Roping, Wrestling and Running – By Kendra Santos
Cowboy camaraderie is for real, and a couple of the Round 7 winners are prime examples of that fact. Nevada steer wrestler Dakota Eldridge had struggled in the early going of the 2017 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, but he wasn’t too busy with his own stresses, strains and regrouping to recognize that he was not alone.
His California cowboy friend Ryle Smith, who was a tie-down roper here last year, had already tried his luck aboard two different bulldogging horses in the previous six rounds of the rodeo and was having hell. What did Dakota do in his own time of need? He offered his sorrel secret weapon, Rusty, to Ryle. It was the definition of selfless in the pressure-packed heat of NFR battle.
“Ryle’s a cowboy, a friend and a good guy,” said Dakota, who’s wrestling steers at his sixth-straight NFR. “If I see a guy struggling, I want to help him out. We’ve all been in Ryle’s shoes. He just hasn’t had any luck, and needed to make a change.”
I ran into Dakota down in the Justin Sportsmedicine Room right before Round 7. I was visiting with Justin’s medical miracle worker Dr. Tandy Freeman—who has reconstructed the knee I blew out in the rodeo arena as a teenager—and on this night had an ear, nose and throat specialist write me a prescription after cringing at my raw throat.
Dakota was there getting his right hip stretched by a Justin Sportsmed trainer. All the extra miles it takes here—between barn duty, autograph sessions around town all day and checking the draw in the rodeo secretary’s office—add up, and have been making his hip mad.
Dakota had previously cashed two checks for placing in Rounds 4 and 6, but his big breakthrough in Round 7 came when he went back to basics, blocked out yesterday and tomorrow, and just kept it simple.
“Sometimes you’re just trying too hard,” said the Elko, Nevada, cowboy. “But you can’t be faster than the steer you have each night. It’s a lot easier when your mind’s clear and you’re not overthinking it. It always works out the best when you just go do your job. That feeling I had tonight when the crowd went ecstatic is a feeling you want to feel every time.”
It’s a longstanding annual tradition that we celebrate Canada Night on the last Thursday of the rodeo, which lands the Maple Leaf flag-waving on Round 8. Texas tie-down roper Randall Carlisle borrowed a horse by the name of Fletch from his Canadian cowboy friend Kyle Lucas—who’s the son of longtime NFR tie-down roper Smokin’ Joe Lucas—to turn his week around and take the Round 8 victory lap.
If you haven’t heard about the level of athletes among us here in the cowboy herd, you should know that Randall set the national high school basketball record for three-point shots as a point guard for Lipan High School from 2003-05 in his native Lone Star State. He sunk 519 three pointers while “dialing long distance” for 1,557 points earned the hard way.
Randall’s dad, Randy, holds a national high school basketball record of his own for most assists with 1,592 from back in his glory days at Minden High School in Louisiana. Randy grew up with basketball star Pistol Pete Maravich, who taught him the importance of passing the ball.
“I’d rather pass the ball than shoot it,” Randall said ironically, as an all-time leading scorer. “In my family we live by the motto that the goal is to make your teammate an All-American. We’d rather not be selfish. Basketball taught me to always be humble, and when you’re down to keep positive so you can come back and turn things around.”
The luck of the draw has not been in Randall’s favor here this week. He’s only had two calves who cooperated and weren’t downright deal breakers. He’s been kicked out of the money in all but two of the first seven rounds.
“I’m happy and my banker’s happy,” smiled a relieved Randall. “It took a lot of failures to get here to get this (go-round) buckle, that’s for sure.”
I was thinking about my late and wonderful Grandma Hazel during Round 8, because it was her birthday. I thought it was fun to find out that first-generation cowgirl Tillar Murray, who won the seventh round of the barrel race, is named after her great grandmother on her dad’s side, Alice Tillar Reagor.
It’s miraculous that Tillar, a 21-year-old junior liberal arts, business honors and finance major at the University of Texas at Austin, is even here at her first Finals after breaking her back last summer. She had a nasty wreck at the rodeo in Sheridan, Wyoming, when her horse Commander spooked at some chalk in the arena dirt in front of the second barrel, which was there to mark the boundaries of the Indian races.
