For all the great champions to come out of the 2008 San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, perhaps the one who put on the most impressive performance was bull rider Chance Smart from Philadelphia, Miss.
In addition to its regular rodeo, San Antonio also hosts two Xtreme Bulls events. Xtreme Bulls is sanctioned by the PRCA and the money earned at these events counts toward the Crusher Rentals World Standings.
The first performance of the San Antonio rodeo was an Xtreme Bulls. Chance Smart-who also won an Xtreme Bulls last year in Houston-won the event running away. He scored 178 points on two, which included a 92-point final round ride-and won $19,416.
Impressive, but no real surprise considering the way he's been riding.
Then came the rodeo. In the first round, Smart rode Andrews Rodeo's Red Onion for 91 points and $6,839. The second round meant second place with a 90-point ride good for $5,243. The third round? Eighty-nine points on DH&T's Crossfire Hurricane, good for another first place and another $6,839.
On Feb. 16, the day of the short go, the second Xtreme Bulls event was held during the matinee performance. Smart finished second to reigning World Champion Wesley Silcox by one point, but still earned $15,293.
Before the final round even started Smart won $53,630 of San Antonio's $1 million purse.
For the short round, Smart had drawn DH&T's BustaMove. He approached Dillon Page, owner of the company, and said, "'Dillon, I want to be 95 and set an arena record and a total average record.' Dillon told me he was sorry, but I wasn't going to be able to do it. That bull was real weak and he didn't buck very hard."
The rider-friendly bull left the chute and never seriously challenged Smart. In fact, the biggest challenge came from Smart not out-thinking himself.
"During the course of the ride, I thought, don't throw me like this, don't do this, don't do that," Smart said "I had to shake it off during the ride and realize that I'd been riding good and I need to continue to ride good. That was probably a harder bull to ride than the others because of the pressure. When you get on a bull that everybody rides and you're supposed to ride, it makes it harder."
While his thought process wasn't easily discerned, his effort to stay in perfect position was. The bull was almost too easy for the bull rider who has developed an uncanny ability to ride the rank ones and position himself one move ahead of the bull.
"Coming here I felt in my spirit like I had an advantage because I had already proven myself," he said in reference to his $87,788 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. "I ride my bull and let the average take care of itself. I have a lot more confidence and experience is a huge factor. Coming off the NFR, I felt like I was riding as good as I ever have. I've studied and studied and studied how to ride the ranker bulls and I feel like I've tweaked my style enough that I can ride the rank bulls."
The judges marked the final-round ride a 72: the lowest score Smart received while in San Antonio. That brought his average total to 342 on four and earned him $13,677 for the average and $500 in the round. In sum, Smart won $67,807.
To put that in perspective, there are two statistics to examine. The first is the most money won at a regular season rodeo, which is $60,000 set by barrel racer Codi Baucom at RodeoHouston last year. The second is the fact that other than RodeoHouston, San Antonio is the only rodeo to pay out over $1 million. And unlike Houston, which pays the winner of a playoff format rodeo $50,000, San Antonio pays more places in a traditional format.
Since the two Xtreme Bulls events and the rodeo aren't considered one event, Smart won't set a new record for the most money won at a regular season rodeo, but his accomplishment is nonetheless spectacular.
"It's been a great week," he said. "I've ridden some of the greatest bulls. San Antonio brings some of the greatest stock contractors, and it is an honor to be able to ride eight straight here-four in the bull riding and four in the rodeo. My lowest score was 72 and other than that it was 86 and higher. What a great place to do it at. I set a goal. I wanted to ride every bull and, not only that, I wanted to win both Xtreme Bulls and the rodeo. I thought if I could do that and win Houston, too, I'd be doing good."
Other than the Wrangler NFR, there might not be a better time in professional rodeo to be as hot as Smart is. Not only does San Antonio pay like a slot machine, RodeoHouston awards $50,000 to its winner and there's another Xtreme Bulls event there. If Smart were able to win those two events he would end March with $150,000.
But don't expect him to rest on his laurels and cruise into the Wrangler NFR. The bull riding field learned a valuable lesson from B.J. Schumacher's struggles in Las Vegas last year that Smart is taking to heart.
"I'm not going to pick and choose where I go," he said. "I'm going to keep going as if I didn't win. B.J. Schumacher picked and chose where he went last year after he won Houston and come the Finals …" Smart didn't finish the sentence, but what he could have said was that come the Finals, that $50,000 win wasn't enough.
Which brings us to Smart's next goal.
"I set a goal to break Trevor Brazile's record and I'm not going to slack up," he said.
