When seven-time world champion Clay O’Brien Cooper got his driver’s license at 16, he packed up his life and headed east from his home in California. Anyone who was eaten up with swinging a rope was in Arizona, including young talents like Brett Beach and Jake Barnes, and that’s just where the young Champ wanted to be.
Back then, the late Jim Riley was just building the now famous Dynamite Arena for a private facility and for use by the local sheriff’s posse for a practice facility. Open ropings were the only game in town, and some small towns and a few rodeo committees hosted jackpots year-round.
“We’d go to the Arizona Rope-A-Thon, 10 days of team roping put on by Bill Roer in Laveen, and I could rope in the Junior-Senior with my dad,” Cooper remembered. “When I got over there, there were two or three open ropings a week, and some amateur rodeos, too. That Phoenix area had quite a bit of stuff to compete in. When I was 18, I bought my first place right off of Gilbert Road. That was my headquarters. I’d go to Texas and Oklahoma in the summer but in the winter, I stayed right there in Phoenix. All the good winter rodeos were there. And they had great annual jackpots—Prescott, Kingman—they were great in the late ’70s and early ’80s, before I got my card. Then George Aros started the two-back roping, which is now the Cervi, and that was a good one, too.”
But as the team roping bug bit more and more local Arizonans and ranchers wintering in the desert sun, Riley saw the chance to turn team roping into a business. Starting in 1973, he hosted Tuesday and Thursday practice sessions, then after the practice had a two-for-$10 jackpot, holding back a third of the pot for his efforts.
Ropers flocked to Dynamite to rope 700-pound steers—corriente cattle that were broke to lead. Riley bought steers that came over from Mexico as 4- or 5-year-olds, who spent most of their lives south of the border staked out in backyards so they didn’t run away. They might have trouble fitting in the chutes, but they were still decent to rope because they knew how to lead, said Riley’s nephew and eventual Dynamite owner, Ron Treat, chuckling.
“Things weren’t controlled by the number system back then,” Treat explained. “But a contractor had to protect his people. There was no way to do anything about it other than tell certain guys they couldn’t rope because you couldn’t keep your steady customers. So you’d have junior and senior ropings, and minimum-age ropings to figure out ways to cut the top guys out.”
Jesse Odem and Richard Mayfield started putting on their annual Pot of Gold Roping at the Rawhide Arena in Scottsdale in 1979, using various age-combination ropings across various divisions as a predecessor to the handicap system in use today. They offered a high-stakes $1,000-a-team roping, and as that roping grew in popularity, other producers offered pre-Pot of Gold jackpots for folks coming into town.
“We had a lot of friends from out of state,” Mayfield, now 79, said. “So we wanted to put on a roping in Arizona for when it was cold everywhere else. You had to be over 40, and it had to be a combo of ages to add to 80, 90, 100, 110, and 120. The first year, people didn’t know or understand what was going on. The second year, we had 1,600 teams!”
Pot of Gold Roping, Scottsdale, Arizona
But team roping’s perfect storm developed over the Valley of the Sun in the early 1990s. Denny Gentry rolled out his number system with the development of the United States Team Roping Championship in 1990, addressing problems that Riley and others across the country faced with an uneven playing field. In an instant, the retired ranchers and businessmen flocking to the warm Arizona weather suddenly had a place to play.
“When the state lines opened up, and all the states could come together because of the handicapping system, it gave people a place to rope,” Gentry said. “Ron Treat, and Riley before him, were the forerunners to the whole snowbird thing.”
Riley passed away in 1992, and Treat and his brother inherited the family business. Treat bought out his brother and hatched a plan to grow the business and the sport there outside Cave Creek.
“I had an idea that I had to make friends with Denny and figure out how I could do the Arizona deals for the USTRC,” Treat said. “We became good friends, and we did a lot of things together. He and I went back to the Eastern Regional Finals one year to help them, and we came up with the idea of the affiliate program, and we started it at Dynamite. We did a lot of things like that and tried them there. We found out what I was dealing with—the snowbirds were coming down; people were figuring out that’s where to be in the winter. It was more of the Gold-Plus clientele.”
Treat was a perfectionist about his productions—from the cattle he leased to the score to the numbering of ropers—and it paid dividends. He helped build the popular Lasso del Sol USTRC qualifier every New Years in Scottsdale and the Pine Country Classic over Labor Day, drawing in ropers from across the country to play in the sun. Eventually, others took notice and added on roping after roping, anywhere they could fit an arena.
“We put on a great big USTRC roping, and that’s what got it started,” Gentry remembered of the USTRC’s early days in Arizona. “They thought we were crazy with that high-dollar entry fee, and it exploded the USTRC. Because there were so many people there from all over, the word got out fast. Ronnie did about five or six months at Dynamite, then three or four big USTRC ropings throughout the year. That really got it going.”
Just as Treat was taking over the reins at Dynamite and growing it into the Goliath it is today, Montana’s Beaver Bird, a rancher and Indian National Finals Rodeo qualifier in the calf roping, had grown sick of the cold. He had lots of brothers to help with the family ranch in Cut Bank, so he picked up with his wife, Judy, and headed to Wickenburg—which at the time prided itself in its title of the dude ranch capital of the world.
