For Chad Masters and Jade Corkill, winning the RodeoHouston team roping title was the plan all along.
When Masters, the reigning world champion header, first injured his knee while practicing steer wrestling in preparation for the Wrangler Timed-Event Championships, then tore his ACL, strained his MCL and cracked his kneecap at the Fort Worth rodeo, the duo had some tough decisions to make.
First, Masters decided that he would have the knee repaired just so he could do more than just team rope-including tie-down roping and bull dogging-down the road. So, would the team stay together? Easy answer: Yes. So that meant they needed to get busy winning since Masters would be out for at least two months.
The knee didn't bother him too badly while roping, so the plan was to schedule the operation for two days after the Houston short round and plan a comeback for the Reno (Nev.) Rodeo in June.
"It seems like we kept not doing good in the winter and we kept saying, 'We need to win Houston,'" Masters said. "We were both wanting to do good and have something won before Reno. It was ironic that we counted on it, maybe it was meant to be."
Corkill, on the other hand, was allowing himself a little more wiggle room in his plans.
"Whether we won Houston or not, we would have had about $7,000 won," he said. "Chad was not concerned. He was ready to come back at Reno and make the Finals. Last year at Reno he only had $15,000 won and he won the world. So I figured even with half that won we could still make the Finals."
So, RodeoHouston and its elimination, bracket-style tournament format with $27,500 championship payout was the last shot for the duo to build a foundation prior to the summer rodeo run.
"We did good on the first three and won the average," Corkill said. "We had two weeks in between until we came back to the first semifinals. We were 6.2 in the semifinals and won second. Came back on Saturday [for the Championship round of 10] and had another pretty good steer, were 5.2 and won that."
That set them up as the high call-and final team to compete-in the Shoot-Out round of four contestants. The other teams that made the cut were Travis Tryan and Michael Jones, Kevin Stewart and J.D. Yates and Matt Tyler and Mike Beers.
"When it came down to that last one, we had to rope against Travis Tryan and Michael Jones, the hottest team going," Masters said. "I know how good they are and what they're capable of. Jade said he'd like to be fourth back where we could rope and put the pressure on them, but I tell you what, I believe those guys could have got you. There were four tough teams in the short round. When you watch Travis and Michael rope a steer in 5.2 you know they did it pretty much right so it's not easy just to go beat them."
But that's exactly what they did-turning in an arena-record time of 4.3.
"In the final four, Chad had it on him so fast I was still gassing it, trying to get up there and that steer checked off and my horse Ice Cube got right back to him and I got just as good a shot as I always get on him."
Corkill, who describes the arena at Reliant Stadium as a pasture roping with a barrier, explained that the right fence is so far away that a heeler has to get out fast to haze the steer, otherwise it's a chase. So when Masters roped him so fast and the steer checked off, Corkill had to put the brakes on.
"I don't know how the 4.3 happened," Masters said. "I was just honestly trying to beat the 5.3.
"I got a start that they said I maybe should have broke out and didn't. I dropped a coil out of my hand before I threw, so that was kind of what pressured me in to throwing that far. During the run, I felt like I was fixing to lose my rope or it was going to wad up so it felt like the last shot.
"I was just going to get the best start I could. I honestly wanted to do everything I could do to make it easy for Jade and I pretty much did the opposite. Reached a long way and ducked, just reined off. It was nasty and he did a good job."
For the rodeo, the team won $33,075 per man and immediately vaulted into first place in the Crusher Rentals World Standings.
"It really has to go your way to do good there, but it's an exciting format," Corkill said. "We drew six pretty good steers in a row and we won first four times. We roped good, but things have to go your way too. There are a lot of obstacles to overcome. The problem with a one-header is that if you're a little long on one, there's no more. After those first three, you have to be on the ball."
As Masters prepared for his surgery, Corkill left no doubt that once he's ready to go again, they'll team back up. In the meantime, Corkill will rope with Charly Crawford, but he and Masters hope they pick up in June where they're leaving off now.
"The best part is before Houston he missed a few and didn't rope good at some places and I missed one or two and we got along just like we were winning everything," Corkill said. "We're getting along after winning Houston just like we were before. He's just really a good guy and we're good friends. I want to rope with him for a long time.
"I wanted to do good for him. It's going to be easy on us in the world standings now, but I was more nervous catching that steer because he just bought a place, bought a tractor and bought a bunch of pipe and is building an arena. With him sitting out and not being able to win anything I wanted to win that money for his personal sake."
