When Jhett Johnson pulled into the Qwest Center in Omaha on the last week of ProRodeo's regular season for the Ariat Playoffs of the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour hosted by the River City Roundup, he had a couple things pressing on his mind.
First, he was 19th in the world standings-four holes out of a Wrangler NFR berth. It wasn't crunch time because he would more than likely qualify for the final playoff stop in Dallas. Nevertheless, the faster a cowboy gets off the bubble for qualifying for the Finals, the better.
The second thing on his mind was the fact that he and header Keven Daniel-an Altha, Fla., native who finished in the crying hole (16th) last year-hadn't roped together inside at a quick, NFR-type set up.
After Johnson spent the winter roping with other partners and battling through an appendectomy, he and Daniel didn't begin roping until the spring, outdoor rodeos.
"We practiced for it, but you don't really know how good your fast run is," Johnson said.
To be fair, Daniel had some heavy stuff weighing on his brain, too. After coming so close in 2006-and winning the PRCA Resistol (header) Rookie of the Year title at 27 years old last year-he wanted his first qualification badly and he wanted his heeler in Vegas with him.
Entering Omaha, he was ranked 12th in the world standings, safely in with only one weekend of rodeos left and most of his competition in the playoff pipeline (Omaha and Dallas) already ahead of him. However, he had developed quite an affinity for his Wyoming heeler and wanted Johnson, who he trusted and built his confidence with, heeling behind him under the bright lights.
"It was the most important thing," he said. "I told my girlfriend earlier in the week that I really wanted to do good here because it's just the confidence of roping with him all year."
From the beginning, things shaped up in their favor. The building ropings-especially in a pressure-packed elimination-style playoff environment-can be unpredictable in the team roping. The rounds can be extremely fast and leave good solid 5- and 6-second runs out of the money. Or, they can fall apart.
In the first round in Omaha, the latter happened. Half of the runs included penalties. And one team, Tommy Edens and Coby Jones, had their steer fall down and heeler Jones had to wait for him to get back up to heel him, 22.4 seconds later.
Daniel and Johnson had the benefit of watching all this happen and simply made an under-the-radar 5.3-second run. David Key and Kory Koontz won the round with a 5.0.
"I'll tell you what helped us out, and it's just a testament to team work, we drew up at the end of every round, so we had a pretty good idea what it would take to place the first night and we executed a good run, a 5.3," Johnson said. "We came in third the next night and got to go at the end again. We knew what would do good and were 5.1. In the semifinals, it kind of looked like it was opening up and Speedy went 4 flat and I thought it might get a little tougher and we just made a real solid run, 5.1."
In the second round, Speed Williams and Dean Tuftin tied a three-year-old arena record set by Shain Sproul and Kinney Harrell with a 4.4-second run to win the round. The next night, in the semifinal round, Williams and Tuftin shattered that mark with a 4 flat. Instantly they became the favorites heading into the round of four.
Jake Barnes and Clay O'Brien Cooper had also quietly qualified to the final round-much like in Puyallup-so there would be stiff competition from the veterans. Additionally, the reigning world champion heeler, Allen Bach, and reigning NFR champion header, Chad Masters, had also made the final round. Bach and Masters
reunited in Omaha despite having other partners for most of the regular season since their respective partners didn't qualify for the rodeo.
Facing that competition, it was instantly easy to count Daniel and Johnson out. There were 22 world titles and 7 NFR average titles in that final round spread among the three other teams.
In fact, Daniel and Johnson played the whole rodeo that way: overlooked, yet calm and confident. As it turned out, that calm confidence was the key.
"I rodeoed at home for a long time," Daniel said. "Me and Chad always roped together and coming out here and being around him has kept me real calm. Between him and Colter Todd, both the Tryans and knowing Speed, it just keeps you real calm. This year hasn't been that much different, I won at the right places. To have Jhett, an older guy who knows the ropes, is the main thing. He knows what we need to do and when we need to do it and it makes a big difference."
In the final round of four, Daniel and Johnson first watched Barnes and O'Brien Cooper go out of contention when Barnes waved off the first loop and they used three to turn in a 16.7-second run. Masters and Bach followed that with a 4.6-second run.
When it all comes down to the Final round, we were a team about it," Johnson said. "We said, 'All right, it's going to get fast, we're in a gunfight,' and we did it."
A little luck on the draw in the gunfight didn't hurt either.
