There’s nothing quite like making a great rope horse. And considering at least five different producers are paying some $5 million collectively at a dozen futurities this year, it’s easy to see why newcomers are jumping in with both feet.
Recreational team ropers like Phil Hooker are starting to realize that instead of buying a finished horse, they can buy a great prospect that actually makes money during the seasoning process. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Wyoming, Hooker now lives in Comfort, Texas. He spent decades selling real estate for a living and heeling steers in his spare time.
“I bought a 5-year-old this spring at the Western Heritage Classic sale in Abilene, consigned by the Stuart Ranch,” Hooker said. “I’m semi-retired and, as I’m getting older, I don’t care as much about the roping. But the horses? That’s fun stuff.”
A friend recommended he send the gelding to up-and-coming trainer Kirby Blankenship, 23, of Dublin, Texas. So he did that and they entered Fort Worth and the Riata Buckle. Hooker’s prospect, Seven S Cocktail, was a year older than what he wanted. But it was a feat just finding that one.
“That was my fourth sale,” he admitted. “I’ve put on 2,000 miles. I’ve looked at more than 400 horses; studied videos day and night. I only picked out one or two horses at each sale. It’s crazy what they’re bringing.”
His gelding is by the reining sire Wimpyneedsacocktail and out of the Stuart Ranch mare Seven S Lena Cash—a granddaughter of both Peptoboonsmal and Miss N Cash.
“I’m totally beginner-naïve with this futurity thing,” Hooker said. “I’ve been talking to Kirby, who has some connections, and we’re trying to find more horses for me. The problem with heel horses is there are a lot of good young ones out there, but they’re not big enough to take it once they grow up.”
Hooker said he wants more futurity-eligible horses.
“The Riata Buckle I’m excited about, especially this first year when they’re guaranteeing $400,000 (per roping) and may not get a ton of teams,” he added. “I’m going to ride this horse in the #10.5 and Kirby will show him in the Open.”
As for Blankenship, he’s a kid with a bright future—a 9.5 heeler who trains horses daily and rodeos on the weekends.
“Dad rode a lot of cutting horses,” said Blankenship, a native of Lampasas. “He never believed in a finished practice horse for me, so he had me in nice colts but they were always greener. He’d say, ‘Hey, figure it out.’ And Clay Logan helped me take it to a whole new level.”
After a couple of years helping Logan, Blankenship struck out on his own and has about 10 heel horses in training. He and up-and-coming head-horse trainer Kelton Hill rope at the same facility and help each other.
Blankenship showed five horses at the ARHFA event in Fort Worth, including Hooker’s 5-year-old. As a new name up against the likes of “king of the cowboys” Trevor Brazile, Blankenship is picking up clues.
“Trevor’s horses are so good in the box,” he said. “I used to run steers and think, ‘They’ll figure it out.’ But now, I take more time in the box. In the field, they need their shoulders picked up and to be driving with their hind end and, when they stop, they need to hurt the earth and not move. It’s hard to beat his horses.”
Importantly, Blankenship learned from Logan to remember who he’s training for; that the client needs to be able to ride the horse, too.
“I stuck a novice on Phil’s horse the other day to see what he does,” Blankenship said. “That’s what gets me the most wound up about this—seeing somebody else do good on a product.”
Speed plus mind
While new trainers watch the champs to know which buttons to install, amateur team ropers are also watching, in wonder.
“I look at some of these runs these guys are getting out of colts and think, ‘How did they get that much out of that horse?’” Hooker said. “It doesn’t just take conformation and ability; it takes the right mind.”
To that end, another roping couple nabbed a promising stud out of the racing world. Rick Montera of Greeley, Colorado, had been friends with Larry Rice for years when Rice suggested he and his wife, phenom-at-both-ends Jimmi Jo, buy his then-8-year-old stallion, First Prize Diver, that the Flag Ranch consigned to the 2020 Triangle Sale.
“As it turned out, the stud already had quite a few colts around that were winning for Cole Davison, Rhen Richard and others,” said Rick, a 6 header whose career has been spent in the feedlot industry. “Diver” is by the late PYC Paint Your Wagon—a ridiculously fast stallion whose progeny have earned more than $35.4 million—and out of a Mr Jess Perry daughter. His son, Smooth Diver out of a High Brown Cat mare, owned by Nick and Lora Nichols, already won a Royal Crown heeling futurity in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
“He’s passing his great mind on to his colts along with the speed,” Montera said. “Ropers want racing blood for the speed, but they can’t always get the mind with it. And how else do you have a 4-year-old with crazy speed that will mentally take these tough setups at these futurities?”
Last spring, Montera turned Brazile down when he called about purchasing Diver.
“Everyone’s seeing what Rhen has done with these racebred horses,” he said. “Diver really is a freak of nature; he’s so quiet. And I’ve ridden a lot of horses—there’s a difference between rope-horse speed and race-horse speed. ”
The Monteras have a couple of coming-2-year-olds by Diver that are futurity-bound, since he’s on the roster of Royal Crown stallions.
“I’ll probably send my colts to Tavis Walters out of Oklahoma to train,” Montera said. “He doesn’t have notoriety, but is really starting to establish himself. He’s got a couple of Larry’s 3-year-olds right now.”