Meanwhile, two particular champions in Houston shook up the all-around race in a significant way. Bareback rider Steven Dent and tie-down roper Josh Peek each won the $50,000 jackpot in their event. That's significant for the world all-around race because both these cowboys have been in the all-around race in the past.
After Trevor Brazile's completely dominating season last year-perhaps the best season in ProRodeo history-it's hard to imagine anyone else winning that title anytime soon. At press time, however, Steven Dent was leading the all-around standings by $26,000 over Brazile. While Peek hasn't won enough in steer wrestling to qualify for the all-around standings-which he probably will (he made the Finals in both tie-down roping and steer wrestling last year)-once he does he'll be in the mix for the all-around race.
Brazile won the 2007 all-around title by more than $163,000 over Peek last year so for either of these two cowboys-or anyone else-to challenge him will be no small task.
Dent, who also rides saddle broncs, won the bareback riding in Houston by riding Big Bend Rodeo Company's Miss Amerititle for 91.5 points. That ride, plus money won during the rounds, brought Dent's earnings for the rodeo to $53,500.
Josh Peek, meanwhile, took a more circuitous route to his RodeoHouston championship. After doing well in the first three rounds, in the first semifinal round he had a little bad luck when his good horse, Cody, stumbled leaving the box and actually pulled a shoe. The 9.4 he turned in wasn't quick enough to advance him, but he was able to go to Houston's wild card loser's bracket. That bracket takes two winners from 12 in every event to the Championship round of 10 contestants. In the winner's bracket, there are two semifinal rounds with 10 contestants each that advance four cowboys to the Championship round.
In the wild card bracket, Peek faced tough competition.
"Randall Carlisle was 7.8 and Trevor was 8.2 and so I knew I had to go at one and be fast," he said. "I had a calf that was pretty good that I could probably do it on. It was one of those deals where nothing went right but it ended up all right. I came across the line and lost my right stirrup. While I'm trying to find my right stirrup the calf's right there waiting on me. I finally got everything back in line, roped him and hustled out a run. Used a wrap and a hooey and was 8.2. I didn't know how the splits worked so I rode out of the arena not knowing if I made the short round or not."
Turns out, the tiebreaker went to whoever had won a round. They both had, so it went back to the average, where Peek outdistanced Brazile. If Peek is able to keep pace in the all-around race, that tiebreaker might play a huge role come December.
"Coming into the short round I was pretty comfortable," Peek said of the Championship round of 10. "I made it there and the hard work was out of the way and all I had to do was rope. I was the last one to go and I knew exactly what I had to do. I knew I had to be 8.8, and I had the same calf I had to make it to the short go. I think the way it was set up just relaxed me. I knew I could do it on that calf.
"Cody Ohl was leading it with an 8.8 and I thought to myself that if Cody was behind me in the [Shoot-Out round], it would not be a good thing. All I needed to be was a 9.6, but if Cody's behind you in the short go for $50,000 there's a good chance you'll lose. So I went at that calf to win the short round. I wanted him to go before me so I knew what I had to do. I made a businessman's run on a good calf and was 8.5."
In the Shoot-Out round, Peek's plan worked, except for Ohl turning in a blazing 8.1.
"I thought, 'Holy smoke, I'm going to have to get after it, max it and go after this calf.' I just backed in there and did what I know how to do. I scored good, that calf came to the right, I just reached out there and roped him and got him set up really good. I knew I was faster than 8.1 when I threw my hands in the air, but I didn't know how fast I was. When they called my time out after the calf stayed tied, I just went nuts."
The $58,250 Peek won in Houston won't change his strategy for the season. He's still planning to take a little time off this spring to work a new bull dogging horse so he can jump into the all-around race. He knows the opportunity in front of him now and it looks likely his unique Toyota-emblazoned shirt will be showcased in Las Vegas once again.
"After making the Finals my first year, there's some pressure on a guy to try and make the Finals a second time and not just be a one-time guy," Peek said. "To go in to Houston and have as much success as I did was special because my friends from Stallion Oil Field Services live there. Now I know that I'm going to make the Finals and all I have to do is keep roping. Now I've got a world championship in mind. $50,000 is awesome, but it dang sure doesn't win a world title. But I can relax, pick and choose my rodeos and go win. I'm just going to keep striving for first place and try to win a world title. That's my goal and that's been my goal since the beginning. This just helps my goal be able to come true."