Bird took a job at the Wickenburg Inn, a dude ranch owned by celebrity host Merv Griffith, Jr. He had lots of rancher buddies who’d also moved to Arizona, and they were all driving over an hour to Riley’s Dynamite Arena in Cave Creek.
“They talked Merv into building an arena out there, and they started putting on ropings in 1992,” Brad Smith, Beaver’s son-in-law who helped him with his book work, said. “They were good old boys who’d come rope, mostly locals. They just got bigger and bigger, but eventually the inn closed.”
Though the dude ranching market was shrinking, Bird knew the roping market was on the rise. So he started building Beaver’s Horse World Arena on Recon Road, and began putting on his ever-popular #10 drawpot, over-40 roping every Tuesday, and an all-ages day every Saturday.
“It was just friends and your word in Wickenburg back then,” Bird’s daughter, DeeDee Smith, said. “Dad had lots of northern people coming to rope—friends from Montana, Oregon, Washington, Canada. They all became our great friends and family. It got to where, even though there were other producers in town, they wouldn’t touch Tuesdays because that was Beaver’s day.”
Another Montana native by the name of Ty Yost popped onto the Wickenburg roping scene in the mid-1990s, with experience putting on ropings from Montana to the Dakotas. Yost, who’d been putting on ropings at his parents’ arena since he was a freshman in college, was working in construction in the Phoenix area and needed to break in cattle for some of his northern ropings, so he started producing some jackpots at the Gilbert Rodeo Grounds in 1997. Eventually, he branched out to having popular Thursday night ropings at Dunn’s Arena in Litchfield Park, and then at the Wickenburg Rodeo Grounds.
“Back in the day, it was more of a gentlemen’s sport there in Arizona,” Yost remembered. “It was a social thing. If you went to a US roping and won $3,500, that was huge.”
After a decade of putting on jackpots and building a following at Dunn’s, one fateful trip to fencing contractor Ty Grantham’s Wickenburg shop changed the course of Arizona team roping.
Cave Creek's Dynamite Arena, from 1973 to 2006
“Ty and I didn’t really know each other then,” Yost remembered. “I had just moved to Wickenburg, and he drove me down to look at the field that would become Rancho Rio. It was a steep entry way, and the weeds were over the hood of the truck. And he just said, ‘Let’s put a roping arena here.’”
“I saw that opportunity,” Grantham added. “And if you’re going to do it, you go into business with the best, and that was Ty Yost.”
That was 2010, and Yost and Grantham, with the backing of friend Bob Crosthwaite, went to work clearing the property for Rancho Rio. In 2011, the crown jewel of Arizona team roping opened its gates, hosting events as part of Yost’s National Team Roping Tour and World Series of Team Roping qualifiers, as well as barrel races and other outside events.
“It’s evolved to more of a professional jackpotting scene,” Yost said. “We see more of the gamblers turn out. You’ll have ropings with 60 teams that pay $8,000. Denny Gentry changed the whole landscape.”
Rancho Rio now hosts 27,000 teams annually, with some 60 ropings scheduled in December alone. Its success has helped usher in a golden age of roping in Wickenburg, while Dynamite Arena, now also under the ownership of Yost Events, hosts another 25,000 teams over its four-and-a-half month season. Both arenas, like most in Arizona, cater to the 50-and-up age group, and host specialty ropings throughout the season. The Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce says that the city has 10,000 residents year round, swelling to 14,500 in the winter months—many of them team ropers—with even more traveling in and out of the city thanks to Rancho Rio and the other arenas popping up every year.
The creation of a little roping in Las Vegas called the World Series of Team Roping Finale did more for roping in Arizona than many may realize. Thousands of ropers annually migrate across the Southwest, from Texas through New Mexico and Arizona and on to Vegas, allowing for an explosion in jackpotting along the way.
“With that multi-million-dollar roping next door, ropers coming to and from Vegas helped explode everything down there,” Gentry said. “Now all those guys are coming through the greater Phoenix area on their way to Las Vegas, driving that market even more. They’re giving away a million dollars the week before the Finale.”
In fact, Rancho Rio in Wickenburg paid out some $1.3 million at its Viva Las Vegas Wickenburg, which this year will run Dec. 3 through Dec. 11.
The forces of supply and demand work their wonders on the team roping market, and year after year, new arenas and new producers roll out the red carpet for ropers with hopes of striking it rich.
“Every year there are 10 or 15 new arenas that pop up, and every year there are just as many that go broke,” Gentry said. “People think it’s easy pickings, but the ropers are loyal to certain arenas and producers.”
Yost has proved his staying power and acquired Dynamite Arena in 2018 from Bryan Beaver and Kami and Daren Peterson, giving his Yost Events a huge share of the Arizona market. His NTR Finals, held in early March and paired with The Horse Sale at Rancho Rio, have increased Yost and Grantham’s brand value even more.
“The season down here is getting longer and longer,” Yost said. “Our NTR Finals used to be in February, and now ropers are staying to go to them in March. People get a taste of the weather, and some are coming down in October. It’s just something that’s great to be a part of.”