It's not as if Chad Masters hasn't proven himself already. The 2007 world champion header has plenty of accolades to his name. But his abilities were showcased in a new way at the first two major rodeos of the season.
By winning both the SandHills Stock Show and Rodeo in Odessa, Texas, and the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver, he and partner Michael Jones have catapulted themselves to an early lead in the PRCA World Standings with $14,882.
It's not just that he won those rodeos, though. It's how he won them.
At Odessa, he made a 5.9- and a 5.4-second-run to bring his total on two to 11.3. He won $6,849.
"We just caught two at Odessa," Masters said. "It fell apart, but we weren't supposed to win that with the runs we made. The win was good, the runs weren't good."
Then, in Denver, the storyline intensified.
In the first round, Masters cracked out a new horse, Bo, who had only been jackpotted on and taken to one small rodeo. Under the bright lights of Denver, poor Bo was lost.
"He didn't know what was happening," Masters said. "He didn't leave the box so I missed the barrier by a lot and then I reached and had to coil my rope. When we turned off we were at the back end and were 6.8."
Figuring he had lost any chance at the average title, he went for the round. He borrowed Speed Williams' top horse, Dollar, and proceeded to turn in a 4.3, which tied him with two other teams for fourth in the round.
Not necessarily back in the average race, they did land in the short round in the seventh high-call spot. Again, figuring for the round, they let it all hang out. But before their turn came, the roping began to fall apart.
The first two teams drew hard-running steers and both headers missed. The third team out, J.D. Yates and Jay Wadhams, saw their steer stop short just as Yates roped him. Jake Kropik and Justin Hendrick stopped the clock in 4.2, but had to tack on a 10-second barrier penalty. The first traditional, clean run came from Masters, who rode his main mount, the big black he calls Stranger, to turn in a 4.4.
"That steer was actually supposed to be a little stronger than that and I ended up pulling to the line just a little bit and he was way good," he said.
Next, Quincy Kueckelhan and Dustin Davis roped their steer in 5.4, putting them 0.3 behind Masters. One no-time and four runs over 10 seconds later (either due to rebuilds, penalties or another steer stopping), the average again "fell" to Masters. He won $9,033 in Denver and finished ahead of the second-nearest team by 0.6 of a second.
"We've had a lot of breaks," Masters said. "To come in here, all those guys ahead of us in a normal situation would have beaten us every time."
While that may be, it's no accident that at two consecutive rodeos, Masters' new style of high-catch percentage and high-speed runs may be the new formula for winning at rodeos.
In fact, Masters won the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo just five years ago, and he says the landscape of the rodeo roping game has changed dramatically as has his own roping style.
"In 2004 I felt like we made three really, really good runs," Masters said. "We had to be 5.8 on the last one and we were 5.6 the first year I won it, and just made three five-second runs. I think we were two 5.3s and a 5.6 or something close to that-just real controlled runs.
I changed my roping a lot since that year. There for a couple years I tried to get where I was real conservative. I got sick of missing-I used to be where I was just wide open-so I slowed it down, but I almost slowed it down too much. So here lately I've been trying to learn how to speed things up a little bit, I'm struggling with it, but I think that's the only way you're going to get by nowadays. I was 4.3 in the second round-and I feel like it was one of the better runs I've ever made-and we split fourth. The first year I ever came here was in '01 or '02 and I was 4.6 and won the second round and look how that barely even placed this year."
But while the times and strategies have changed, the good omen of winning Denver hasn't. Of the eight champions from 2008, five made the Wrangler National Finals, including Riley and Brady Minor and reigning world champion steer wrestler Luke Branquinho.
"This is one of the biggest rodeos, especially at the beginning of the year, so that means a lot," Masters said. "I've been to Reno before with only $5,000 or $6,000 won and I think that's what this pays here."
So for now, the Tennessean with a $6,992 lead and the boyish looks is definitely, with apologies to Kipling, "The Man."
Heading into last year's Wrangler NFR, many figured Josh Peek was "The Man" as well. With about a $36,000 lead, the world title was his to lose. And, unfortunately, that's what happened. He made only $2,704 in Las Vegas and fell to sixth in the world standings.
To add injury to insult, his grandmother, Carolyn Conner, was in a single car accident just before Denver's short go and as Peek competed, she was on life support in critical condition at a Denver hospital. At press time her battle continued. Conner lives near Peek, and the 78-year-old watched the place and fed the horses while he and the rest of his family were on the road.