“Commander jumped sideways, I got drilled, he got scared and mowed me over getting over me,” Tillar remembers all too vividly. “I was more worried about him than me. I wasn’t mad at all. He wasn’t being mean. It scared him. Yes, he spooks at things. But he’s so talented and so special.”
She fractured the transverse process of her L3 vertebra. Several people suggested she sell the bronc. Tillar was having none of that, and three days later strapped on a back brace and saddled up to try and defend her 2016 title at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Tillar keeps her horses with renowned horse trainer, mentor and close family friend Martha Tompkins, when she’s at school. Martha manages the horses and keeps them tuned up for her, so she can hit the books with minimal distraction. Martha’s the daughter of ProRodeo Hall of Fame bull rider Harry Tompkins.
“I hadn’t had a whole lot of success before tonight,” said Tillar, who overcame the adversity of running very last on the ground in Round 7, which is virtually always considered a disadvantage. “Martha reminded me that I needed to have a more positive attitude, so I snapped out of it. I also wasn’t riding my horse all that well. I knew Commander (who’s 9) could do it. It was just a matter of me helping him more.”
Dustin Equsquiza and Kory Koontz’s victory lap in Round 7 was their second of the week, and Kory’s 23rd in the 21 times he’s team roped at Rodeo’s Super Bowl. The talented twosome that also tied Luke Brown and Jake Long for the win in Round 4 turned in the fastest run of the rodeo in Round 7 with a wicked, 3.5-second run.
This diverse team of Finals freshman Dustin and veteran Kory is somewhat reminiscent style-wise of eight-time world titlists Speed Williams and Rich Skelton. Brave bomber Speed used to tell me all the time, “Live by the sword, die by the sword,” always refusing to back down and play it safe. Speed to their team’s chances, and Rich was the consistent closer in their unparalleled winning combination.
“It’s hard to put myself on the same level as Speed Williams in any sort of comparison,” said humble Floridian Dustin, just 22 years of age next to his 46-year-old partner’s 21 trips to this rodeo. “But there are times when going for it is a necessity.”
Like, say, when you miss your first steer and go out of the average straight out of the blocks.
“I decided earlier today that I’m going to go as fast as I can the last four rounds,” Dustin continued. “I don’t want to say I’m reckless and I don’t want to call myself conservative. I guess you’d say I want to be whatever’s in-between.”
During the reign of Speed and Rich’s legendary roping relationship, they had a deal. Quarterback Speed took the chances, and wide receiver Rich was the closer.
“Closing the deal is every heeler’s job,” said Kory, who also mentioned that he was kicking himself after their run in Round 6. “I didn’t throw very fast last night. I was disappointed in myself for not taking the chance to win some money, and we ended up being way too long (4.9 when 4.1 won last hole). I knew Dustin was going to be aggressive tonight, and I wanted to be more aggressive, because we’d been too slow a couple times.”
Their 3.5 was the fastest of the rodeo thus far, and hot on the heels of the 3.3-second world record set here in 2009 by Chad Masters and Jade Corkill, who are roping with Travis Graves and Clay Tryan, respectively, this year. The 3.5 also was the fastest run of Koontz’s crazy-cool cowboy career.
“I loved watching the video afterwards, because it looks like I’m in total control,” said Kory, who got on a big-time roll to win four of 10 rounds here in 2003 heeling for California’s Daniel Green. “But it did not feel that way when I made the shot. That run was basically a blur.”
Bulls, Bares and Saddle Broncs – by Susan Kanode
There was a lot of reason for celebration in Round 7 of this year’s NFR. Tanner Aus and Hardy Braden took their second victory laps of the week around the Thomas and Mack Center. Joe Frost took his first.
Joe has been steadily ticking away for the past seven nights. He has only bucked off two bulls and is likely to get a big average check. When he finally got the round win on Wednesday night, rodeo’s angels had a lot to smile about.
While Joe won over $100,000 here last year and finished fourth in the average, this was his first round win in two years. Some bull riders work hard all year to get here only to struggle in the competition. Joe has never done that. The first year he qualified, 2014, he finished as the reserve world champion. Then he finished sixth and fourth the next two. While his chances to win a world title this year are slim after bucking off in rounds three and six, he has won nearly $90,000 and is third in the average.
