Russell Cardoza heeled at six Wrangler National Finals Rodeos between 2009 and 2017. After overcoming some physical setbacks, the Columbia River Circuit standout has had some amazing showings at the Cinch Timed Event Championship in recent years. Russell, 36, and his wife, Sammy Jo, live in Terrebonne, Oregon
Q: You grew up in California with a group of kids who went on to do big things in rodeo. You, Broc Cresta, Spencer Mitchell and Justin Davis were always pretty tight, weren’t you?
A: Yes, we were all really tight and close friends growing up. We lived in different areas, but we always hung out together. All we wanted to do growing up was make the NFR and be successful. When we made the NFR together, it meant a lot.
Q: Losing Broc left a huge hole in all your hearts, didn’t it?
A: For sure. I still think about Broc every day—about stuff we did together, and old stories. Broc’s last NFR back number was 42, and since he’s been gone, I don’t know how many times I’ve drawn #42 or that number has come up. I was at a gas station the other day, and my bill was exactly $42. The lady working there even commented that you don’t see that every day, with no change. Justin says the same thing happens to him. I miss Broc, and think about what he’d be doing today if he was still here.
Q: Remind us who all you’ve roped with at the NFR.
A: I roped with Charly Crawford at the 2009 and 2010 NFRs; Colby Lovell in 2012; Jake Cooper in 2015; and Dustin Bird in 2016 and ’17. They were all good partners. Me and Colby won a lot all year at the rodeos and jackpots. Bird and I got along good, and had the same plan.
Q: How long has it been since you hit it hard, and tried to make the Finals?
A: The last time I went all year was 2019. I started the year in 2020, but didn’t have enough won, so came home. I’ve mostly gone to circuit and amateur rodeos around the house the last couple years, and have been riding outside horses. But I still go to a few beyond the circuit, and I’ll never not rodeo. I plan to go hard again one of these years, and try to make the Finals again.
Q: What do you miss the most and least about the full-time rodeo trail when you’re not on it?
A: What I miss the most is just going and winning, and making the NFR. What I miss the least is the driving and being away from home all the time, especially with us raising horses.
Q: Do you have one favorite win so far?
A: Probably when me and Bird won San Antonio in 2016. Winning a big one like that gave us a really good start to the whole year.
Q: It’s always about the horses, isn’t it? Which one is your all-time favorite?
A: My bay mare Mo. She was the smartest horse I’ve ever had, and had the most try. From day one, I liked her. She was a solid bay with a long mane and tail, so she looked good and always carried herself pretty cool. I headed, heeled, roped calves, hazed and bulldogged on Mo. The only thing I didn’t do is steer rope on her, and she probably would have been good at that, too. Mo was just awesome.
Q: You’ve rebounded from a pair of hip-replacement surgeries. Why two new hips on someone so young?
A: I have AVN—avascular necrosis, where the blood cells get damaged in the joint due to lack of blood supply. They’re never sure why people get it, but no blood gets to the bone and the bone starts dying. I had my left hip replaced on November 6, 2018, on me and Sammy Jo’s eighth anniversary. I was limping around and sore, and when I got it X-rayed, my femur was fractured. I had my right hip replaced on September 27, 2019, and after knowing the signs had it taken care of pretty fast, before it got too bad.
Q: After missing the 2019 and 2020 Cinch Timed Event Championships, you competed at your 11th TEC in 2023. You finished second this year, after a third-place finish in 2022. How hard was it to rebound physically in five events with two new hips?
A: It wasn’t too hard. I healed up quicker than I expected. Being younger probably helped with that. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.
Q: How many home-grown horses did you ride at the 2023 Timed Event?
A: We raised two of the horses I rode this year—the head horse, AJ, and the bulldogging horse, Starbucks. AJ is out of our stud, Hippy. Mo was Hippy’s mom, which makes AJ a grandson to Mo. We didn’t raise the calf horse I rode, Janie, but got her as a 3-year-old and made her. I heeled on Terra. Sam got her when she was 3, and gave her to me and Sammy Jo as a wedding present when she was 5. Janie and Terra both came from Gary and Patti Martin, right down the road here in Terrabonne. I borrowed Brad Prather’s horse Cisco for the steer roping. Brad passed away in a car wreck in January. It was really nice of his family to let me ride his horse, and they came and watched me the last day at the Timed Event.
Q: Tell us about your stud, Hippy, whose registered name is Cowboy Cardoza.
A: Hippy’s by Frenchmans Fabulous, who’s by Frenchmans Guy, so he has plenty of barrel-horse blood in him, too. We head and heel on Hippy, and I’ve hazed on him. Sammy Jo runs barrels on him. Hippy’s bay with a white strip down his face. I headed and heeled on him at the Timed Event in 2021.
Q: How many horses do you raise a year, do you start them from scratch and what are your goals for your horse herd?
A: We usually have between eight and 10 broodmares, so that many babies a year between us and Sammy Jo’s dad (Sam Willis). We start them from scratch, from the halter breaking on. I think it’d be really cool to ride horses we raised in every event at the Timed Event. We’re raising good-looking, smart all-around rodeo horses with plenty of run that we can win on. We sell some of them, too. Our horses are easy to start from day one. We’re raising the kind of horses we want to ride.
Q: Do you have any cowboy goals left?
A: I want to win the Timed Event. I still haven’t won first there. It’d also be awesome to make the NFR another time or two, and try to win a gold buckle. TRJ