"We drove all night from Ft. Worth after we heard about the accident to see her and we've been seeing her every day," he said. "It's going to be a tough go, she's got multiple injuries, from a broken neck, shattered hip, severed right foot, bruising up and down and bones broken everywhere. I told her before I left the hospital, 'Grandma, I'm going to go win Denver for you.' So I had to.
But before he promised his grandmother the win, he and his new wife, Kori, whom he married on Jan. 3, had already formulated a plan.
"I told my wife, 'I'm going to make a statement at Denver, I want to win it by a mile,'" he said. "I was just lucky enough and my horse is working awesome-probably better than at the Finals-he feels good, I feel good, I'm healthy and I drew some decent calves. It was needed."
It was needed because he was beginning to hear the whispers. At his first NFR in 2007, he won over $80,000. Last year, he blew it. People began asking what happened.
"A guy wants to know he's good, and they showcase the good out there. If you don't do good there, people wonder, 'What's going on with Josh?'" he said. "I walked out of there with my head held high. I didn't get frustrated at all. I actually made fewer mistakes last year than I did when I won $80,000, but I didn't catch any breaks. But that happened for a reason and it taught me how to handle defeat along with success and I feel more rounded this year. People can look at it all different ways. I look at it as a successful year because I walked in and out of the arena for 10 days with defeat, then to walk into Denver and do what I did."
What he did was rope three calves in 24.9 seconds, won the first round and the average and leapt to the top of the world standings leader board, a familiar place, with the $13,158 check.
Incidentally, his nearest competitor was Tuf Cooper, who was 1.5 seconds behind Peek, but made the quickest tie of the short round with an 8.2-second run.
"I've never really had a lot of success here," Peek said of the National Western. "So it's good and it just shows that I'm getting more comfortable on my horse. I'm back bulldogging, I got a couple good horses and I'll be back right in there. I feel healthy; my chiropractor has me feeling good. I'm tripping steers, too, and starting this week I'm going to get ready for the Wrangler Timed Event Championship.
But, while he's not doing that, he'll be checking in on his grandmother, satisfied that he kept his promise to a woman who did so much for him.
When Kanin Asay hit the ground during the short go in Denver, in addition to having the wind knocked out of him, he had a sudden case of déjà vu. Last year, Kanin Asay didn't make the whistle in the final go and was awarded a reride. With event producer Binion Cervi in his ear, he took the reride, but rushed his preparation.
"I came in leading the average, I got a reride I hurried, Binion was screaming at me so I hurried and hustled to get out of there and I bucked off my reride bull right at the whistle," he remembered. "It almost happened that way today. I took my time and got my air back and got a little more praying time with the Father and it felt good."
His short round draw this time was Cigarette Butt from Trent West. The bull jumped back into the chute and when Asay moved his leg to avoid smashing it against the post, the bull leapt forward and slammed him to the ground. Because the bull hit the chute, the judges gave him a reride and he took it, this time aboard Calgary Stampede's Border Denial.
Announcer Boyd Polhamus implored the crowd to stay for one more ride and they did. Further, he increased the dramatic effect in such a way that the crowd practically willed Asay to ride-which he did, for 89 points. The crowd was so loud, in fact, that the 8-second whistle was hardly audible.
When the dust settled, Asay amassed $14,440 in Denver with a total of 264 points on three head. Add that to a second-place finish in Odessa, and Asay led the world standings by over $10,000 with $25,580.
While he was pleased with such a big win in his home circuit (he's from Powell, Wyo.), he was more proud of his second round 93-point ride aboard David Bailey's Lucky Strike. Lucky Strike is the 2005, 2006 Bucking Bull of the Wrangler NFR, 2006 PBR Bull of the Finals and has his own MySpace page. What's more, prior to Asay's ride he'd only been ridden three times in his career and boasted a 96 percent buck off rate. On average, judges mark him a 22.66, according to www.probullstats.com.
"To win a round here and ride one of the bulls that they hardly ever ride, that was the highlight of Denver for me," he said. "To be able to win it is a blessing."
Saddle Bronc Riding
Another cowboy with a second chance in Denver was Bradley Harter. Five years ago he drew Burch Rodeo's Mullin Hill. After coming in to the short round second in the average, he drew the horse again.
