By Julie Mankin
On March 14 at the 2021 BFI in Oklahoma, Clay Tryan regained his status as the highest-earning roper in the history of the Bob Feist Invitational.
Held at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie because Nevada officials were uncertain Reno could host the event this year, the most recent BFI saw Tryan’s heeler, Jake Long, roped a leg on their fourth steer. In the fifth round, the team knew a smooth run would still get them back to the short round, where all 15 teams earn at least $8,000. But at the 44th BFI, Long went off in the switch to give them a 5-second time, go-round money, and put them squarely back in the hunt for big money.
“I didn’t really know he was going to do that, but that was the best steer we had all day,” said Tryan. “Making the short go is the same as winning a go-round, in money, but winning a go-round at the BFI is so hard; I think it might be the hardest thing to do for us all year long. Still, we wanted to try to get back in there for a chance at a big check.”
They managed to inch from fourth callback to third in the six-head aggregate for $39,000 apiece, which pushed Tryan past Rich Skelton as the BFI’s all-time earnings leader with $256,111. Tryan’s latest six-head time without the leg would have won him his record fourth BFI. Nobody has won four. But he was content.
“Anytime you have a leg and make that much money, you’re happy,” he said. “Third’s fine!”
For headers, the total keeps him ahead of Luke Brown and J.D. Yates. Way back in 2005, Tryan had roped his six steers less than a second faster with Patrick Smith (not counting the leg penalty in 2021), but that was over a shorter score and riding Thumper – also named that year’s PRCA/AQHA Head Horse of the Year. This time, he did it on Cee How Nifty (“Johnson”), the sorrel gelding he bought from Trey Johnson. That horse was actually second for PRCA/AQHA Head Horse of the Year in 2019 (Tryan’s horse Dew won the award in 2015). Johnson is by a grandson of a grandson of San Peppy, with no other notable bloodlines except a bit of Grey Badger II and Three Bars way back.
“Johnson worked good,” said Tryan. “He scores and runs hard and gets ahold of a steer’s head quick. Plus, I can pull on him a little if I need to. He’s a little tighter and quicker than he was when I first got him, but he’s always been easy to get along with and easy to rope on. I’ve ridden faster and probably better horses, but he’s a solid, nice horse. I’ve ridden him as much as I ever rode Thumper.”
Tryan said he prepared more for the 2021 “Feist” than usual, including scoring some slow steers further than 20 feet and running them down. And he did something else a bit different in the Lazy E this year – packed his rope a little further.
“The BFI is like Salinas; you just head toward the steer and ride a while,” said Tryan. “I’ve actually been watching old tapes to see what I used to do. You can get to swinging so much over a long score that sometimes you swing 25 times before you get there. So this year I took maybe four or five swings or, if it worked out right, just three swings. I just rode. I tried to be a jockey and a header all in the same run.”
The BFI is known for its extra-long scoreline, but regardless of what the steer does or how close to the string you were at the start, one thing matters.
“You’ve still got to be able to catch,” Tryan said. “My dad always said you should never miss when you run one that far. Heading is not that hard. You get out and turn them.”
Statements like that make one of team roping’s GOATs easy to hate, much like Tom Brady. But when a guy has outworked everyone his whole life, it probably does feel easy.
“Today, it’s much different than when I won the BFI over 15 years ago,” Tryan continued. “We didn’t have nearly as many jackpots then. Now, we’re so jackpot-ready when we get there that it feels easy. The BFI is enter-once with a long score, so it’s a slower pace. It feels easier.”
Except, that is, for the waiting. Ask the winningest BFI team roper in history what factor most commonly prevents BFI ropers from winning, and he says it’s not the hard-running steers or the scoreline that give people fits – it’s staying focused for 12 hours.
“The BFI is not hard,” he said. “It’s just hard to get through. It’s the longest day of the entire year. I woke up at 4 a.m., or it felt like it, because it was the first day of Daylight Savings Time, so I felt like I didn’t sleep at all, and I didn’t stay in Guthrie, so I drove an hour to get there. You run a steer every two hours, so there is no groove to get into. That’s the thing that makes the BFI so hard to win.”
How does Tryan stay focused? No big secret – he doesn’t watch the roping. During the first round, he will watch the score for about the first 50 teams. After that, he rides into the building about 15 teams before he’s up. In between runs, he waters Johnson and ties him to the trailer and hangs out. Then he does it again. Key, he said, is parking in the lot closest to the building.
“Sometimes you need to get away,” he said. “At that roping, you don’t need to watch the steers because you kind of know what you have when you nod. There’s not much to it.”
Simple. The way Tryan likes it. Maybe that’s how he makes mastering the BFI look so easy.
Clay Tryan headed for Jake Long at the 2021 BFI and the duo won second in the fifth round, third in in the short round and third in the average winning $78,000 for the team. He was riding the 2019 PRCA/AQHA runner-up head horse, Johnson. – Performance Horse Photography