Before making the Wrangler National Finals in 2008, Turtle Powell had only cracked the top 15 three times: 1999, 2001 and 2004. By no means was the friendly cowboy a fixture in Las Vegas.
But that all might change now that he's found a horse-one perhaps not so ironically named Vegas.
The gray seven-year-old is light years ahead of his age. As a six-year-old-basically his rookie year--he finished third in the voting for the PRCA/AQHA head horse of the year award, won top head horse at the Spicer Gripp Memorial Roping and carried Powell to a over $114,503 in earnings that year.
What's more, things aren't slowing down for Turtle and Vegas.
RA Sonoita Silver-a grandson of Playgun (making him a grandson of Freckles Playboy)-was born in Ringling, Okla. A man named Ronnie Austin bred and raised the horse, and Charles Wade trained him. Then Terry Thompson, a 1986 Wrangler NFR steer wrestling qualifier-turned elite team roping horse trainer and trader, bought him.
"That little horse is a neat little horse," Thompson said. "Not very often do you get one that's as pretty as he is that's as good as he is. He's got a super mind on him."
In fact, after only roping 30 or 40 steers on the horse, a friend asked him to go to a Booger Barter roping. Thompson demurred, saying he only had a four-year-old, and was worried about the glitz and glamour of a Booger Barter production. The partner insisted, so Thompson relented and Vegas handled it like an old pro. With that experience, he instantly knew he had a special horse on his hands. The next weekend he went to an amateur rodeo where he won it with a 5.2-second run.
"He's a natural," Thompson said. "He's just one of those that loves it."
Thompson, having trained Jake Barnes's Peppy Doc and Brandon Beers's Nickel, had numerous connections with NFR-type ropers and wherever he went, Vegas caught their eye. Powell was among them.
"Terry would bring him over every now and then and I'd ride him for him and he kept wanting to sell him," Powell said. "He wanted $25,000 for him. I liked the horse a lot, he was really good-minded and a good horse, so I kept trying to find some older guys with some money to buy him for themselves, because he would be that kind of horse.
"I kept telling my wife, Molly, how I liked him so much and she would get mad at me for calling everyone trying to sell that horse. She said, 'Why don't you buy that horse?' I said, 'I can't give that much for a four-year-old.'"
Powell wasn't the only one balking at the price. Jhett Johnson, Jake Barnes and Matt Tyler were all offered the horse by Thompson only to refuse for the same reason.
"So over Christmas of 2005, my folks, Richard and Linda, were asking Molly why I wasn't looking for a horse. Molly told them there was a four-year-old that I talked highly of, but I wouldn't buy him. My dad said, 'Why won't he buy that horse? Is he quitting?' Molly told them it was because they wanted $25,000 for him.
"So he and my mom cornered me up and said, 'Hey look, why don't you buy that horse?' I told them the same reason. They said, 'Well, if you don't buy him, we'll just buy him.' So they bought the horse. Then I had him."
When Thompson handed him over to Powell, he told him that he was getting the total package: a horse he could use now and a horse he could use for the future. Vegas was ready to go and, in fact, would be the next Scooter. (For those unfamiliar with Charles Pogue's late, great head horse, many consider him the best there ever was.)
The conventional wisdom in rodeo, however, is that a horse isn't ready to stand up to the rigors of hauling and competition until at least eight-years-old. Thompson leased Powell another horse, a dun called Bubba, until Vegas would be seasoned and ready to go. Powell won San Antonio on Bubba. Vegas, meanwhile, traveled with Powell on the road so he could see the sights. Turned out people already knew him.
"I was hauling him around with me when he was four and Matt Shiozawa (three-time Wrangler NFR tie-down roper) walked up to me and said, 'That's old Grey Goose.'" Powell remembered. "I said, 'What?' he said, 'Yeah, I roped a bunch a calves on this horse.' I said, 'No, not this horse, this horse is only four.' He said, 'Yeah, I roped a bunch of calves on him last year.' I said, 'Really?'"
After a short tour of the rodeo road, Vegas was called upon, as a five-year-old, to rope at the Bob Feist Invitational in 2007.