Which record, you may be asking yourself since Brazile holds a handful of them. The big one, the earnings record. Smart, in one event, hopes to break the $425,115 in earnings Brazile set last year in three events.
Can he do it? He's got a hip problem that has bothered him and for which rodeo physician extraordinaire Dr. Tandy Freeman has recommended surgery, but Smart doesn't feel like it's slowing him down too much.
"It's a callous built up on the bone in the socket where it goes in the joint. It jams up against that cartilage and tears it away from the hip and you have to have a hip replacement. Or you can go in there and shave that bone down. I don't feel like it's giving me any major damage right now, so I'm going to keep going."
And going and going and going and going…
Turtle Powell has proven he has the skills to be among the world's best headers by qualifying to the Wrangler NFR three times over the course of his 13-year career. It's just that those qualifications are a little sporadic.
It seems every few years Turtle Powell comes out of his shell to remind the team roping world he hasn't gone away.
His first Wrangler NFR qualification was in 1999 with Wayne Folmer, his second in 2001 with Folmer and his third in 2004 with Monty Joe Petska. In 2005, he finished 20th in the world and in 2003 it was 17th.
However, winning San Antonio with Travis Graves in 2008 might lead to the next Las Vegas Turtle-spotting.
Last year, of the eight champions from San Antonio, six made the Wrangler NFR. The team roping in San Antonio has a particularly good reputation for jump-starting a great season. Last year, Speed Williams and Dean Tuftin won it. The year before that, Matt Sherwood and Walt Woodard claimed top honors before Sherwood went on to win world, and in 2005 Clay Tryan and Patrick Smith won it before winning their championships.
While all that is a good omen for the partnership, Powell was just glad to string four solid runs together.
"When I came here, I hadn't been roping that good," the Alpine, Texas, native said. "I told Travis, I'm going to back in there and rope four steers no matter what. And it seemed like the more runs we made, the better runs we made. We kind of got in a rhythm. I'd been showing him everything: I'd miss one, catch one and jerk one.
"I told Travis on the way down here after we left Stephenville, if we're just going to be 5.5 we might as well stay right here at the house. In the short round it just turned all around, it was real smooth and he roped him good. I wished I could have gotten faced a little better."
Nevertheless, the clock stopped in 5.0 seconds, bringing their total to 22.0 seconds on four head. The final-round time tied them with Jake Barnes and Clay O'Brien Cooper for the fastest of the round.
As fifth high-call team back, the duo had to wait and watch, but their average time held up by 0.2 of a second.
"To be honest with you, I told Travis when we pulled in here today that I'd been coming to this rodeo for 10 years and I've never made the short round," Powell said. "I've won a round and I've done this and done that, but I've never made the short round, so I was a little nervous."
Roping with Graves wasn't part of what made Powell nervous. For years, Graves has been regarded as an up-and-coming phenom but his ascent hasn't been as rapid as many expected.
"It's been a little while," Graves, from Jay, Okla., admitted. "A lot of my success is because of my partner. We've been working really hard. I've stayed there at his house and we've been roping every day. Turtle is so solid. You know what he's going to do, when the pressure is up he's going to turn the steer. You can count on it.
"Hopefully I got the monkey off my back."
Powell believes it was just a matter of time before Graves realized his potential.
"Once you get in with the traveling guys and get your feet wet, a guy like Travis is just going to get better and better," he said. "That kid is just waiting for somebody who can out rope me. He ropes really, really good."
But just like Graves's career, the success they experienced in San Antonio didn't come over night.
"We've struggled so much," Powell said. We won about $30,000 jackpotting last year so it helped us get started for the rodeos. Plus, I've had some trouble with horses."
The trouble might be over, however, with the help of a friend.
"I bought a young horse from Terry Thompson in Wichita Falls and he called me and asked if I needed another horse and he's leased this dun horse to me. He's 10 years old and they call him Bubba. He's just a great horse. He couldn't have come at a better time. He's a double tough sucker."
Graves, meanwhile, switched from his signature bay horse to an 11-year-old mare called Baby Doll that he raised.
"This was really her first big rodeo," he said. "She's really good in small situations like this."
The win was worth $11,309 and already got Powell thinking ahead.
"Maybe it will carry on through Houston," he said.
In 1996, an up-and-coming steer wrestler from Mississippi named Brad Morgan made the short round at San Antonio. Just 14 months earlier, he won the steer wrestling rookie-of-the-year crown and things were looking up.
But you've probably never heard of Brad Morgan because he "screwed up the best steer in the herd and I left San Antonio and went home and started a stone business."
For 12 years, he owned his own business of selling stone for new homes and patios in Brandon, Miss., and steer wrestled a little on the side and in the circuit.