"I had him here in '04 and he bucked me down," Harter said. "I will say that I was a little worried about it. I didn't want him to get me twice."
He never even came close.
Harter made a textbook ride on a great horse.
"I came back in good position, but I had the best one of the day," Harter said of his horse. "This one they buck in the TV pen every year at the Finals. They've won a boatload of money on him, I was just blessed to have him today. If I had to handpick one, I'd pick him."
What's funny is, Harter almost didn't come. In the bareback riding and saddle bronc riding, the stock contractors have a reputation for trying many of their colts in Denver. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. If a top cowboy calls for his draw and he's got two colts, it's not uncommon for him to turn out. Harter almost did.
"I had two colts that they knew nothing about," he said. "I wasn't too excited about it. Actually what I found out was nothing good about them: Colty and wild acting. I wasn't for sure I was going to come. My wife told me, 'God gave them to you, go get on 'em.' So I come up here and the first one I got on was good, but my second one was outstanding-turned back and bucked. Cervi's M11 Get Back, a colt out of Back Street, the old mare they had that was so nice. He was a little buckier than her. I couldn't ask for a better one. A lot of guys draw two colts here and they turn out. But I figured if I enter I'll go."
And just look how it turned out. But Harter's been here before. Just two years ago he won Denver on a mare called Lynx Mountain from the Calgary Stampede herd. She was just a colt then, too, but has gone on to qualify for the NFR every year since.
"The last year I won Denver, the year started off great. Then I got to fighting my head through the middle, but I've got a lot of that worked out so it'll be good to win it and just keep the ball rolling through the winter and into the summer," he said.
In sum, Harter won $12,255-including the top spot in the second and final go rounds-with a total of 247 on three.
Tim Shirley might have had the best week of any cowboy in the draw as the National Western in Denver came to a close.
Entering in the short round, the cowboy from Conifer-in the foothills above Denver-led the average by three points. On Saturday before the final round he married Mindy Downare in a service officiated by his father, pastor Ed Shirley. Then, on Sunday, he rode Kesler Championship Rodeo's Silver Moon for 82 points.
"I'm excited, I don't even know how to say how excited I am," he said. "This is my honeymoon rodeo."
The score tied him with South Dakotan Dustin Reeves with 254 points on three. Reeves made a round-best 87-point ride on Burch Rodeo's Pinball Wizard.
By custom, the ruling on who would receive the one available champion's buckle was decided with a coin flip, which was won by Reeves.
"Even that worked out well,"
Shirley said. "Dustin forgot his belt when he came out from South Dakota, so he needed a belt and he didn't have a buckle. They (the committee) will send me a buckle in the mail."
Reeves put together $7,535 while Shirley cashed checks worth $11,217. As he picked up his checks, he walked out of the Denver Coliseum and said to no one in particular, "Now I have to decide where I'm going to go for the rest of my honeymoon."
For most rodeo competitors, 23 years old is the beginning of a career. For Curtis Cassidy's reigning PRCA/AQHA Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year Willy, that age just might be his prime.
The past two years Willy has carried his rider to the world title and Wrangler NFR average title. In 2007 it was Jason Miller, last year it was Luke Branquinho. All the while, his owner, Cassidy, has been competing and winning on him as well.
"He's been good," Cassidy said. "We've been home for five or six weeks since the NFR and it was really cold at home, like 30 or 40 below every day for a month, but when it's cold out they eat more and I've got a 20 acre pasture where they get to run out and I didn't ride him one time since the NFR before we brought him to Denver. We just let him be a horse and relax. So we hauled him to Denver and hauled him to Fort Worth and then back to Denver. I know he's got to slow down one of these days, but he sure feels good now."
Good enough, in fact, to carry not only Cassidy to the short round at the National Western, but Branquinho as well. While the defending world champion had a little bad luck in the finals, Cassidy seized the opportunity. As second high call, he turned in a blazing 4.4-second run to set the mark at 12.7 on three and challenge leader Jake Rinehart.
Rinehart-who, incidentally is 6'8"-responded with a 4.9, tying Cassidy.
"Anytime you can win a big rodeo throughout the year, no matter if its at the start or the end, it's outstanding," Cassidy said. "So being able to do well here, and end up splitting it, just gives you a little extra confidence going into Houston, San Antone, Fort Worth and those other big ones."