"We came back tonight and had the same steer that we had in Albuquerque last week," Daniel said. "I had it on him pretty fast and when I turned him and Jhett heeled him I had no idea how fast we were. When I looked up it was just great.
"At home all the short scores and stuff, we've been fast. Me and Jhett have been fast a lot of places this year, but to be that fast here when you have to be 4.3, it's one thing when you're 4.3 and just do it, but Chad and Allen were 4.6 and I knew I had to be 4.6 before Speedy goes, it was the best to do what we did when we did it."
That put the pressure on Williams and Tuftin. Their steer tried and Williams took a chance on a bomb-the kind that usually work out for him-but he split the horns and the team took a no time.
"This event has been really great," Daniel said. "Last year I was in California during all this and I was calling up to see who's doing what and they're winning and I'm trying to win. To be at this deal, words can't explain it, to win that much money here and our draw was really good all week. We got to go at the end, we just caught our steers and made good runs and had good steers. To win this and make that much money now is just great."
Precisely, that much money was $16,876. In addition to winning the final round, they were second in the semifinal round, second in the average and third in both of the first two rounds.
"I have that confidence making my first Finals and going there knowing that we did really good up here," Daniel said. "We'll go to Dallas and make some more good runs together and then get to go there. It's just awesome being secure and not having to go anymore. It's great."
For Johnson, who had such a rough start to his season, the feeling is especially sweet.
"When I got home and was healing up from my appendix surgery, my friends were asking me, 'Can you do it?' and it even went through my mind," Johnson said. "And I just headed back out there hoping. I was roping with Turtle Powell and he lost his good horse, but we won decent. Then I ended up roping with Keven and it was the same deal. Started out hoping to do good and it picked up right there midsummer and I realized I had a chance and knew I had to keep banging at them. I drove into this rodeo this week needing to win. I knew if we won anything we'd make Dallas, but I wanted to be done and when we drove out of here and have the Finals made and going to Dallas, just winning to win. After this week, it's made me really confident with him."
At a major rodeo, the 40-percenting phenomenon is a rarity. Forty percenting means winning all rounds and the average, which equals 40 percent of the prize money. In the rough stock events, it happens occasionally. But in the timed events, with more than one round and a short round, it almost never happens.
In the barrel racing, it's happened twice on the Ariat Playoff series. In Puyallup, Sherrylynn Johnson won both long rounds, the average, the semifinal round and the finals.
In Omaha, it happened again. Lindsay Sears, from Nanton, Alberta, won everything. She started in the first round by setting a new arena record with a 13.55-second run, breaking Sherry Cervi's two-year old mark of 14.32. Then, en route to winning the second round, she broke her own record with a 13.31. Obviously, she won the average. Then, in the semifinal and final rounds, she ran 13.34-second round-winning runs.
"It's a tough barrel race every day," Sears said. "Sherrylynn did it at Puyallup and I thought there was no way. To do it this week, I can't believe it."
All told, she won $22,500 and easily moved into second place in the world standings, $30,000 behind Brittany Pozzi-Pharr.
What's remarkable is that her horse, Martha, never ran well indoors.
"I had trouble with her indoors going to the right so about half way through the year I started taking her to the left," she said, referring to which barrel she approached first. "This was the first rodeo indoors to take her to the left and I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen."
With this level of success indoors, suddenly, Sears had a difficult decision to make. She's slated to attend the Canadian Finals Rodeo instead of the final stop on the Ariat Playoffs in Dallas. But with Martha running so well, she has a legitimate shot at closing the gap between her and Pozzi-Pharr heading into the Finals.
Her decision may well determine who wins the world barrel racing title.
Saddle Bronc Riding
Where do you start with Cody DeMoss and Omaha? DeMoss, who has been runner-up to the world title for three years running, won the Omaha rodeo in 2004 aboard Powder River Rodeo's Miss Congeniality. Then he went on to finish second in the world to his hero Billy Etbauer. The writing on the wall seemed clear enough: DeMoss would win a world title before long. Then, the next year he fell short to upstart Jeff Willert. So close. No doubt, 2006 would be his year. He dominated the regular season, but in Omaha a Korkow horse called Big Ugly bucked him off and severely tore his groin.
He never fully recovered and then at the Finals was injured even further, couldn't compete in the final round, and Chad Ferley won the world.
"When I got hurt out there it took a while to get back into the swing of things," DeMoss said.
