Travis Tryan and Michael Jones are perennial favorites for the world title. They are, in many ways, in the prime of their careers. At 28 and 30 years old, respectively, they have rodeoed enough to understand all the intricacies of every arena they compete in, yet they are young enough to still have the fire in their bellies for competition and the drive for their first gold buckles.
Winning the Reno (Nev.) Rodeo-while a significant feather in their cap and monetary bonus-was more of an expectation than a surprise for the team. A cool and composed 16.8-second time on three head earned the duo $14,021 each, boosting them from fifth in the PRCA world standings to third and putting them in prime position for a run at the leaders.
"We got back out here and went to making some runs and went to a jackpot or two," Tryan said after taking the month of May off to prepare for and celebrate the birth of his daughter Payton Jae on May 25th. "It just feels like our rhythm is back good and we just want to keep it rolling through July and August."
After roping together, off and on, for three years, each knows his job and how to set the other up for the most success.
"Travis and I have run enough steers together over the past three or four years that I think we both know where each other are at on our roping," Jones added. "When we get a chance to finish a rodeo-especially Reno-there is some risk in winning first. They don't just give it to you. We capitalized on two steers that were really good, our first and third steers."
In fact, the duo seems to have mastered the cowboy mantra of taking it one run at a time. In the first round, they drew one of the best steers in the pen and turned in a round-winning 4.9-second run.
"Our game plan was pretty good," Tryan said. "We got off to a good start-had a good steer on our first one. Then our second one wasn't very good but we got by him. Because our first one was so good it made up for it a little bit. Our game plan worked really good with the way we drew."
And the game plan is one that has taken 9 years to develop. Only cowboys who have roped in that arena as much as they have and understand the strengths of their partner and partner's horse could refine a strategy so specific.
"We want to put the steer in the arena to make him better to rope," Tryan explained. "In that arena sometimes where they run plays a big part in how good your run is going to be. Seems like we had a good spot and Mike did a good job of hazing them to the right spot so they were easy to catch.
"There's a fine line between letting them go to the right there-because there's a lot of room to the right-and the left fence is a little ways away, but you can get into it if you shove them too far left. So the heeler's got to do a good job of holding them straight and maybe a touch left to give you enough room to finish in the middle of the arena."
With the onus on Jones, he understood his responsibilities perfectly.
"I think one of the better things about our team is that we can talk about different arena situations and different cattle," he said. "With Travis's horse being as fast as he is, there are different arenas that are conducive to different situations. Like Reno, the arena is really big and the steers were really strong, so if I can shut the steers down and not shove them too far left, that gives him a chance to catch up a lot quicker than some of those other guys were getting to."
The second-round steer, a 6.9, was the kind of steer that could derail a less-composed team.
"Our second steer tried to eliminate us," Jones said. "So I think being poised enough to get that second one down and know that we had to make a good run in the short round to beat those guys is something that probably wouldn't have happened three or four years ago with me."
Coming in to the short round, Tryan and Jones were tied with JoJo LeMond and Randon Adams for the second high call behind Chad Masters and Jade Corkill.
Those three teams might just be the hottest going, by the way.
After LeMond and Adams stubbed their toe, Tryan and Jones just needed to be 7.1 to take the lead.
"We had a pretty good steer and I had a good start at him," Tryan said. "That was the main thing I wanted to do, was get a good start at him because that helps so much. I got a good start and the steer was pretty good. He ducked his head pretty good when the head rope went on, but I kept it on him and Mike was out there waiting for him and he heeled him on the first jump. We just roped for what our steer was. Whatever he gave us we went with it and we ended up being 5 flat. Chad and Jade had to be six flat to tie and their steer ran a little bit harder than ours did and they ended up being 6.8. We were just more or less wanting to make sure we were winning it when we left the arena and we had a decent steer and he allowed us to be pretty fast."
The 5.0-second run won the short round. The strategy sounds simple, but that has been the secret to their success. That, and two of the best horses backing into ProRodeo's boxes.
