California is the cradle of the team roping—sure cowboys across the great unfenced prairies practiced it—but it was only fostered, nurtured and developed into what it is today in California.
That’s why when Chad Masters and Jade Corkill came tight on their fifth steer—bringing their average total to 43.9 seconds—the significance of winning the 100th edition of the California Rodeo was not lost on either man.
"To me, next to a gold buckle that’s second place," Corkill, from Fallon, Nev., said. "That’s like a relief when you get Salinas won. It’s such a cool thing and it’s so hard to win. There’s so much tradition behind it and everybody wants to win that one. To be lucky enough to get it, I’m real thankful."
Masters began to question if he’d ever break through. Coming from Tennessee, the 2007 world champion was brought up on short scores and fast times. While he’s proven himself to be a complete roper over the course of his career evidenced by his 2009 victory at Cheyenne Frontier Days, he began to wonder if a win at Salinas, with it’s 35-foot score line and five-head format, would ever be in the cards.
"You get to thinking about that rodeo and think it’s one you’re never going to win, it just isn’t your set up or whatever. It’s takes five head there," he said. "Actually, for me it took 35 head to get there. Seven years of trying.
"Last year was the first year I’ve ever caught five there and I broke the barrier. Every year I either miss the first steer or the third steer. You’ve still got to go catch five head, and with that long of a barrier and those cattle can run that hard, I mean…. I guess what I’m saying is as bad as I’ve done there and as big of a rodeo as it is, it meant a lot to me."
For team ropers, the journey to a Salinas buckle is a long trek. Similar to an open jackpot roping, there are four go-rounds then a short go, so they must rope five steers for a chance to win. Not only that, the steers get a 35-foot head start—the longest score in ProRodeo. Both ropers start from the same box. This is not your ordinary set up. Of course, the draw is important, but there are other, less-noticeable nuances that can make or break a chance at the win.
First, all the ropers prefer to draw up in the performances rather than the slack.
"It seems like the steers are always better in the perfs there," Masters said. "You could say that’s dumb and you’re either going to draw a good one or you’re not, but even that first set, the first time they go through that arena in that perf, they’re a little lost. There’s more going on, there are more lights, I guess."
That moment of confusion or distraction on the steer’s part is an advantage. Masters and Corkill drew up in the first perf.
"The first steer was an awesome, awesome, awesome steer," Masters said. They roped him in 7.4 seconds and placed third in the round.
Despite Masters’ history of first- and third-round bobbles, he almost let the opportunity slip through his fingers in the second round,
"The second round steer, he wasn’t that bad," Masters said. "He ran—he was the fastest steer we had—but honestly I let him pull the barrier. He probably wouldn’t have been that bad but I was so late. When I let loose of my reins the barrier pulled, that’s how late I was. We were 10.4 on him."
On the third steer, the unseen subtleties once again came into play. Some team had turned that steer out in the first round, so he had only been roped once. Masters and Corkill went 7.9 and won the round—much to their surprise.
Another factor in their win that often goes overlooked was the horses each was riding. Sure, they’re both known for great horses (Corkill: Ice Cube; Masters: Stranger) but neither rode their signature horse. Again, it was because of the Salinas distinctions that they made unusual choices to the casual observer.
Masters rode Waylon McCurley’s horse Zorro.
"I guarantee I couldn’t have done it on any other horse there," Masters said. "He’s one of the best horses I’ve been on and he was just a machine. Never moved a muscle in the box. That was cool to be able to get on him. At the last second, I talked to him about getting on his and it’s funny the way those things work out sometimes, isn’t it? I’ve seen him there every year. I never had to worry about the horse. Never rode him before. As many times I’ve seen him go meant more than a practice run I could have put on him.
"Tee Woolman won second on him one year and I think he said Daniel Green won third or fourth on him there. I’ve seen Waylon ride him there for the last few years and that horse just hardly ever makes a mistake at any rodeo."
What about Corkill, why wouldn’t he use Ice Cube?
"I rode my bay horse, Caveman. He worked awesome," Corkill said. "I took him out there because he scores really, really good. They’ve got to score. If the heel horse scores as good as the head horse, or if neither one of them move when the gates bang, you can get a better start. He’s real good in the box and I do a lot of jackpotting on him and that’s kind of what that rodeo is, a big jackpot so that’s why I took him out there.
"Most rodeo heel horses are used to going with the gate, then they get to jumping and the head horse gets to jumping. He scores real good and is real calm in the box and that’s why I took him."
Now, after three, the duo led the field. For most ropers, leading after three head in Salinas would result in the yips, but for these seasoned professionals surely it wouldn’t be an issue, right?
"Last year, we were the same as we were this year," Masters said. "We were 25 on three, the fastest on three and I draw the high loper on the fourth one. All we got to do is go catch him and I break the barrier to be 7."
This year the fourth steer was wishy-washy, ducking and diving a bit. Masters took a few extra swings, roped him in 8.8, tied for sixth in the round and headed to the short round as the high team back.
"It’s a hard setup, the hardest one we go to all year," Corkill said. "Our plan was to just go catch and not try to make anything happen, just rope the steers we drew and see what happened. Make five clean runs and see what we win."
With four clean runs under their belt, the teammates sat through the short round, watching their competition and figuring how fast they’d need to be to win. Jake Stanley and Justin Davis set the pace with an 8.0 and Matt Sherwood and Randon Adams—who had a great rodeo after a leg in the rounds—stopped the clock in 8.4.
