In the heat of the summer run, when August’s sun is crackling the landscape of West Texas, Cut Bank, Montana’s Dustin Bird can nearly always be found hiding out in the northern Rockies of Big Sky Country. For the last two years of their partnership, Bird and Eaves made a killing in the Montana Circuit in August, each year securing their Wrangler National Finals Rodeo births by rodeoing in the cooler mountain air and getting in some fly fishing, river tubing and cowboying in on the Bird family ranch while they were at it.
“I know all those rodeos so well,” said Bird, who spent the early part of his career at the Montana Circuit rodeos, winning a Ram Montana Circuit Finals Rodeo championship in 2011 before making his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (with Eaves) in 2012. “I know the start, my family is there, the weather is cooler, and I get to spend a lot of time in Cut Bank.”
This year, though, they’d leave Great Falls, Mont., to play in the deep mud at Kansas’ Biggest Rodeo in Phillipsburg and Dodge City’s Rodeo Roundup, then head to the Wild Bill Hickock Rodeo in Abilene, Kans., all with no luck and no paychecks.
They wouldn’t pick up much of the money they’d need for the PRCA’s World Standings, but they would head farther south by the end of that week and pick up a sweet $20,000 a man for their first major jackpot win together: The Spicer Gripp Youth Foundation Memorial Roping.
“There were four of us in the truck, and we voted for where we’d go this week,” Bird said. “Last year, we made about $10,000 this week in Montana. I didn’t want to go to Dodge City and get this far down south and deal with the heat. But I got outvoted and I wasn’t happy about it. And we weren’t entered in the Spicer Gripp until that Saturday before, so I was really unhappy about not being in Montana.”
“We are sitting fourth in the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour standings, and Dodge City is one of the last rodeos on the tour, so we figured we better make it,” Eaves explained. “It’s the best rodeo of the week, and I wanted to go to the Spicer Gripp, too.” (For 2014, the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour Standings will be calculated for purposes of qualification towards the 2014 Wrangler Champions Challenge Events, where only the top cowboys can pick up extra money towards the World Standings.)
So with that vote and without being entered in the Spicer Gripp, Bird and Eaves had planned to show up to the roping in Amarillo, Texas, in shorts and flip flops, enjoy a cold beverage or two, and cheer on their young traveling partners, Clay and Jake Smith of Broken Bow, Okla.
But Erich Rogers had gotten to Amarillo a day early, and he spoke with organizers and found out there was one spot left in the roping.
“I don’t know why we weren’t entered, but I was sure glad we got in,” Bird said. “After Rogers found out there was a spot, they called and said we were in, and I was a little happier about missing the time at home.”
“I hadn’t been there since 2011,” Eaves continued. “We just planned on being the best dang cheerleaders in the stands for Jake and Clay. But when they called and said they had one spot open, we were happy we had already planned to be there.”
After finding out all members of the Bird–Eaves–Smith rig were entered in the roping, they’d hop in the pickup in Abilene to start the all-night drive to Amarillo.
“I started out driving, but about a half hour into it, I turned it over to Paul and slept the rest of the way,” Bird laughed. “Paul drove, but Jake brought it in.”
In their rig, Jake, the youngest of the two Smith brothers at just 21 years old, usually takes the graveyard shift.
“He’s the youngest, and he can use the most driving,” Eaves said with a smirk.
They’d pull into the roping at 6 a.m., all get a few more hours sleep, then saddle and get ready for their first steer at 10 a.m.
“The biggest thing was getting by our first one,” Bird said. “He tried really hard, and I just ran up and caught him to be 7.1. That took the pressure off, and we were just able to run up and catch every one.”
“We drew really, really good, and the cattle were all really good,” Eaves said. “We got the same steer in the first and second rounds, and then we were a good 6.0 on our third steer. That was our fastest run of the day. Our fourth steer ran hard, but Dustin ran up and caught him and I got him roped to be 8. Our fifth steer went left, but we just went up and got him roped, too. The roping kind of fell apart and I’m not sure why because the cattle were so good, but we just had to not make any mistakes. We were high call by four or five tenths over Riley and Brady (Minor).”
