The husband-and-wife team of Jo Ann and Lory Merritt doubled down at the Reno Rodeo Invitational, and deposited both of the $100,000 champs' checks into their joint account back home in Eaton, Colo.
The $200,000 windfall, banked by roping four steers in 38.30 seconds, was a thrill. But the feeling of accomplishment that came from closing the RRI deal together was positively priceless.
"The first thing is not the money," heeler husband Lory said. "Jo Ann and I have been best friends for 21 years. We've always encouraged each other. That's the big payoff for me. Don't get me wrong. I'm all over the money. But winning this thing together means a lot more to me than the money. When you believe in each other like we do, that's huge."
As was the passel of prizes they skipped the Silver State with. In addition to the large load of loot, the Merritts also were awarded Cactus Saddles, Gist Buckles, D-Bar-M saddle pads, Resistol Hats and Maloy rope frames.
The 13th annual Reno Rodeo Invitational was held June 23 at the Reno Livestock Events Center, and the Merritts' margin of victory was more than five seconds over the 247-team field, which was led by 2009 RRI reserve titlists Ron Miller and Bert Bilby.
"I wanted to yell when I roped that last steer, but knew I needed to get dallied first," Lory said. "I'm in shock. I was confident because of Jo Ann. But this is amazing."
His better half had that peaceful, easy feeling riding in to rope their last one. "I've dreamed about being high call, and have roped that last steer here so many times in my mind," she said. "I'm always nervous on the first one here. I'm 42 years old, and I've roped since I was a kid. All you can do is rope the steer you've got, just like in the practice pen. You don't have to make it any more complicated than that. If that steer gives you a go-round, great. If not, just go get him caught."
That's experience talking. The Merritts have roped at all 13 RRIs, though not at every edition together. "We've been here every year," he said. "We've won a lot here, but we've never won the big one." (And she can now officially forget the year she broke out for Darrel Norcutt to win it all. It's haunted her- until now-knowing that if you subtracted the 10-second speeding ticket in the opening round they'd have been the champs.)
The Reno Rodeo Invitational is a USTRC No. 11 roping that's capped at a No. 6. Jo Ann's a No. 5 header who has developed a handy immunity to unforced errors. When she rode back into the arena for the victory lap, she pulled her horse over at the announcer's stand where Di Loreto stood waiting for a congratulatory hug. "I finally know how you feel," she beamed.
Few people on this planet do. The Merritts had come close to the RRI winner's circle before. And now that they've been there and done it they also understand Di Loreto's stance that bans all $200,000 champs from ever entering the event again. "One win and you're out," Di Loreto smiled. "I wish this feeling on everybody." He knows the feeling firsthand. Di Loreto and his native Nevadan partner David Faught hit the richest jackpot in team roping in 2005.
Then there are the four-footed partners, who help their humans in the heat of battle over the 11-foot RRI scoreline (the box is 19 feet deep). Jo Ann's 15-year-old gray head horse, Snoopy, won the Best Head Horse of the RRI Award back when he was 7 and judges voted on the winner. This year, Jack B Bourbon struck again as the winningest American Quarter Horse Association-registered head horse at RRI '09. "We bought him as a 5-year-old, and trained him ourselves," she said. "We knew from the first time we backed him in the box that he was special. He runs like a rocket from the back of the box, and treats me fair. I like to get close and don't throw any rope. He works different for my son (Kade), who likes to reach."
Snoopy "took those steers off so unbelievably straight," according to Lory, a left-handed No. 6 heeler, who rode Dos Shot, a 14-year-old dun horse, on the back side. The Merritts received handcrafted bronzes by Steve Miller of Montana Silversmiths fame in honor of their horses' part in the big win. "We buy a lot of horses from the San Antonio Ranch Horse Sale that have never been roped on in the arena," continued Lory, who bought both horses there. "We bring them home, and turn them into team roping horses. Jo Ann and I agree on horses. We know what we want. We buy them for their minds first, and for their ability next. I've always made my own horses, because I'm left-handed."
Makes sense. As did her sense of perspective that helped alleviate the high-team pressure. Right before they roped their last steer, she shot him a grin of gratitude just for being there. You know, Entry Fees: $5,500. Diesel: $500. Getting to experience the thrill of roping the $200,000 high-team steer with your soulmate: Priceless. "I was just so happy to be there with him," she explained. "We both try so hard, and we've been through a lot. Lory (now 49) had two hip replacements when he was 40, from an old football injury and getting run over by a hay trailer. Sports and ranch life took their toll. And when we had our (identical) twin boys (Cash and Reed are 15 now; big brother Kade is 18), they were born two months premature. We've been through so much together. We do this for fun."
By all accounts, Jo Ann's composure is borderline legendary. "When you know what she's going to do, and she does the same thing every time, it's almost not fair," he chuckled.
Lory Merritt has a quarter-century connection to Western-world sponsor extraordinaire Wrangler. "I've worked for Wrangler for 25 years, and it's such a great company," said Wrangler Account Executive Merritt. "But it's more than a company; it's a family. They get behind me, and just wish me luck."