"Then last year I was having horse problems and at Logandale, Nev.," Powell said. "I told Travis [Graves], my partner, 'Man I don't want you to think I'm trying to break in a horse for you, but this is the best horse I got and I've got to ride him.' He said, 'No big deal, whatever you think.' Well, we made the short round at Logandale, and I missed to win the rodeo. We won second on him at Oakdale, Calif., later that week and we were high call and Travis missed to win the Mike Boothe roping on him."
From that day forward, Turtle never stepped off him.
"He's got a heck of a mind on him, where nothing bothers him, almost like he's been there before," Powell said. "Sometimes he might be a little greener in some places, but all in all he's so honest, scores so good and the crowd doesn't bother him. Anywhere you take him, it doesn't bother him at all that I've found yet. Real level-headed. You could look forever and not find a horse like that."
Despite the instant ability from the horse, Powell remained on the bubble to qualify for the Finals last year. As the season winds down, it heads indoors to places like Omaha and Dallas. Short scores and loud crowds. Suddenly Powell was relying on a rookie to get him over the hump in a new environment.
"The first small setup I took him to was Omaha at the tour finals," he said. "He worked really, really good. I was nervous about him wanting to come up the wall. Stuff happens so fast I didn't want to get caught with my pants down and not get up the wall. Actually the first one I roped on him we were like 5.1 and one out of placing and I had just reined him up the wall. The next time I come across there and stuck it on the steer and I'm kind of starting to rein him off and he just come right back and I lost my rope. I was a little nervous, thinking maybe I was showing him stuff too fast. Then the next place I rode him was in Dallas and I made the Finals right there. Cory Petska and I won $6,000 there in the first round."
Powell came out of the arena, whooped and hollered and set out to celebrate. But the reason he was celebrating also caused him hesitation.
"I was nervous about it going in there," he said. "You take a young horse like that and duck him 10 times, they'll get to figuring it out."
As a matter of fact, Powell even auditioned other horses. He didn't want to risk ruining what could be one of the best head horses of all time.
"But when the chips all came up and it was time to decide what we were going to do, it was hard to not ride him," he said.
Once there, Vegas carried Powell to $50,300 in winnings-including a second-place average finish.
"He's a special horse because there aren't many horses that you can take [to the NFR] as a six-year-old," he said. "Still the rodeos I'm taking him to now, it's his rookie year."
And guess what? He's winning those rodeos.
He and Graves finished in the top spot at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo (see page 10), won the Wildfire Open to the World (see page 34) and won the first two rounds in their bracket in San Antonio to make the short round.
"After San Antonio I was a little nervous about it because when I reached for that last steer, he kind of dropped to come back up that wall. I thought, I better not be showing him that all the time since he's so young.
"Then, at the Wildfire, I hung around the box and made sure I got to run the burn steer because I didn't know how Vegas would be. I run right in the middle of that steer and held him up and the rest of the day Vegas was right with me. He went right to the horns, handled good and never tried to drop. I think it's pretty much however the pilot rides him is how he's going to do.
"He's always stepped up to the occasion wherever I've taken him."
And as for the $25,000 investment that he thought was too much for a four-year-old?
"Some guys try to buy him for $100,000," he said.
Powell's goals, however, remain to make the Finals and compete for a world title, and he knows that it's impossible without a great horse and that the great ones don't come along that often.
"I think everybody can see what a big difference a horse makes for a guy," he said. "Especially in my style of roping where I run in there a little more and don't reach a whole lot. It proved it last year, when I finally got a good horse I started winning again and winning good money. If I don't have a horse, I'd be better off staying at home. He proves that, I've done a lot better since I got him. That horse has just been a dream come true. And he's pretty to look at, too. I never thought I would find a horse like that."
And what about the rest of the team roping world? Thompson said a month or two after Powell started riding the horse, he got a call from Clay O'Brien Cooper. Cooper asked, "Have you heard the rumor?" Thompson replied, "No." Cooper said, "They're saying that horse is the next Scooter."