The second high team back—Coleman Proctor and Caleb Twisselman—only trailed Masters and Corkill in the average by 1.2 seconds. In the long Salinas arena, that can be a small margin.
Masters was expectedly anxious to see what Proctor would do given his situation. He’s got a well-earned reputation of throwing caution to the wind in a situation where he’s guaranteed a second-place check and go for the win. Rather than be conservative, Proctor might gamble and really put the pressure on Masters and Corkill.
But he didn’t.
"When I saw him just go catch, I was relieved because that meant I could just go catch, too," Masters said. "There’s the chance that he’ll go hang it on one and you’ve got to be fast on the last one. I’m glad he didn’t put me in that position, I guess, I know he sure could have."
They had to be 10.8 seconds to win. Some ropers prefer the pressure of having to rope up at crunch time, feeling too much time gives them the chance to over think a situation rather than rely on muscle memory and instincts.
"There, I’m glad we had that much time," Corkill said. "We knew the steer we had. He looked real good. He didn’t just lope, we knew he was a good honest steer. It was good to know we had a little time to get out of the barrier. We knew by being safe at the barrier he wasn’t going to outrun us. I’d just as soon have to be aggressive instead of second-guess myself. But there, it’s such a different set up, it’s nice when you can have a little time to just go catch. It seems like you get to going so fast there, sometimes its nice to take a couple extra swings. Sometimes that heel horse is going so fast when guys throw, they’re moving too fast and their horse can’t get stopped. That steer I had gave me time to get caught up, let my horse get collected and heel him just like it was a normal run. It’s nice to be able to have a little extra time."
The stopped the clock in 9.4 seconds, which brought their total to $10,549 each and boosted them to second in the world standings with $72,195.
For the lion’s share of ropers out there, that would be great, but Corkill isn’t satisfied.
"I have no idea how we have won what we have won because I’ve roped terrible," he said. "For whatever reason I’ve missed a lot of money’s worth of steers—I count legs as misses—so between misses and legs I’ve left a lot of money out there. I’m sure Chad said he’s missed a bunch, but the ones he’s missed are the ones where I’ve already screwed up the first one so we have to go for the second day money and he has to take a harder shot. He’s roped good and I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t even know how I won Salinas. I roped bad before there and I’ve roped bad since. I don’t know what the deal is, I’ve been working at it and trying not to over think it, but I have not done a good job all year."
What’s odd, is his partner—in a separate interview—said nearly the same thing.
"My partner has roped so good this year and we’ve got good money won, so not that I’m whining or thinking that we’re struggling because we’re not, it’s been a great year, but I have struggled in my roping," Masters said. "We’ve won at the right rodeos. That was a great rodeo for me to do good at because I just had to go catch. I have struggled more this year than in the last couple of years. I haven’t roped as good at all this year. I’ve been working on it and trying to improve on it."
Masters, who has admitted to struggling in the past to walk the fine line of being aggressive and being consistent feels like he’s fighting that battle again.
"I’ve been caught up between going too fast again and not catching as many as I need to," he said. "It seems like I’ll rope good for a week and struggle for two. That’s normal, but a guy wants to get away from that and try to stay as consistent every week as he can: Not try to do too much, but dang sure do his job. I’m not trying to dominate, I’m just trying to do my job.
"When we’ve won our most is when we were catching our cattle, making our runs and it seems like I’ve gotten away from that. I’ve got away from that not meaning to. Maybe me trying to do too much hasn’t been letting us do anything at all."
If that sounded nebulous, Corkill’s struggles are even more so.
"I’m so confused, because I haven’t been fighting my roping," Corkill said. "I have the same mindset, I’m not fighting my head or fighting my horse, I honestly can’t tell you what’s going on. It’s just like, sometimes I catch and sometimes I don’t and if I catch the right ones we win big. I keep telling Chad, ‘If my catches will fall in the right spot, we’ll win.’
"The worst thing you can do is get to fighting your head. My plan is I’m going to ignore it, and pretend like I’ve been roping good and go at every steer like I’ve been roping good and not worry about it—just rope my way out of it.
"I know what to do to catch, so I don’t have to think about that. I just have to execute and do it. Ignore the bad stuff and just go rope and don’t over think it. That’s what gets people in trouble.
"I feel ungrateful for talking like that. Last year I felt like I was never going to miss again. We caught and caught and caught all kinds of steers, but I’ve got more won right now than I did last year at this time."
Therein lies the clue that reveals their character. Despite what statistics and standings might say, both men feel they are capable of more. They’ve experienced excellence, but at the moment it’s eluding them. Funny thing is, even when it eludes them, they sit second in the PRCA world standings.
Look out if they find it.
Tie-down roper Trent Creager tied three calves in 35 seconds to win his first-ever Salinas gold buckle. By tying his final-round calf in 11.7 seconds, he edged Joseph Parsons by 0.2, amassing $4,907.
Rusty Allen 40-percented the field by winning the first round, short round and average and amassing $8,386. The term 40-percenting means winning 40% of the available jackpot, which is the most any individual can win if they win all the go-rounds and the average. Allen scored an 87 on Western Rodeo’s Shallow Waters in the short go. Combined with an 83 in the first round, he amassed a 170 on two total.
In the barrel racing, Sherry Cervi and Christina Richman wound up tied after four runs with a 64.14-second time. Richman won $10,020 while Cervi came away with $9,781.
Steer wrestler Alex Robertson threw three head in 21.3 seconds for the Salinas win. In the bareback riding, Jared Smith rode two for 164 points to win $6,182, and bull rider Chad Denton scored 174 on two to add $7,071 to his world standings total.