Right: Clay Smith secured his second consecutive heading world title at the 2019 NFR (PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Clay Guardipee). At left, Wesley Thorp, 24, claimed his first heeling world championship in 2019. (PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Steve Gray)
By Lane Karney
Special to Ropers Sports News
Clay Smith and Wesley Thorp are the 2019 World Champion Team Ropers. Clay headed for Jade Corkill. Wesley heeled for Cody Snow. Due to differences in money won between partners on both teams riding into the $10 million, December 5-14 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, a split decision was in the mix all along. The resulting implication was a nail-biting, dramatic-fashion finish where the world titles came down to Round 10.
With so many scenarios in play—including twists and unforeseen turns that throw off even the most careful pre-perf calculations—Round 10 stayed true to its traditional cliffhanger billing. The last time we crowned a header and heeler from different teams the champions of the world was in 2015, when Aaron Tsinigine—who roped with Ryan Motes—and Kollin VonAhn—who heeled for Luke Brown—left Las Vegas with the gold buckles. Round 10, 2015 was a crazy night, with three headers losing their ropes. When was the last time that had happened in a single night at Rodeo’s Super Bowl?
A broken barrier here, a leg roped there and the dominoes start to fall in sometimes surprising ways. It’s like a chess game, and each move affects the average, and who has to place where in the round to have a chance. Then there are the spoiler teams that also play a crucial role in how it unfolds. It all matters. Like Joe Beaver often says in his color commentary, “The 10th Round seems to blow skirts up.” Round 10, 2019 came complete with its own set of curveballs, with only four clean runs on the night.
For both Smith and Thorp, the end result is a dream come true. Not to take anything away from those lifelong dream championships, but there were certainly some mixed emotions in the building for both world champs, because they didn’t get to share center stage with their partners.
“It’s bittersweet for me,” said Broken Bow, Oklahoma, native Smith, 28, whose cheering section always includes his wife, Taylor, and son, Jade O’Brien, who will turn 2 on April 23. “Wesley Thorp ropes great, and he roped so good all week. He’s roped so good for years. He would say the same thing—it’s a terrible feeling to win the world without the guy you went all the miles with. It’s a little sickening.
“I’m the kind of guy that if one guy loses, the team loses. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy. But it’s hard to get as excited if the team doesn’t win. If you don’t think like that, you’re not a good partner. I feel like I let him (Jade) down a little bit. I could’ve done a better job.”
Thorp had similar thoughts and sentiments on the subject.
“I thought Cody did not only a phenomenal job, but he had more control of his head horse than anybody I’ve ever watched in that building from what I’ve seen on tapes and the four times I’ve been here,” said Thorp, 24, who grew up in Throckmorton, Texas, and now lives in Stephenville with his wife, Susanna, and two boys, Matthew, 2, and Charlie, 8 months. “From winning the round (Round 7; they were 3.6) to having one that turned his head when he nodded the next night and being able to run up in there and set the steers up, Cody did a great job.
“Cody just had so much control of his horse and his roping. The steer we had in the 10th round had not handled very good at all earlier in the week, and I would’ve never thought I would have got a good shot at him, but Cody set him up perfectly. Cody is a great partner, and an even better friend.”
For Smith, it was a return trip to the gold-buckle podium, repeating the feat he shared with Paul Eaves a year ago.
“It’s been a good year,” said five-time NFR header Smith, who with Corkill won Round 2 in 4.4 and placed in five more rounds en route to a sixth-place average finish with 47.3 seconds on eight steers. “It just feels like I’m getting closer to what I want to accomplish. I want to win the most world titles. Last year was good. It felt like after that, I started my mission with one. Now I’m starting with two. It doesn’t get any easier after you win one. Being in the position I was in last year helped me this year in the last round. It helped me stay focused.
“You build confidence off of finishing the deal. It’s like making the Finals the first time. You think you can do it again. After last year, I told myself I could win the world again. You can talk yourself into thinking you can do it again. The team roping is so tough, and so many guys rope so good now. But this is a step toward accomplishing my goals.”