Walters—a Michigan native—actually helped make Chics Magic Corona, the 6-year-old by racing stallion Furyofthewind, on which Richard won a Royal Crown heading futurity in February in Buckeye, Arizona, plus the world title at the ARHFA in October.
Diver isn’t the only athletic stallion from another discipline whose babies are excelling out of the roping boxes. The Schiller Ranch’s Riata Buckle-enrolled dapple gray barrel racing stallion, Epic Leader, has the deep girth and nice hip ropers want. His own dam’s brother was an NFR heel horse.
“I’m not very adept in team roping, but Epic Leader has demonstrated that he passes his talent, attitude, elegance, soundness and will to win to his offspring,” said Kristi Schiller, who acquired “Epic” from his breeder and trainer, NFR barrel racer Kassie Mowry, after their standout barrel futurity season.
He’s by race-bred Confederate Leader and out of Kelly Yates’ NFR barrel racing mare, Firewater Fiesta. Just like the mare’s brother—J.D. Yates’ 1989 AQHA/PRCA Heel Horse of the Year Flits Friend (Pac Man)—Fiesta was by a Flit Bar son out of the Yates family’s great Grey Badger II mare, Mighty Mindy. They roped on Fiesta (the two-time WPRA/AQHA Barrel Horse of the Year) just like they ran barrels on Pac Man.
The late Dr. Woody Bartlett’s mare Reys Desire—a daughter of Dual Rey that banked $453,713 as a cutting superstar—was bred to Epic. Also recently, World Series of Team Roping founder Denny Gentry and his wife, Connie, bred their Woody Be Tuff daughter to Epic in their own first foray into breeding, and are delighted with the result.
“Every place an Epic baby is entered, it performs,” said Schiller, who produced the Diamonds & Dirt Barrel Horse Classic futurity for almost a decade. “Kassie said it was boring training him, because whatever you showed him, he would just do. You never hear about one having a nasty disposition. They’re not hot, they’re easy to train, they’re easy haulers—they’re basically unicorns. They have the conformation of those great foundation horses, too.”
Schiller stands Epic at the Lazy E Ranch in Guthrie.
“He became a million-dollar barrel sire faster than any other stallion,” she said. “I cannot wait to see what his future crops accomplish.”
Other good roping prospects are coming from a stallion as successful on the racetrack as Epic was on the barrel pattern. Winners Version sired recent ARHFA Sun Circuit heading futurity champ Hankies Version, ridden by Richard—whose family sold the stallion to Highpoint Performance Horses.
“We bought him three years ago when we realized he had almost $1 million in barrel racing earners out of no barrel racing mares, just mares off the track,” said Highpoint co-owner Jason Martin.
Winners Version is both Riata Buckle and Royal Crown-enrolled—actually he’s in 16 different racing, roping and barrel racing incentives. And Highpoint has a handful of other Riata Buckle-enrolled stallions by which they’re putting 20 to 30 colts on the ground each season. They threw even more weight into rope-horse breeding this summer when they bought Paul Eaves’ world champion mare, Docs Gunslinger Chic (Jade).
For Martin, it’s not just about mailbox money from colt incentives. He and co-owner Charlie Cole like the marketing of big-time horses and watching their own compete. They’re pulling embryos out of Jade, crossing her on Slick By Design and Show Me The Buckles for a 2023 foal.
“We don’t have the connections, probably, or the understanding yet of the roping side, but we’re learning more and more about it,” Martin said. “We’re getting our feet wet and educating ourselves.”
Highpoint has a weanling by Winners Version out of Sherry Cervi’s world champion barrel racing mare MP Meter My Hay (Stingray). That’s in addition to their equally famous stallion Slick By Design. The black stud that ran barrels at four NFRs has already sired the J.D. Yates-trained heading stallion Probably By Design. Phil Tearney won an AQHA world heading title on him and Yates placed him at the Royal Crown in Rock Springs as a 4-year-old, plus Tearney won the 2022 Select World Show on him. Martin said he thinks AQHA world champ Bobby Lewis has bred mares to “Slick” and NFR heeler Billie Jack Saebens got a Slick colt at a sale.
“We’ve always wanted to have Slick geared toward more than just the barrels,” said Martin. “Just seeing what the Pink Buckle has done for the barrel racing industry, if the Riata Buckle does half of that for team roping, it’s definitely a nice investment to own some of those stallion spots and try to produce some rope horses.”
Since Highpoint in Pilot Point, Texas, stands Brazile’s stallion, Show Me The Buckles, Martin reckons he’ll send their colts to the Relentless camp for training. In the meantime, they planned to have a stallion booth at Fort Worth’s ARHFA event in October and one at the Ariat WSTR Finale in the South Point this December. This year, they enjoyed going to Calgary to watch Wenda Johnson run barrels on her two geldings they recently purchased, and they watched Eaves earn over $80,000 on Jade just in ProRodeo competition, too.
“That’s why we do all this; we love to go to the NFR and the big rodeos; it’s our vacation,” Martin said. “It’s kind of fun for us to dabble in all that. Now we’re breeding for rope horses instead of roping on cow horses that didn’t make it. I just see the potential, and now the futurities are taking off. Everything is set up for it to be really successful.”