Indeed, he missed RodeoHouston, where Cody Wright took a $50,000 lead, but by early summer was back in the hunt.
By Omaha, DeMoss was back to his prime form. He breezed through the qualifying rounds and in the final round, drew none other than Miss Congeniality, the PRCA 2005 Saddle Bronc of the Year.
"I won Omaha on her last time I had her," DeMoss said. "Tonight, she didn't want to leave there. I'm really happy with the way it went."
The way it went was a 91-point arena record-eclipsing his hero Billy Etbauer's 2005 90.5 mark. At the end of his ride, the big mare ran DeMoss along the arena railing where he jumped into the stands and sat down.
"I didn't actually get thrown in there," he said. "I saw my way out and I was wanting off of her anyways, and it just so happened that there was a seat right there. It was a crowd pleaser."
While that pleased the crowd, the $11,250 pleased him. Plus it threw him into a more familiar spot: contention for another world title. And this time, he's healthy.
Barry Burk of Ponca City, Okla., no relation to Blair or Barry Burk of Durant, surprised the field of tie-down ropers in Omaha at the River City Roundup when he jumped up to win his first-ever major rodeo.
Then he surprised the crowd at the Qwest Center when he doffed his hat, revealing a Mohawk.
For Burk, though, it was the lack of surprises that catapulted him to the title.
"I actually had [the calf he had in the final round] in the first round," he said. "I knew he'd run a little bit on me, he got a good start on me the first time, but I knew he was good on the ground, Jake Hannum tied him in 7.7 in the second round, so I knew I had to get a good start and it just worked out."
It worked out to be the fastest run of the rodeo: a 7 flat that earned Burk $14,064.
As for the Mohawk, it might have just been the good luck charm he was looking for.
"I lost a bet with two of my buddies, team ropers Jake Long and Coleman Proctor, and it was a card game gone bad," Burk said. "The deal was I had to leave it until Omaha was over then they said if I did good I might ought to think about leaving it for Dallas so I think I'll have it for Dallas."
He might need it. Ranked 20th in the standings, he'll need another performance in Dallas like the one in Omaha to crack the top 15 and see the bright lights of Las Vegas.
Stockton Graves had an almost unfair advantage at the Ariat Playoffs in Omaha. The Newkirk, Okla., cowboy was riding Rodney Burks's three-time PRCA/AQHA Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year, Zan-and he was the only one.
At most rodeos, Zan carries four or five cowboys-and he usually carries them to the pay window, but in Omaha, Graves was the only one.
"It's great, it really doesn't matter that I'm the only guy riding him," Graves said. "That horse usually gets four or five runs everywhere he goes and scores good and it's really no big deal to him whether it's one or five. I thank Rodney Burks for letting me ride him because he's made the difference in my year."
Graves won the first round and Shawn Greenfield won the second. Joey Bell, Jr. won the average. In the semifinal round, Graves, Greenfield and Josh Peek were 3.8. In the final round, Greenfield and Graves tied with 3.6-second runs, however, the tiebreaker went to Graves since he had a faster time coming in.
Graves wound up with $15,626 and catapulted himself right in the thick of the tight world-title race in the steer wrestling.
"I hadn't really thought about that," Graves said. "I had the Finals made before I came here, so I just wanted to come up here and pad my pockets. Once we get to Vegas, we'll see what happens."
If there's one overwhelming success story of the Ariat Playoffs, it's Tom McFarland. He entered the first stop in Caldwell 25th in the world standings. He won that event, which propelled him to Puyallup, where he had a decent showing, earning him enough money and momentum for a trip to Omaha.
With that opportunity, he capitalized.
He coasted through the qualifying rounds and drew New West Rodeo's Black Gold in the finals. The horse's style seemed to fit the wild and woolly McFarland perfectly and the judges awarded him 88 points.
"I had her in Idaho Falls and won second on her there," he said. "So I knew she'd do her part. She's a lot of fun to ride."
With the $12,655, he had the Finals made.
"That's rodeo, a guy can't ever quit," he said. "About a month ago, I was 25th but I just kept entering and started drawing good. The Lord works in mysterious ways so we'll just hope it keeps going."
The bull riding was the one low spot of the entire weekend. In the semifinal and final rounds, no bull rider posted a qualified ride.
The title ended up going to Ted Bert of Modesto, Calif., who had ridden both his bulls in the first two rounds for a combined score of 174 points. He won $8,438.