The only cowboy to repeat as RodeoHouston champion was bull rider B.J. Schumacher-and every other bull rider should buy him lunch for keeping the red-hot Chance Smart from winning the $50,000. By one-half of a point, Schumacher edged Smart by riding Cervi & Guidry Rodeo's Hot Diggity Damn for 92 points.
Smart was distancing himself in the bull riding with an almost $40,000 lead on the field before Houston. If he had won the $50,000 he might have been untouchable. Still, he's got a $52,000 lead on the field.
"He was running away with things there for a while," Schumacher said of Smart. "He still won $16,000 out of Houston. It's a long year, you have to stay healthy and there's a lot more to it than riding bulls. This winter run is pretty slow; you just have a rodeo per weekend. He's been there, he made the Finals last year, but there's a lot more to it than just staying on your bulls once you get rodeoing hard."
Schumacher is well aware of the pitfalls a season can present. A year ago, he won RodeoHouston and appeared primed for a second consecutive world championship. After a bad week in Las Vegas during the Wrangler NFR, he saw his world title slip away to Wesley Silcox. (In fact, only bareback rider Bobby Mote won RodeoHouston and the world title last year.) But despite that, Schumacher wouldn't change much of what he did last year.
"If I didn't have that one bad week," Schumacher said without
finishing the thought. "I won the regular season and stuff, I'll probably just do what I did last year and stick to the game plan. I had a little bit more won by this time last year. It's going to make my season a whole lot easier, I'll tell you that. Now I get to pick and choose. I was getting worried about having to go to all those rodeos with fuel getting so expensive. It was making me wonder if it was going to be a paying proposition this year or not."
One difference for Schumacher might be that he gets on more good bulls closer to the Finals. He admits that not qualifying for the Ariat Playoffs might have allowed a little rust into his game.
In the meantime, the $55,000 he took out of Houston makes the world bull riding title race a little more interesting.
Wade Sumpter did everything he could not to have a chance at Houston's $50,000 jackpot. After winning the first round in his series, he was a no time on a good steer. In the third round, Sumpter had to win first to advance, which he did with a 4.5-second run. In the first semifinals, he broke out to be 3.8 and was bumped to the wild card round.
Only two advanced out of that, and Sumpter was 4.1 and qualified in the second hole to the Championship round of 10, where he was 5.0 and again qualified in the last hole.
"I put my back against the wall every time I could," the Fowler, Colo., native said. "I barely got out of my Super Series, had to go through the wild card. Every chance I had to screw up I pretty much did."
However, as the first steer wrestler to go in the Shoot-Out round of four, he knew he could put the pressure on his competition.
"I'd rather be first," Sumpter said. "On that final four you've got to max everything out whether you're first or fourth because that deal is going to be wicked fast. Going for $50,000 you don't back off one bit. Being first is good because if you can get by real good it puts a little pressure on those guys."
Sumpter laid down a 4.0 riding he and partner Kenneth Lewis's new horse Wick-his fastest run of the rodeo-and just had to watch his competitors go.
"It's a little nerve-wracking," he said. "But I felt like I was as fast as I could be."
After being in the mix for a world title last year, a $54,000 bump in the standings gives Sumpter the inside track for his first world title. But like the rest of the champions from Houston, he knows that doesn't guarantee anything more than what's written on the check.
"Curtis Cassidy's already got like $45,000 won," he said. "If you want to do something, you have to win all year. It sure helps and gives me a chance to get out in front and have a good year, but now I just have to keep going."
Saddle Bronc Riding
The saddle bronc riding featured two of the events most well known veterans: five-time world champion Billy Etbauer and 18-time Wrangler NFR qualifier Rod Hay. Interestingly, the two men each made their first Finals in 1989, Etbauer has qualified for every one since and Hay only missed the 1991 edition due to injury.
In the Shoot-Out round each scored 87 points, forcing a ride-off. Hay, the 2007 NFR average champ, drew Carr ProRodeo's Trail Dust for 81 points. Etbauer, meanwhile, scored 86 on Burch Rodeo's Broken Kettle for the win. In sum, Etbauer took $55,000 out of Houston, set himself up for his 20th consecutive NFR qualification and a shot at a record-tying sixth world championship-all at the age of 45.
Lindsay Sears, who nearly nabbed a world title at her first-ever Wrangler NFR last year, did the second-best thing in ProRodeo by winning RodeoHouston.
She and her super horse, Martha, won more money than any other competitor, taking $61,500 to her new home in Ropesville, Texas.