Tryan's 20-year-old bay Walt is a three-time PRCA/AQHA Head Horse of the Year.
"He's still working good and running them down fast," he said. "I'd hate to put a number on [how long he'll keep going] because he's outlasted everyone's expectations. He's got years, I'll say that. He hasn't slowed down any. He's still full of energy. He's still 100 percent healthy and strong as ever."
Jones's horse, Jackyl, is estimated to be around the same age and could have won multiple heel horse of the year awards except his registration papers were lost in his youth and only AQHA horses can win that award. Still, he's regarded as among the best in the sport.
"If you ever had a chance to be around that horse and see his personality, you wouldn't worry about how long he has," Jones said. "Just like any of us, our days are numbered, but he's got such a great personality. We haul some younger horses with us and we'll haul for extended periods of time and the younger horses get out and are tired and ready for some rest, but Jackyl he gets out and he's more ready to go than if you leave him turned out for a week. He's definitely special to me, but he seems to be getting better and better for me."
So if there was ever a team with the right mix of experience, horses and drive for a world title, it's Tryan and Jones. In fact, a shoot-out for the title between them and Masters and Corkill might be brewing.
"They've been roping really good and have been making some good runs," Tryan said. "Here lately, me and Michael have been making some good runs too. I don't know if it's a rivalry, but ever since they went to roping together they've been winning. You've got to dang sure be at the top because they're going to be winning so you need to be winning with them."
And they are. What's more, Jones feels as though his roping is still improving.
"I would say that everything that I've learned to this point has taught me that there's a lot more to learn," Jones added. "There was a time, five or six years ago, when I started making the Finals that I thought I had things figured out and had a pretty good idea and direction of where I was going. It took me not making the Finals a couple times to realize that those guys were beating me for a reason. It wasn't just bad luck or a bad draw-I didn't know as much as I needed to. It's funny, it just keeps getting better. We just keep working on making a consistent run that we can make every time with speed."
And, if their game plan holds up, that's all they need to do to strap on a gold buckle come December.
Barrel racers are known for their horsemanship, daring and even beauty. But tough isn't an adjective used to describe the participants in this event nearly as much as, say, bareback riders.
But reigning World Champion Lindsay Sears took a page from the roughstock end of the arena and battled through injury to win the Reno silver spurs.
Riding a yellow mare she calls Hankey, she flew out of the outgate after a run at the High River (Alberta) Rodeo and slammed her left leg against the gatepost. The impact fractured the top of her fibula-near the knee-and damaged a nerve that controls the movement of her foot.
"My dad's nickname for me is Humpty Dumpty," the former figure skater said. "It seems like every time I fall down I break something. Before this, I had broken bones in my other three limbs, now I've broken all four."
Yet, after winning the second round with a 16.96-second run, she was leading the average on two (34.03) going into the short round at Reno. Outfitted with a brace and a molded pad, she decided to give it a shot, despite the danger that further nerve damage could render her left foot useless.
"I'm not going to lie, it's been a pain," she said. "I'm not riding 100 percent, Martha packed me around in Reno. She's so strong and runs so hard, she's not easy to ride."
Still, packing her around resulted in a 17.08-second run, good for second place in the round, and a 51.11-second time on three runs to narrowly edge Mary Burger for the win and $12,376.
After two disappointing runs in Greeley that may have aggravated the injury, Sears headed home to see a specialist before making a decision about her competition schedule for the rest of the Fourth of July weekend.
In the five years of J.W. Harris's full-time rodeo career, Reno has always been good to him.
"Reno is becoming one of my favorite stops of the year," the reigning world champion bull rider said. "They gave me a hard time the other day, saying I'd have to take up residency there and start giving back to the community. It's always been one of my favorite rodeos."
In 2006, his first full year rodeoing, Harris rode Western Rodeo's Werewolf for 96 points to win the Xtreme Bulls title there and essentially announce his presence among ProRodeo's elite bull riders.
