Ace Berry qualified for his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 1962, when he was just 15 years, 11 months old. He teamed roped at the Finals 14 straight years, from 1962-75, and also rode bareback horses at the Finals six times—in 1967 and from 1969-73. Berry and Phil Lyne are the only two cowboys ever to win two NFR average titles the same year. In 1972, Berry won the team roping (with John Miller) and bareback riding, and Lyne won the tie-down roping and bull riding. Berry, now 72 and living in Knights Ferry, California, also won the NFR team roping average in 1967 (with Bucky Bradford) and another bareback riding average crown in 1971.

Q: You were born in Oklahoma. How old were you when your family moved to California?

A: I was 5, and we moved to California because my dad (Virgil) went to work for (ProRodeo Hall of Famer and 1953 World Champion Team Roper) Ben Johnson (who headed for California cowboy Ed Yanez when he won the world) at his ranch in Farmington (which is on the outskirts of the original Cowboy Capital of the World in Oakdale). We cowboyed every day, and my dad was a header, so I heeled all the time.

Q: For those who aren’t old enough to remember, what was Oakdale like back then, when there were cowboys everywhere, like there are in Stephenville, Texas, today?

A: Oakdale was a ranch town—the best cattle country in the United States that I know of. The cowboys and cattlemen were the kings around here. A lot of the old pasture country is almond trees now. But back then, cowboys came here because it was cattle country. They could rodeo out of Oakdale and find jobs doing day work for ranchers during the week. Some ended up staying. A lot of the greats lived in Oakdale—(including Hall of Famers) John Bowman, Sonny Tureman, Harley May and the Camarillos, (and World Champions) Al Hooper, Ted Ashworth and Doyle Gellerman. Walt Woodard lived nearby, too. The list of great cowboys from this part of California went on and on. Over time, a lot of them had to move to cheaper ground. But this was the cowboy hub back in the day.

Q: What’s the best part about being a lifelong California cowboy?

A: I started working on this ranch—Rancheria del Rio Estanislaus, which is an old, 10,000-acre Mexican land grant—when I was 12 years old. I leased it for 40-some years. As for the best part, I don’t know where in the world you could find better weather than we have right here.

Q: My dad tells stories of a legendary gray head horse they called Blue that was started by Virgil Berry there on Ben Johnson’s ranch out of Oakdale. Tell me more.

A: My dad started Blue, then I rode him when he was 3 years old. He was too big for me to heel on, so my dad took him back and made a head horse out of him. John Miller (Ben Johnson’s ProRodeo Hall of Fame nephew) took Blue to college at Cal Poly, then went on to win a couple world titles on him. John stayed at Ben’s ranch, where my family lived. That’s how John and I got to roping together.

Q: Tell us about your partnership with John.

A: We started roping together when I was 13 and John was 18. We entered Salinas that year, when Blue was just a colt. There were 167 teams entered that year, and we won a go-round. I roped with John at the Finals when he won his world championships in 1970 and ’71, and we won the NFR average together in 1972. When every other round at the NFR was team tying, I heeled on Blue for the team tying and John headed on him in the five rounds it was dally roping. Blue got stolen when John had him at Cal Poly. The thieves hauled him up to Santa Rosa to a chicken-horse sale, where they bought horses to put into dog food. Luckily, the brand inspector noticed the freeze brand we’d put on him.

Q: You roped with Californian Bud Corwin at your first Finals in 1962. What do you remember about roping at the NFR when you were 15?

A: I was pretty much in awe of the cowboys there that I’d heard of, but hadn’t seen. They were legends. There was no team tying in California, so it was straight dally roping all 10 rounds that year. The NFR was in downtown Los Angeles then, and there was hardly anybody in the grandstands. You could have shot a shotgun off and not hit anybody.

Q: You and John Miller actually won the 10 round at the 1972 NFR in Oklahoma City—the last round ever of team tying—en route to your second NFR average win. Were you sad to see team tying go?

A: Yes, it was pretty fun to go out with a bang in the team tying, which we did at all the Arizona rodeos back then. Some teams actually switched ends at the NFR, depending if it was dally or not.

ACE-2

Q: When and how did you start riding bareback horses?

A: I was 15, and (1948 World Champion Bareback Rider) Sonny Tureman coached me when I first started. He put me on my first horse. I liked the bareback riding. When you nodded your head, that horse was all yours. I made my first Finals in that event when I was 20. Bareback riding was really good for me, because it let me enter all the big rodeos back before they had team roping. They never had team roping at a lot of the big rodeos, including Pendleton and Cheyenne, until long after my rodeo career was over.

Q: How much do you get to rope now?

A: I practice at Jerold Camarillo’s in Oakdale, and go to a few World Series ropings around here. I also rope on the ranch, and play a little golf when I can.

Q: Who’s your pick to win the world in the team roping?

A: I’m going to root for Jake Long and Kyle Lockett on the heeling side. I like the way Jake ropes, and I have a horse he used to haul. Shorty’s 19 now, and that’s what I heel on. I’ve known Kyle since he was a little boy, and he’s a good cowboy—and not just a rodeo cowboy. I have a soft spot in my heart for real cowboys. 

Related