When the 2009 season started, it appeared that the regular cast of characters would be turned on their ear.
Usually, changes of the guard, so to speak, happen gradually. But after the winter rodeos this year, an almost entirely new bunch of ropers were emerging atop the world standings. Some guessed a watershed moment was forthcoming.
Then, over the summer, things got back to normal. Sure, this isn't the same bunch of ropers who qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2000, but more of the cream that fans are accustomed to seeing rose to the top as the season went back outdoors.
The best indication that we won't have to get to know a new set of 15 teams this December came at the Cheyenne Frontier Days.
That's right, the Daddy of 'Em All kept the team roping from being in complete upheaval and brought order and sense back to the sport.
Chad Masters, the 2007 world champion header, partnered with Jade Corkill to rope three steers in 27.7 seconds and win $12,204 each. The earnings moved them both into the lead in the world standings. While names like Kaleb Driggers and Kelsey Parchman atop the leader board signal an inevitable shift in power, there's a certain comfort for fans in seeing names like Chad Masters, Trevor Brazile, David Key, Rich Skelton, Martin Lucero and Patrick Smith in the top five.
And the Cheyenne Frontier Days is the perfect occasion for the most complete, well-mounted and experienced ropers to make a move. Inexperienced bombers riding duckers don't stand up to the challenges of a 35-foot score, running steers, unpredictable draws and the overwhelming pressure of roping at The Daddy.
Masters proved that perfectly when he passed on his usual mounts, Cody and Stranger, and instead used a 19-year-old horse named Lucky.
"I didn't ride any of those others because it's hard on them mentally," Masters said. "He scores pretty good and his mindset can take it a lot better. He's been turned out and had only been to two or three rodeos this year. I rode him at Salinas [also a 35-foot score], and he worked so good there and my timing was good on him. As long as you're running in the hole, he stays honest. After I'd rode him at Salinas, I just decided to ride him at Cheyenne."
In fact, Masters came one broken barrier away from being in the hunt for his first Salinas gold buckle due in no small part to Lucky's performance. Interestingly, Masters has bought Lucky three different times and each time paid more for him than the previous purchase.
"I'm just going to keep him this time," he said.
On the heeling side, Corkill used his No. 1 mount, Ice Cube.
"He did good," Corkill said. "He usually just feels the same in any kind of set up. It helps if you have a fast heel horse, and a guy wants to stay back with his header because you do not want the steers to go left here."
The team's first steer didn't-and it paid off with an 8.6-second run that placed sixth in the round.
"I really have a bad habit about bringing my rope up too early on those long set-ups like that," Masters, the perfectionist, explained. "And with that steer I packed it too long and if I'd been swinging a little earlier, I could have made that run a little faster."
The second steer Masters knew. Joe Beaver had him in the first round and he ran left out of the chute. Masters was hoping to avoid that specific steer because-for all that Lucky does well-he doesn't pull as good as Masters would like and he doesn't come up the fence very strong.
"On the next one, I did my old habit of bringing my rope up too early and didn't get enough run out of my horse," he said.
Still, he managed to run to the steer quickly enough to avoid getting too close to the left fence, and roped him in 9.4 seconds.
They came back as third high call.
The steers for the short round were, allegedly, gate cut out of the slack cattle and turned out on grass until the short round, a move that freshened them up considerably.
"They all ran in the Finals," Masters said. "I don't know what everybody was thinking, but I was wondering if I was ever going to catch up even though I got a good start. They dang sure was fuller and ran more than the steers in the rounds. That was the stoutest one I ran, but he stayed straight. I'm sure I drew better than everybody else, but I still felt like every one of them ran."
In fact, as the team ran down the arena, Corkill began to worry that it was taking too long.
"I still can't believe we were 9 in the short round," he said. "Our steer ran pretty hard, it felt like we chased him for 10 seconds. I don't know how we ended up being 9."
"I guess I need to work on the clock in my head," Masters said. "I knew what I had to be, but I felt like I had run him past that. Jade threw fast, but it felt like we chased him 11 or 12 seconds. Apparently I don't count good. I roped going to him. If I'd have known where we were in the arena, I'd have taken one more swing over his back to make sure I caught him."
The flag dropped at 9.7 seconds. After the remaining two teams: Charles Pogue and Casey Chamberlain and Brock Hanson and Shane Philipp had various bad luck, the title was theirs.
"It's a tough rodeo to win at because you do have to draw good," Corkill said. "It's such a dead start because the box is short but the score is so long you can't really cheat it at all. You have to draw to the decent end of the steers to do good here. There are a lot of good teams, around 150, so there is a lot of luck involved."
Of course, the great teams are the ones that are able to capitalize on opportunity.
"It's one of the most prestigious rodeos and it's fun to get to win it," Corkill said.
Now that the team has fought their way back to the No. 1 spot, they are no longer the hunter and now become the hunted.
"It's where I've always wanted to try to get to be," said Corkill, who was also in the No. 1 spot in the world standings after winning RodeoHouston with Masters last year. "There are so many guys that rope so good out here that it's hard to get to that spot. If you get to be there I think that's pretty cool, so many guys do rope so good and because of how hard it is to win, it feels like an accomplishment to be in that spot, even if it's just for a week.
"It feels different now because we legitimately got to that spot. Winning Houston, we got to the top spot just for winning one rodeo. Now I feel like we got more legitimately to that spot.
"I'm not even thinking about, 'I need to stay in the lead.' I'm trying just to rope and not think about where I am in the standings, just trying to rope my game and hope it turns out in the end."
Other familiar names among the winners at Cheyenne Frontier Days were Cody Ohl, who won the tie-down roping after turning in a 36.7-second time on three to win $21,441, and five-time World Champion Saddle Bronc rider Billy Etbauer, who rode three horses for 251 points and $14,718. Three-time Bareback Riding Champion Will Lowe came out on top with a 259-point total to win $15,128. Scott Snedecor, the 2007 world champion steer roper, tied three steers in 41.8 seconds to win $17,759. Jake Rinehart turfed three steers in 22.9 seconds to win $23,413, Tiffany Fox had a 52.50-second time on three runs to win $16,964 and Brad Pierce won the bull riding after scoring 256 points on three. He earned $14,910. Roughstock hand Clayton Foltyne won the all-around.