Then along came a horse, Cat Man. He's young, but Morgan thought that a trip to San Antonio might turn up the perfect buyer for the horse.
But instead, Morgan started doing well. He placed in the second and third rounds and came into the finals as the third high call. Then he threw his final round steer in 4.1 seconds, bringing his total to 16.3 on four, $12,372, a state of shock and disbelief to the cowboy and a possible change of plans.
"I was thinking of selling my horse, but I won't now. I've had him for about five years now and he's solid," said the cowboy, who knows a little something about solid. "I didn't know if I was going to rodeo the rest of the year. He's still worth a lot of money, but this has changed my mind a little bit, I might have to go a little harder now."
Even before the 2008 edition, San Antonio was Terra Bynum's favorite rodeo. Now the love is more than justified.
She won the event in 2005, was second last year, fourth in 2006 and after she and her 8-year-old gelding Maverick turned in a 57.92-second total on four runs, she won it again this year.
"It feels wonderful," she said. "This is my favorite rodeo of the year. San Antonio does such a wonderful job with the ground, the hospitality and paying our fees. It's always good here. You never have to worry about how fast your horse is running or letting him go because the ground is wonderful here all the way around."
Bynum placed in all four rounds, including a final round time of 14.63 in the bottom of the ground that wasn't without its scary moment. As Maverick came into the first turn, he stumbled and for an instant looked as if he might fall.
"He was running a little hard so I tried to cue him a little early. When I cued him he really took a step and he kind of got by it a little bit and I thought, oh man, I'm out of it. But I tried to do the best I could and I thought, that'll work."
It worked to the tune of $18,773, but this isn't a new feeling for Bynum.
"It's wonderful," she said. "It's always my first rodeo after the Finals and it's great to get tapped off. It's a wonderful boost."
To say that Justin McDaniel is motivated to win a world title is an understatement.
"I was fired up at myself after not winning the world, so I'm getting out there to try to win that buckle," the Porum, Okla., bareback rider said. "I want to win the world. I've kind of got a good thing going here. I came close. I feel like I got my foot in the door. I'm riding good and I really want to win the world."
He showed that fire at San Antonio by riding four broncs for 339 points-including a round one win. McDaniel's lead was so large coming into the short round, in fact, that an arena record 92-point ride by Jessy Davis aboard Big Bend's Miss Amerititle couldn't catch McDaniel's 81 on Calgary's Licorice Baby.
"I like that kind of stuff where it puts you in that situation where it That's what I ride bucking horses for, that feeling."
With the win and $25,189 in hand, McDaniel's season picked up right where he left off after finishing third in the world and qualifying to his first Wrangler NFR.
"I've always wanted to win this rodeo since I was a kid," the 21-year-old said. "I came close last year and I really wanted to win this year and I can hardly believe it."
While Cody Ohl and Fred Whitfield are still the standard bearers of tie-down roping, one of the young guns ushering in the next generation is Clint Robinson.
He's qualified for one Wrangler NFR and is a threat to win the all-around at any rodeo he enters, working the steer wrestling and at times the team roping in addition to the calf roping. San Antonio may have been a breakthrough in his tie-down roping, however, as he had a 6.3-second lead on the field coming into the final round.
"I had a good calf today," he said. "I had conflicting stories on whether he'd run or he didn't, so I made sure I got a good start and made a run at them. I had a 6.3 lead on them, so I just made a solid run and luckily it all worked out. I ran him around a little longer than I wanted to, but the average pays so much I didn't want to be stupid and break the barrier."
He turned in a 9.0-second final-round run on his horse Big Red, bringing his total on four to 33.4 seconds and his total earnings in San Antonio to $14,879.
"Good rodeos like this give you a good start and I just caught a few breaks," he said. "I thrive on the pressure. I don't like it when it's a soft rodeo and you have to be 11 to win it. I like to back in there and have to be 9 to win it. This is one of the best rodeos of the year to go to, it's outstanding and it's awesome to win it."
Saddle Bronc Riding
J.J. Elshere won the average title at the 2006 Wrangler NFR, showing he, along with Jeff Willert and Chad Ferley, would be the next dominant generation of South Dakota saddle bronc riders. And then he struggled.
2007 marked a difficult year for the Quinn cowboy who could never get his riding in gear to follow up his first Wrangler NFR qualification.
However, after winning $18,502 by riding four broncs for 326 points, his chances at seeing the bright lights of Las Vegas again have greatly improved.
"It was awesome," he said. "It's on the list of rodeos I wanted to win and I drew so good. It couldn't have gone any better. This is the best winter I've ever had."