won this rodeo two times before, so I'm not going to bring Duke to a rodeo that Stitch has won twice," she explained. "I made the Finals here every year since 2005. This is my third one, I hit a barrel last year, but won it the two previous times."
The other advantage Pozzi had going for her was the draw. While she came in as third high call?she trailed 2000 World Champion Kappy Allen and upstart Jessi Eagleberger?she was fortunate to run on the top of the ground in the second spot. The women draw randomly for running position in the final go. She ran a 15.33, bringing her total to 46.05 on three. Allen hit two barrels and Eagleberger was the last to run. She ran a 15.50?good enough for fourth in the round?but too slow to overtake the top spot in ground that had obviously loosened from the 11 other runs.
So for the third time, Pozzi headed south to Texas with the Denver gold buckle?and a check for $12,391?in her truck.
"I don't know what it is," she said. "You know how you just have that place? This is that place. It's a good thing it's a big rodeo and not like Edna, Texas, or something."
Speaking of South Texas, where Pozzi is from, that's where Duke is. He didn't even make the trip as a backup.
"Duke's at home, he's resting, I'm not going to break him out until San Antonio. Last year he was a pretty big player in helping me win the world?not just at the Finals. He needed the rest after the Finals. That's what's cool about having two horses, you can keep them fresh."
Steer wrestler Gabe LeDoux?who finished 16th in the PRCA world standings last year?borrowed Curtis Cassidy's great horse, Willy, to win his first ever Denver title.
"That's one less thing to worry about when you ride him," Ledoux said. "You don't have to worry about your horse, he's going to do the same thing every time and give you a chance to win."
He and reigning World Champion Lee Graves entered the short round tied with 8.5-second totals, but Graves was late getting to his steer and did not take a jump.
"I don't know what happened, I wasn't paying attention," Ledoux said. "But when Lee didn't get off and got a no time, I just wanted to go throw one down. We were tied coming in and I got to go last so I got to see what he did, I could have taken a little faster start if I wanted to, but I just went out and made a good run." With the pressure off, LeDoux threw his steer in 4.5 seconds, bringing his total to 13.0 on three and garnering him $8,958 in winnings.
At the other end of the arena, J.J. Elshere rode Calgary Stampede's Labeled Money for 75 points to win the bronc riding and the most money of anyone in Denver, $14,948.
"I've been on this horse before and he was really good, but today, I just stayed on him," he said. "He was balled up in the chute and when I got on he stalled. I don't know if that had anything to do with it, but he just felt long and strong and I just couldn't get anything going."
After finishing 17th in the world standings and missing the NFR in 2009, bull rider Clint Craig took some time off to refresh his passion. The strategy may have worked. After riding Beutler Bros. and Cervi's Ole Yeller for an arena-record tying 92 points, he won his first-ever title in Denver.
"If you're a bull rider you want to ride rank bulls and win first," he said. "They ride themselves. They have so much timing and so much kick that if you're doing everything right and you're in the zone, they can't hardly throw you off."
Several of the bull riders had the same experience and the short round proved to be exciting with 86-, 88-, 90- and 92-point rides.
And while the two-time NFR cowboy hasn't won Denver previously, he has enjoyed success in the winter in years past.
"I've had good winters and then fizzled over the summer," the Mena, Ark., cowboy said. "I think that's a product of the standings. You get to looking at your name and forget about what you're doing. All that stuff doesn't matter. When you can learn to put all that stuff out of your head and realize that all that matters is the bull standing in front of you, if you bring it down that small, it can help your focus and concentration. It has helped my riding greatly. It's something that Donnie Gay has tried to teach me since I was 15 years old."
Craig won $8,397 for his 256 points worth of work.
The bareback riding went to South Dakota's Joe Gunderson, who rode Kelser's Knoxville USA for 82 points in the short round to bring his total to 250 on three, winning $11,626.