The thrill of being the world champ is something Thorp wants more of, too, but it’s not his ultimate goal.
“It’s probably the coolest feeling I’ve ever had as far as rodeo goes,” said the 2015-16 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association team roping titlist. “It’s hard to believe that I won a world championship like the people I’ve looked up to my whole life and still look up to, that I’ve put on a certain pedestal. It’s hard to even grasp. I’m a fan of the sport as much as I am a competitor.
“To achieve this means a lot to me. But I never really did set out to win a world championship. The buckle doesn’t define me as much as my desire to be the best heeler in the world. I don’t feel like I’m there yet at all. It was cool to win a world championship, but now I want to keep working to prove to myself that I’m the best heeler in the world someday down the road.”
The difference in the two teams’ pre-NFR earnings is easily explained. Smith started the 2019 season heading for Jake Long, and Corkill heeled for Colby Lovell in the early going. Snow and Thorp started the year together, but when Wesley went home in the springtime to be there for the birth of baby Charlie, Cody headed for Hunter Koch. So yes, it is a little ironic that Cody won $256,938 to Wesley’s $249,181, and Wesley’s the world champ. Smith won $268,820 to win the world on the heading side in 2019.
Horsepower played into the 2019 world championship race, as it always does, and both champs heavily credit the confidence they have in their horses with accomplishing the goal of strapping on the gold. Clay leaned on his 12-year-old gray gelding, Marty, while Wesley called on his 14-year-old brown equine partner, Lex.
“To me, it’s a weird feeling,” Smith said. “I could maybe get on something else and do better, but I don’t, because I’m so comfortable on Marty. He’s almost too smart sometimes. He reads the play before it comes together. I was going to try to be a little bit more aggressive with my rope on the 10th one, and Marty knew it. I bobbled my dallies a couple times this week, but he’s smart. In Round 9, I broke the barrier and I was close, so I could just step up there and he knew that, too, and helped me.
“Marty knows what’s going on. As far as scoring goes, I can throttle him or whatever I need to do. He might not be the textbook best head horse that’s ever lived, but he’s the smartest horse I’ve ever been around. I ride him at Cheyenne, Pendleton and the NFR. He doesn’t have a set-up that he’s better at or not as good. I can ride him everywhere, and that’s special. I have so much confidence when I’m on him.”
Thorp was equally appreciative at NFR’s end.
“Lex is probably the easiest horse I’ve ever heeled on,” he said. “He’s tough, and he takes the road good. Even when he was hurt earlier this year and I had to have surgery on him, you could hardly tell. He’s easy in every situation. He was really easy in there (Thomas & Mack), because he’s free and forgiving. If I didn’t see a shot, I could take an extra swing. When the shot was there, I could take it and he didn’t look for it or try to take anything away the next night.”
Snow and Thorp’s NFR average title played a vital part in Wesley edging reserve world champion heeler Junior Nogueira by just $10,938. Snow and Thorp won Round 7 in 3.6 and placed in five others for six go-round checks and the average-winning time of 43.80 on nine steers. Cody and Wesley won a grand total of $161,885 a man at the Finals.
“It’s very cool to win the average,” Wesley said. “Ten steers in that set-up is tricky. To win the average against the best guys in the world in that endurance match over 10 nights is awesome. It’s not the most forgiving set-up to just catch. It’s a cool feat, and obviously I had to have it to win the world.”
Snow and Thorp were the high-money team at the NFR, and were followed closely by Brenten Hall and Chase Tryan at $148,135 a man. Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira, who finished third and second in their respective world title races, were the third winningest team at $122,468 apiece, and Smith and Corkill were fourth in money won at the Finals with $118,308 a man.
Reserve World Champion Header Snow, who made his fourth-consecutive NFR appearance in 2019, has worked hard to prepare for the opportunity, and the average win is a significant one for him.
