Showdown at Guthrie

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

Winning a gold buckle has always been my number-one goal. But winning the CINCH Timed Event Championship is a close second.

by Clay Smith

It happened last March, nearly a year ago, at the CINCH Timed Event Championship in Guthrie, Oklahoma. I backed into the box on my bulldogging horse. I nodded my head, and we left the box, and I saw out of the corner of my eye that my hazer was late leaving. I found out later that his horse spun around just as I was nodding.

All I could think about was getting that steer caught. I can get this done. I can make this work on my own.

I had a really good bulldogging horse. I knew it didn’t matter where the steer was. That horse would track him down. The steer was running straight, and I was alongside the steer and went to jump him. All I gotta do, I thought, is get some weight on that cow’s back. Just as I jumped, the steer stepped to the right.

In my main event, the team roping, I’m a header, and I try to be pretty aggressive. At the Timed Event Championship, you have to be aggressive, but you also have to be smart and make sure you catch, maybe sacrifice a little time so you can move on to the next event. If you miss a steer or calf, you get sixty seconds added to your total. Usually, the person who wins the event ropes or bulldogs every one of his animals. Those added seconds take you out of the competition.

I got a hand on the steer’s horn, but that was about it. I landed hard on my left leg, and it twisted and popped. I knew something was wrong with my leg. Not only that, I missed the steer and had sixty seconds added to my time.

The next event was the steer tripping. I roped my steer, but when I went to get off my horse, my leg didn’t feel right. I got the steer tied down but had to limp out of the arena. They told me to go back there to the Justin room. The sports medicine guys felt around on my leg and said, “Yeah, it’s a broken bone.” I could have stayed in the event and team-roped, but I didn’t want to be there if I couldn’t compete in every event.

You learn lessons every time you enter the Timed Event at Guthrie. So many things can happen. Your hazer coming late out of the box is something you don’t even think about practicing. I realize now that I should have slowed my horse down, let my hazer catch up and thrown down the steer in the middle of the arena. The arena’s long enough. I made a mistake and paid the price, but now I know.

They said I needed to get an X-ray. I went to the local hospital, and the X-ray showed that I broke my fibula, the small bone below the knee. Honestly, that was the best possible thing that could have happened. It didn’t require a cast or surgery, only a walking boot. Unfortunately, the break was just high enough that the boot didn’t do any good. The doctors told me it would hurt for a while, that in six to eight weeks I should be able to get back after it. I didn’t have six to eight weeks.

Back home, I went to see Dr. Tandy Freeman. I told him I needed to keep roping. He said I ought to take at least three weeks off. Will my leg get any worse if I don’t? He said probably not, but it might not heal as quickly. And it would hurt for a while. Whether I could compete or not was mostly a matter of whether I could handle the pain.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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Cowboy Ironman

Winning a gold buckle has always been my number-one goal. But winning the CINCH Timed Event Championship is a close second.

I love the Timed Event. There’s nothing else like it. They call it the Ironman of Pro Rodeo. Twenty contestants, three days of events: two performances on Friday, two on Saturday and one on Sunday. During each perf, there are five different events—steer tripping, calf roping, bulldogging, team-roping heading and team-roping heeling. You compete on five head of cattle five different times. The winner has the lowest time on twenty-five head of animal. It’s a long process. You’re not really trying to be as fast as you can in every event. You just want to make good smooth runs—practice-pen runs—every time.

Sure, it’s risky for a team-roper like me to go out there and flank and tie calves and bulldog steers, but you take a risk every time you get in the truck and go somewhere. It’s a lot of fun to go up there and see who’s the best in all the events.

The money is awesome, too—$100,000 to the winner—but for me, it’s definitely the title. I want that title more than almost anything. I have since I was a boy.

It’s been almost a year since I broke my leg. I probably should get another X-ray, but if something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen whether I get the X-ray or not.

I grew up in Broken Bow, Oklahoma. My dad rode and roped and trained horses. All we ever did was keep up with rodeo. We watched the National Finals Rodeo every year. And, for as long as I can remember, I’ve followed the Timed Event Championship, either watching it on TV or old VHS tapes or in person at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie.

