The Day We Won the BFI
Jake Barnes and Clay O'Brien Cooper won the BFI in 1988. barnes recalls on the day.
Jake and Clay after they won the 1988 BFI.
Jake and Clay after they won the 1988 BFI.

For years and years, the BFI was the one. Between the prestige and the payoff, winning that roping was almost like winning the world. The BFI was in a league of its own, and on every open roper’s bucket list. The 46th annual BFI will be held on April 1 this year at the Lazy E. It’s still on everybody’s bucket list, and the memories from the day Clay (Cooper) and I won it 35 years ago in 1988 still stand out in my mind like it was yesterday. 

The first four BFIs were held over a 35-foot score in Chowchilla, California. The roping then moved to Las Vegas in 1981, and Denton, Texas in 1982 before finding its longtime home in Reno. The year Clay and I won it was the fifth and final year the BFI was held in the outdoor arena that’s still home to the Reno Rodeo. The roping moved indoors there in Reno from 1989-2019.

The BFI scoreline was set out there 18 feet for the whole run of the roping in Reno. Since COVID moved the roping to the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma in 2020, the score’s been 19 feet. Ropers today might have a hard time imagining almost doubling that to 35 feet, like at those first BFIs in Chowchilla. 

But even giving steers an 18- or 19-foot headstart, it takes a special head horse to win the BFI. And no matter where you have that roping, a lot of guys aren’t accustomed to roping big cattle over long scores. To this day, it takes a phenomenal horse to be competitive at the BFI. 

For a lot of years, I didn’t have a horse that fit that style of roping it took to do well at places like the BFI or (California Rodeo) Salinas. But in 1988, I came across a horse that I bought from a guy in Willcox, Arizona that I called Big John. He was a big chestnut sorrel, and just what the doctor ordered for the stout, strong steers Don Gatz took pride in bringing to the BFI. They were huge. 

The weather was a factor that year we won the BFI. About short-round time, a storm brewed up, the wind started blowing, dust was flying and it was trying to rain and hail. I’d placed along at the BFI for several years before that, but having that horse that year finally gave me a chance to win it, even with the blue Velcro back wrap I wore that day, because I was down in the back. 

The money you win at the BFI is a big part of it, but there’s also a lot of value in that kind of exciting shot in the arm going into Cowboy Christmas. Clay and I were high team back, and we had built a little bit of a lead on our first five steers, so just needed a solid run on our last steer to win it. 

Winning the BFI is kind of like making your first NFR (Wrangler National Finals Rodeo) or winning your first world championship. It’s a big deal, and for me was a big sigh of relief. What a feather in any roper’s cap. 

Clay and I didn’t communicate much that day, but that was just us. We didn’t talk strategy. My job was to get out and go turn every steer. Clay’s job was to rope every steer by two feet. That day we won the BFI was no different. We didn’t calculate every move. We just did our jobs. 

Clay’s always been a very high-percentage heeler. He’s almost like a robot, and catches two feet every time. The ball was always in my court. I didn’t dare make a mistake, because the monkey was always on my back. He never missed, so if we didn’t win, it was my fault. Every header’s dream. 

I can remember Clay losing a leg or missing on rare occasion over the years. You could hear the crowd gasp in awe that it happened. How we did was always determined by what I did, and I knew if I didn’t break the barrier or miss, we were going to win. 

I remember that moment of excitement that we’d won the BFI. They gave trailers to the BFI champs back then, and we went to trying to find rides back to Arizona for them and all the prizes that come with a BFI win. Another great problem. Everybody hopes to hit the lottery on BFI day.

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