Wrangler also gets behind the RRI. Di Loreto couldn't make the world's richest roping happen without the support of his sponsor partner friends, who this year included Wrangler, Cactus Saddlery, Cactus Ropes, Heel-O-Matic, Pro Equine, Gist Silversmiths, Myler Bits and Spurs, Montana Silversmiths, Priefert, Southwest Fence, Bob Marcellus, D-Bar-M, Classic Equine, Bob Scott, Resistol, King's Saddlery, Team Equine, Rogers Cowboy Supply and Bill Maloy. Every contestant at the 2009 RRI received a custom-embroidered Wrangler shirt, Cactus leather jacket, a "1 Day, $1,000,000" Wrangler/Cactus ball cap, Heel-O-Matic DVD, D-Bar-M gift certificate and 20 percent Pro Equine discount certificate.
Jo Ann "trains horses and raises kids," according to her husband and hugest fan. "She works 10 times harder than me." They spend a lot of their time "loading steers for the kids," and don't go to many ropings other than jackpots at their kids' high school rodeos in the course of a year.
The Merritt kids high school rodeo in Wyoming, because their parents are natives. Jo Ann and Lory both grew up on ranches in the Cowboy State. "We teach our kids to be good people, work hard, and support your friends and family," he said. "That's the way we live."
Some couples retreat to secluded beaches to recharge their batteries. Reno is the Merritts' roping resort of choice. "This is our one big roping of the year, just he and I," she said. "I knew we could win this if we just roped smart. This is very special for us."
"When we first came here, it was all about roping for a lot of money," Lory admits. "But you leave here feeling so good about what they do with the rest of this money. Helping others and giving back is way more important than roping."
This year's RRI charity of choice was the Nevada Patriot Fund. In 2003, RRI Producer Perry Di Loreto was one of the founding directors of the fund that was put in place with the purpose of providing financial assistance to the surviving families of soldiers killed in battle. "They're this country's fallen heroes," Di Loreto respectfully noted. "If you're from Nevada and you die at war, your family gets a check."
The Nevada Patriot Fund this year received a $50,000 check from the Reno Rodeo Invitational. Forty-seven Nevada soldiers have paid the ultimate price since the NPF's 2003 inception. "We raise money privately, and the Department of Defense notifies the board of every death," Di Loreto explained. "Our hope and prayer is that the dying has slowed down. I've been to a lot of funerals these last few years.
"We're expanding the mission of the Patriot Fund. In addition to a death benefit for survivors, we're now helping assist soldiers when they come home. Raising money isn't easy in these tough economic times, but we're going to do whatever it takes to help our veterans."
A year ago, the Kid's Kampus Activity Center was dedicated for use by abused and neglected children and teenagers placed in emergency protective custody. Di Loreto and the Reno Rodeo Foundation launched a $2.6 million capital campaign back in 2003, with the goal of constructing the 12,000-square-foot facility, which includes a gymnasium, computer lab and meeting space. Di Loreto and the RRI roping contingent did not let up until the doors were open and the building was bustling with kids.
"What Perry does here makes it special for us, because of all the donations to worthy causes," Jo Ann said. "Perry's got the bigger picture in mind, and we appreciate that."
Producing the richest roping out there is a neat feat. But Di Loreto is always looking for any and all possible areas of improvement. "We feel we've been able to smooth the field in terms of ability," he said. "The next thing we're going to do is take a long, hard look at heelers who tie on. It's an RRI rule that No. 6 heelers cannot tie on. But you can take some of our No. 5 heelers who tie on and that makes them 6-plus heelers. All girls will still be able to tie on. Our Ladies Only roping is an open all-girl, and will stay that way."
Di Loreto's philosophy on spreading the wealth around won't change anytime soon, either. Behind the Merritts in the four-steer average were 39 teams who got in on a piece of the action. That charge was led by reservists Ron Miller and Bert Bilby, who roped four steers in 43.47 seconds for $125,000. Tom Hill and Johnny Mundall were third in 44.48 seconds ($60,000); Heavy Sursa and Bob Caldwell finished fourth in 44.62 seconds ($50,000); and Lonny Bartling and Phil Jennings were fifth with 45.16 ($30,000).
Rounding out the top 10 were Cecil Nichol and Jim Watson, 45.22, $25,000; Carl Daniel and David Daniel, 46.13, $20,000; another husband and wife, Tom and Debbie Fabrizio, 46.61, $19,000; Robin Willson and Mark Taylor, 47.13, $18,000 (Willson and Taylor also won the short round in 7.07 seconds to catapult from 20th to ninth in one run); and Lindsey Crawford (Charly's wife) and Eugene Perkins, and Todd Schafer and Greg Dazen, who split the 10th hole in 48.79 seconds for $15,500.
The three-steer bonus average, which gives teams who go out on one of their first three steers a shot at some serious cash, went to Californians Jack Sparrowk and Tyler Holzum. They roped three steers in 22.43 seconds for $15,000 and USTRC Regional Shoot-Outs. David James and Shawn Sullivan finished second in that race in 27.87 seconds for $10,000.
Go-rounds at the 2009 Reno Rodeo Invitational paid $9,000 a team plus Gist Buckles. Mark Sorenson and Ron Eliason struck first in 7.03 seconds. In round two, it was Robert Simpson and Bill Hall, whose 6.75-second run made headlines. Tyrel Cowans and Charlie Horky turned in the fast time of the roping in round three at 5.59 seconds. In addition to the dough, they were awarded D-Bar-M spurs.