Joe is carrying on the Frost legacy of riding bulls successfully. His father, Shane is a cousin of the late Lane Frost and Joe is Clyde and Elsie (Lane’s parents) great nephew. Clyde and Elsie were on hand to watch Joe and then he took them on stage with him at the South Point.
Joe scored 87 points on a Canadian bull, Heavens Basement, from Wayne Vold. Wayne is the eldest of the late Harry Vold’s children. This is the first NFR we’ve had without Harry.
Wayne’s bull man, Nansen Vold, is named after his great-grandfather. The family’s rodeo legacy gets deeper with each generation and they were well represented here. This is the third go-round buckle that Wayne Vold Rodeo has won but the first with Heaven’s Basement.
“To tell you the truth, we are a little surprised to be here,” Nansen said. “On paper, putting Joe Frost on that bull doesn’t look too good. Joe is a big, strong rider and you’d rather have a guy like Sage (Kimzey) get on Heaven’s Basement.
“We would have been happy with an 84 or 85,” he continued. “Joe rode him really well and that 87 looked really good.”
I can only imagine Harry Vold and Lane Frost’s reactions to the ride.
Tanner Aus rode an eight-year-old gelding that is an outlaw horse named after an outlaw, Jr. Bonner, to get his second buckle. Harry Vold would be smiling about that one too. Jr. Bonner is a product of Dave and Marla Morehead’s Three Hills Rodeo’s breeding program. The horse’s sire, Harry, came from the Volds and is named after the patriarch.
“He is a total renegade, an outlaw start to finish,” Dave said. “He doesn’t like people, but he does like his job. He’s really smart and can sense how people react to him. I told Tanner to get in there and take charge. That’s exactly what Tanner did.”
Tanner took charge to the tune of 87 points. What made the night even more special is that both horse and rider were representing the Great Lakes Circuit. Tanner is from Granite Falls, Minnesota. Three Hills is located at Bernard, Iowa.
“To be on stage with the Moreheads was awesome,” Tanner said. “I wasn’t sure that 87 was going to hold. Orin Larsen had a re-ride and he is doing great out here. When it did, I was really grateful. This win means a lot.”
It meant a lot to the Moreheads too. Jr. Bonner is one of five bareback horses that were selected from their herd. They also have four saddle bronc horses here. And, this is the fourth trip that the big-bay gelding has made. He’s been here twice in the saddle bronc riding and twice in the bareback riding.
Chad Braden’s first qualification to the NFR has seen him making two victory laps around the arena. Wait, who is Chad Braden? We will never hear it come out of an announcer’s mouth, but that is Hardy Braden’s real name.
When he was born, his parents, Butch and Tammy settled on Chad Ray Braden for his name. However, a nickname of Hardy, given to him by Butch, has stuck forever. Now, the only person that calls him Chad is his mom. When she speaks, he listens.
Tammy was here as an NFR timer for three consecutive years starting in 2013. She times at rodeos across the country and while she is there, keeps a black book full of notes about horses to share with Hardy. She didn’t have notes on Hi Lo ProRodeo’s Garden City Gal, but her talented son didn’t need them. He scored 88 points on the seven-year-old mare. That brought his earnings up to $83,404 at his inaugural NFR where he is sixth in the average.
“I’m so proud of him,” Tammy said. “I’ve been watching him ride for 10 years. I’m very confident in what he does, and I don’t even get nervous anymore. I just want him to do good and stay safe.”
Van Flaherty has put together a talented crew of individuals for his Hi Lo ProRodeo that owns the horse that took Hardy to the win. Garden City Gal is a big, gray mare that came from the Garden City (Kansas) Community College rodeo coach, Jim Boy Hash.
Van started raising bucking horses before he got became a stock contractor. That is just one of his three jobs. He is a petroleum engineer that spends over half the year in North Africa. He also is involved in timber and real estate.
Former bareback rider, Dustin Murray is his general manager and Travis Adams, who used to make his living fighting bulls is his flankman and takes care of the four-legged athletes. It’s the second trip for Garden City Gal to Las Vegas. When I asked Travis about her, his first comment was “She loves to eat.”
“She is always waiting for feed, is the first one to the feed pan and the rest of the herd just follows her,” Travis continued. “She’s just easy to be around and a lot of fun to have.”
A fun mare, and a fun-loving cowboy. It was a perfect match for Round 7 at the NFR.