Now, after riding two bulls for 185 points and earning $17,214 at the 2009 Reno Rodeo, he's quickly gaining status in the community. But it took an old friend to get him there.
Big Bend Rodeo's 427 Major Shock and Harris teamed up in the first round at Reno for the fourth time this year.
"He throwed me off the first time I got on him, then I was 85.5 on him at Houston and 87 at Pocatello," he said.
You'd think that would give him a huge advantage, but as Harris pointed out, once you've ridden a bull several times, the pressure is on to ride him again.
As it turned out, Harris had the bull's number. This time, he rode him for 91 points and won the round.
In the short round, he drew Big Bend's Firebird.
"He kind of hopped and skipped with me and went out there a couple jumps and come around to the left," Harris said. "The whole time he was really dropping trying to yank me down. I just had to kick loose and push on my rope the whole time. I dang sure had to work for it."
But the 94 points he scored proved to be worth the effort.
"It's perfect," he said. "We're just fixing to get on the road and really hit our Fourth of July run. Every dime counts with that rodeo there, I'll move up in the standings a bit. The confidence going into the Fourth helps."
What's more, RodeoHouston $50,000 winner and world standings leader Douglas Duncan blew his knee out in Hugo, Okla., requiring surgery. Him being sidelined has opened the door for Harris, who in his own estimation is riding better than ever, to close the gap and perhaps pass Duncan in defense of his world title.
"He's not there to defend himself, he's sitting at home, but you feel bad for the guy," he said. "I'd like to win the world it back to back. It's hard to win it just once. The first one is probably the hardest to get and it seems like after that that's all anybody's been winning. It's hard to win more than one because the competition is so tight."
B.J. Campbell is another cowboy for whom the Reno Rodeo has historically been very good. In 2006 he won the all-around title there by steer wrestling and team roping.
While he has qualified for the Wrangler NFR three times as a heeler, steer wrestling has always been a secondary event. But for anyone watching the bull dogging action in Reno, they wouldn't have known it.
Campbell led the average after placing third in the first round with a 4.6 and splitting the second round win with a 3.8-second run. While the field wasn't as star-studded as it tends to be, former world champion Dean
Gorsuch and perennial NFR qualifier Joey Bell were nipping at Campbell's heels coming into the finals.
"There's not much to it, just went my way I guess," Campbell said. "I didn't draw as good as everybody else in the short round. I had a steer that tried a little harder. It's usually a tougher short round, but everybody else had some trouble."
Campbell had only entered the steer wrestling at four other rodeos, but the 5.8 short round run that boosted his total to 14.2 on three was enough to keep the other cowboys at bay. What's more, that was only the fourth rodeo this year at which Campbell entered the steer wrestling. And despite winning $14,142, he'll only enter his circuit rodeos and Cheyenne going forward.
"If I make the NFR, it's because I won at the right ones. I'm not going to travel," Campbell said. "We're just easing around and going to the Tour rodeos and that's it. We've got a lot of irons in the fire so we can't be gone too much. We're training horses and my brother is putting on a bunch of team ropings, I've got property deals and a horse camp in Arizona. If I stay gone, nothing else happens."
But plenty happens in the arena when he does enter. Not only did Campbell win the steer wrestling, he and his brother Bucky made the short round in the team roping where B.J. misunderstood the start on the steer and broke out while Bucky roped a leg.
Still, his success was enough to earn him another Reno Rodeo all-around title.
"I guess I'm not one of the superstars anymore," he said. "Anybody can have a good day, I guess."
In the tie-down roping, Landon McClaugherty of Tilden, Texas, roped three calves in 29.3 seconds to edge Cody Ohl for the average title and win $12,664. Legacy bareback rider Kaycee Feild, son of four-time all-around champ Lewis, rode three broncs for 252 points to win $10,627 in Reno, while South Dakota saddle bronc rider Dusty Hausauer rode three for 255 points and $8,268.