I’ve been roping forever. I won my first roping when I was five years old on a horse. I’m not really built to be a bulldogger, but I started bulldogging in high school just so I would be able to compete at Guthrie one day.

Back in 2013, when I was just twenty years old, I managed to get on the waiting list for the Timed Event Championship. I didn’t think I had much of a chance to compete that year, but a few days before the event started, my phone rang.

It was one of them phone calls I’ll never forget. I was in the halls of the barn. The call was from Robert Simpson, director of events for Lazy E Productions. He told me Jimmie Cooper, one of the twenty cowboys entered, broke his arm practicing and was out. “If you want a spot,” he told me, “you’re in.”

Of course I wanted in! But I only had two days to gather up everything and head to Guthrie. I needed five horses—a different one for heading, heeling, calf tying, bulldogging and steer tripping. Back then, I wasn’t rodeoing full-fledged like I have been the last handful of years. I had the rope horses and the bulldogging horse I used in high school. But I didn’t have a steer-tripping horse and, honestly, had only tripped a handful of steers ever.

I borrowed a steer-tripping horse and took off for Guthrie.

That first year, I placed way at the bottom. I basically won enough to cover my entry fee. But I learned what I needed to work on before coming back the next year. Steer tripping was the weak link in my chain. After that first year, I borrowed a good steer-tripping horse and practiced.

The next year, 2014, I entered again. I was the high callback and broke the barrier in the tripping to win the whole thing. I wound up winning second by less than two seconds. The money was good—I won around twenty-five thousand—but I was still disappointed. No matter what it pays, to me it’s all about the title. I’ve always wanted that title.

Roping Through the Pain

Last year was my sixth time competing in the Timed Event Championship. When I broke my leg near the end of the second perf, I had to drop out of the competition. But I still had a chance to make the National Finals Rodeo and compete for a gold buckle in the team roping. Last year, I was roping with Paul Eaves. We had a good winter, but I didn’t want to take any time off. We had some big team roping events coming up. They pay so good that a guy can’t really afford to sit out.

So, despite what the doctors told me, I didn’t take any time off. If I roped calves for a living, it would have been tough to get by with a broken leg, but team roping is a little like golf. If you can manage a little pain, you can pretty much do anything.

Some of the worst pain came from the pressure put on my foot when I left the box. My wife rigged up a little memory foam pad to put in my stirrup to take away some of the shock.

The other thing you take for granted when you’re healthy is using your legs to turn your horse. If you put your right leg into your horse, he goes left. If you put your left leg into him, he goes right. When you’re heading, your left leg is really important for handling cattle. If you don’t have a left leg, your horse turns off real fast, and your heeler doesn’t have a chance to catch the feet. Even with the padding, when I tried squeezing with my left leg, it hurt like crazy. I wasn’t able to make my horse stay exactly in between my legs. There were a couple times when I missed my dally because of it. That was frustrating. Fortunately, I had a really good partner, who took up the slack. “Just turn ’em,” Paul said, “and I’ll handle the rest.”

Not taking time off must have been the right decision, because in December I came away from the National Finals Rodeo with a gold buckle in the team roping—my first World Title.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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Back to Guthrie

This coming weekend, I’ve got another chance at winning the CINCH Timed Event Championship.

It’s been almost a year since I broke my leg. It feels fine. I probably should get another X-ray, but if something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen whether I get the X-ray or not.

These last few years, I’ve been busier than ever going to rodeos and ropings, but I’ve tried to keep myself and my horses sharp in the other timed events. I’ve been roping calves and doing a little bulldogging. I have a really good hazer helping me out this year—Sam Duvall, Riley Duvall’s dad. He’s outstanding. I’m working on having a really good steer-tripping horse up there this year. I think my biggest advantage is experience. I feel like I’m more mentally prepared than ever.

This will be my seventh time at the competition. I’ve won second twice, but I’ve never won first. All I know is I can’t wait to get up to Guthrie. I love that deal.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen


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