Their short-round steer would be one Aaron Tsinigine had in the fourth round, so Bird knew what he’d do.
“He ran, but I knew I just needed to score good and run up there and catch him, and that’s what I did,” Bird said.
“The short round started falling apart, and we had to be 9 or 10 to win it and any kind of time would have placed. So we got to just back in there and make our run,” Eaves added.
They would end the roping 44.24 seconds on six head, besting Joshua and Jonathan Torres by a full two seconds. The Torres brothers would take home $15,000 a man for their time of 46.37 seconds on six head, Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill would win $12,000 a man for their 50.47-second day, Riley and Brady Minor would earn $6,500 a man for their time of 51.34, and Kaleb Driggers and Patrick Smith would make $6,000 each for their six runs at 52.27 seconds.
The win would be the first major jackpot title for the pair of three years. Their first year together, 2012, would be marked by lots of one-header wins that would push them to their first WNFR, while 2013 and 2014 would bring more consistent, average placings, but still no major jackpot paydays.
“It felt good to follow through with our game plan,” Bird said. “These last two months it’s not really felt like we’ve been able to get ahead, so that $20,000 is nice to put away.”
“This time of the year is the hardest and most frustrating,” Eaves said. “That ‘want’ to win is just building up. We had a great winter and spring and we’ve not roped our best this summer. To have a good roping like this in the middle of it really picks up our momentum.”
And to do it on their two best horses, that makes the win even bigger. With most ProRodeo team ropers not getting much jackpotting in this time of year, some horses weren’t working as well as the guys would want them to in a jackpot situation. Eaves guessed that’s why the roping fell apart. But as for Dolly and Cadillac, they couldn’t have worked better.
“Dolly felt so great there,” Bird added of his signature horse, a 16-year-old mare. “She scored great, ran hard and then slowed the run down to let me really handle the cattle for Paul.”
Eaves was aboard Cadillac, the grey heel horse that’s carried him to two WNFRs as well.
“Cadillac is just so easy,” Eaves said of the 16-year-old gelding. “There’s just nothing I have to do. For both of us to be riding our good horses and for everything to just come together and feel right this time of year, that made this trip all the more worth it.”
From Amarillo the rig rolled on to Stephenville, Texas, where Eaves owns a place with Kaleb Driggers. They’d paid someone to cut the grass all summer, but otherwise the house had been uninhabited for the entirety of the summer run. They’d catch up on a few errands, pay some bills with their winnings and turn their horses out, before leaving the Texas heat again to finally head to Bird’s ranch in Cut Bank, Mont.
“It feels so good to finally be home,” Bird said as he was leaving Cut Banks’ grocery store, picking up some food for dinner that night. “We’re going to float the river today. There’s just something about Montana.”
Senior Steer Roping: Gib Bell, 53.69 seconds on four head, $1,306
BJM Invitational Steer Roping: Chet Herrin, 58.28 on four head, $20,000
MVP & ADT Invitational Calf Roping: Jerome Schneeberger, 35.67 seconds on four head, $20,000
Coolhorse All-Girl Team Roping: Beverly Robbins and Jimmie Jo Montero, 49.56 seconds on four head, $2,880 each
Texas Feed Fat Pro-Am Heading: Chris Morrow and Kory Koontz, 32.59 on four head, $1,000 plus Coats Saddle and $1,200, respectively
Texas Feed Fat Pro-Am Heeling: Kaleb Driggers and Monroe Timberlake, 59.89 seconds on four head, $1,200 and $1,000 plus Coats Saddle, respectively
SG Knot Tying: Clay Logan and Blake Elms, 30.48 seconds on TK head, $1,800 each
Cinch Open Calf Roping Match: Justin Maass
SG Scholarship Junior Calf Roping Match: Cole Patterson