“It was a big step for me,” said Snow, who calls Los Olivos, California, home and also spends a lot of time in Stephenville, Texas, these days. “I’ve always dreamed of being in those situations—the 10th round at the NFR with a chance. It was really satisfying to win the average. It’s a big step to where I want to be, and gives me confidence in finishing things going forward. It came down to the last steer. My goal is to win the world, but the NFR average is something I’ve always dreamed of.”
Smith plans to keep things rolling heading into 2020.
“I’m excited for the new year,” said Smith, who finished second only to 2019 World Champion All-Around Cowboy Stetson Wright—$297,923 to $279,672—in rodeo’s versatility race. “I’m excited to start out roping with Jade early. There’s a lot of money to be won in January, February and March. I’m going to do some more steer roping this year, and am looking forward to that. I’ve got a lot of getting better to do in that event, but I enjoy it and have a couple horses. I’ve got good horses and a good partner.”
Thorp will kick off the new year heeling for two-time World Champion Header Chad Masters. Snow will head for 2018 World Champion Heeler Paul Eaves in 2020.
“I’m excited to rope with Chad, but I’m so proud of how Cody has roped,” Wesley said. “He made my job easier, roped phenomenal all year long, and is one of my best friends. I’m at a loss for words on how it all went, but it feels unbelievable and I’m happy. Cody and I came to the Finals with a game plan and stuck with it. This is amazing—winning the world is a dream come true.”
Team roping average: 1. Cody Snow/Wesley Thorp, 43.8 seconds on nine, $67,269 each; 2. Brenten Hall/Chase Tryan, 56.7, $54,577; 3. Luke Brown/Paul Eaves, 59.3, $43,154; 4. Tate Kirchenschlager/Tyler Worley, 93.0, $31,731; 5. Riley Minor/Brady Minor, 44.4 on eight, $22,846; 6. Clay Smith/Jade Corkill, 47.3, $16,500; 7. Kaleb Driggers/Junior Nogueira, 50.1, $11,423; 8. Chad Masters/Joseph Harrison, 54.9, $6,346; 9. Matt Sherwood/Hunter Koch, 62.5; 10. Tyler Wade/Cole Davison, 68.1; 11. Erich Rogers/Kyle Lockett, 60.8 on seven; 12. Jake Cooper/Caleb Anderson, 54.2 on six; 13. Clay Tryan/Jake Long, 36.9 on five; 14. Ty Blasingame/Travis Graves, 20.3 on four; 15. Coleman Proctor/Ryan Motes, 27.2 on three. World standings (headers): 1. Clay Smith, $268,820; 2. Cody Snow, $256,938; 3. Kaleb Driggers, $240,923; 4. Brenten Hall, $237,061; 5. Riley Minor, $207,707; 6. Chad Masters, $196,067; 7. Luke Brown, $182,093; 8. Coleman Proctor, $153,241; 9. Tate Kirchenschlager, $147,225; 10. Clay Tryan, $147,222; 11. Tyler Wade, $135,856; 12. Ty Blasingame, $132,220; 13. Erich Rogers, $128,634; 14. Matt Sherwood, $124,704; 15. Jake Cooper, $103,851. World standings (heelers): 1. Wesley Thorp, $249,181; 2. Junior Nogueira, $238,243; 3. Chase Tryan, $234,480; 4. Jade Corkill, $226,946; 5. Brady Minor, $207,707; 6. Joseph Harrison, $198,816; 7. Paul Eaves, $186,600; 8. Ryan Motes, $158,089; 9. Kyle Lockett, $153,364; 10. Jake Long, $150,954; 11. Tyler Worley, $142,677; 12. Cole Davison, $134,371; 13. Travis Graves, $133,896; 14. Hunter Koch, $132,807; 15. Caleb Anderson, $103,050.
Snow and Thorp won or placed in six go-rounds en route to winning the team roping average. They won an event-best $161,885 a man at NFR 2019. (PRCA ProRodeo Photo by James Phifer)