By Lane Karney
Special to Ropers Sports News
Photos courtesy of PRCA
The world looks a little different this July than it did a year ago. With all that’s going on, including fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the landscape of this year’s Cowboy Christmas is no exception. As some rodeos—many of which have been pillars of the big Fourth of July run in professional rodeo for decades—have cancelled, and others postponed, professional rodeo athletes are adjusting their game plans and going about their business as best they can.
I thought it might be interesting to get some insights on this year’s Fourth of July run, and fun to relive some great rodeo stories from Cowboy Christmases past. The Fourth of July run is basically a tour of some great rodeo towns—large and small—across this country. It’s the ultimate town-to-town celebration of this country’s Independence Day, and the Western industry seems to be pretty darn good at it.
I’ve been fortunate to witness these American tributes firsthand, from the tree-filled arena in St. Paul, Oregon, to the Boyd Polhamus openings in Cody, Wyoming, that send chills down the spine of every proud American present.
Somebody once told me that one of the perks enjoyed by professional golfers is that no matter where they go to play, they basically get to enjoy one of the nicest parts of every town they play in. The golf courses are so well maintained, and the golfers are treated to a luxurious time in each town.
Cowboys get that same royal treatment no matter where we go over the Fourth, and we get to experience the best each town has to offer in terms of hospitality. The people we meet—rodeo committee volunteers and fans included—are all out to enjoy rodeo and this great country. It’s a tribute to the USA, and it’s so inspiring to see that love and patriotism all across this great land.
So while this month’s rodeo run will look a little different than those in years past, it will still be filled with love of country, all-night drives, blown tires, hard-luck stories and stuff heroes are made of. Here’s hoping rodeo fans enjoy our cowboy-style spin on the Fourth, and the guys who’ve put their names down have safe travels and the best of luck. Win, lose or draw, a lot of memories will be made. There’ll be stories from this Fourth of July that will be told around a campfire for years to come. Even things that are hard to laugh about now might one day make you smile.
I recently got to visit with some of my rodeo friends who’ve experienced everything the Fourth of July run has to offer over the years. I only wish you could hear guys like Bucky Campbell and Patrick Smith tell their tales in person. If you ever get the chance, take it.
Clay O’Brien Cooper
Seven-time World Champion
NFR Qualifications: 29 (1981-1995, 1997-98, 2000-04, 2006-08, 2012-15)
Lane Karney: What’s a really memorable Fourth of July that sticks out in your mind?
Clay O’Brien Cooper: Well, it depends on which era. When I first came in, the deal was to charter a plane everywhere you went. The most vivid recollection of that is when Jake (Barnes) and I buddied with Tom Cox and his partner. They ended up getting out about halfway through, because they weren’t wanting to go anymore. Jake and I hired Harley May (World Champion Steer Wrestler in 1952, 1956, 1965 and inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame with the inaugural Class of 1979) to take us in his plane. I loved Harley. He had lots of cool stories and insights on rodeo. He had a little 210, I think, that wasn’t pressurized, and he was all-in on the team. He was probably in his sixties then. Harley would get us up in the air, get the plane leveled off, then set an alarm and take a nap. At first, I wasn’t comfortable, so I would stay awake and make sure I could see lights and we weren’t headed into a mountain. That year, we left Red Lodge (Montana), and Harley just heads up over the mountains. If you’ve ever gone out of Red Lodge, you know those mountains are huge. He just went up a canyon and climbed out. I was thinking there’s no way we are going to get up high enough, but he had it all calculated, and we topped out about 100 feet above the pine trees. Back then, starting our Fourth of July really was like at Reno. We would enter Big Springs, Texas, and whatever else we could during Reno. Harley would charter us to all that, then we’d come back and rope our second steer at Reno. We’d be back and forth, in and out of Reno three times with the short round. I was working three events—team roping, tie-down roping and steer wrestling—and that was all before rodeos were back-to-back. Half of the Fourth was running around securing your trades, signing them and making sure they went through. By the end of the Fourth that year, Jake and I had been in that plane for 27 hours with Harley.
LK: Was it important to have a buddy team, especially in the days of chartering so much?
CC: Big time—buddying was the only way to do it. We constantly had two rigs on the road. We’d be flying around and you had to have multiple rigs going all over the place to meet the planes. A buddy team was absolutely essential. Plus, four guys paying the bill on the charters made a big difference. My first few years we buddied with Allen Bach, and we would charter around to four or five rodeos a day. I was the youngest, so I always had the back seat. The good part was there were two seats in the back. The bad part was it wasn’t real nice, and it was a long way to the door. That time of the year, you’re really rodeoing over the Rockies. You could work the time zones between Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and you could enter rodeos slack to slack in the mornings and make two perfs at night. They don’t rodeo like that now, but there wasn’t team roping everywhere and there were no limits on rodeos, so if we could physically make it in an airplane we were going. The entering was a little crazy, because you had to do it all from pay phones. It was a different world before cell phones, but it was good. That was how it was, and we didn’t know any different. Then technology came along and made it a lot easier.
LK: What’s your strategy as far as entering over the Fourth, and how did that evolve throughout your career?
CC: It’s changed over the years. Back before rodeos were back-to-back, if you weren’t in the second run on a straight flip rodeo you basically had no chance of placing in the first round. They usually brought half enough cattle, and getting the middle and being up in the reruns was a premium. That was also a huge factor in not having to make multiple trips to the same rodeo. You entered for the middle every time, and worked around it the best you could. We were always hustling around for trades, and as we all got older—guys like Allen, Bobby Harris, Tee Woolman and Charles Pogue—we started raising families and wanting to be home more, so we advocated for limiting rodeo counts, getting more money added (also, equal money for team ropers) and making rodeos with more than one round back-to-back. You could then streamline your schedule a little more, and still have a chance for world championships. It was a slow progression from where it was to where it is today.
NFR Qualifications: Seven (2000-02, 2004, 2012-13, 2016)
LK: What’s a story from the Fourth of July run that you remember well?
Dugan Kelly: I was heeling for Dean Tuftin, and we were buddied with Chris Lawson and Zanc (Matt Zancanella). We were leaving Window Rock (Arizona), and headed back to Oakley (Utah). Chris had a Dodge truck that he’d won that wasn’t a month old. We had Dean’s trailer, and it wasn’t a month old, either. Zanc and I were up to drive, so we got in the truck. Chris and Dean got back in the trailer. We weren’t driving for 10 minutes, and Zanc mashes on it. We are out in the middle of the reservation, top out at this hill and see a stop sign down at the bottom. He’s tapping the brakes, but we’ve got no chance of stopping. For a while, I think we are alright, because it maybe Y’s and we can just stay left. But instead, it T’s down at the bottom. Zanc drives right through the stop sign, through the barbed-wire fence and out through the desert. We beach this new rig out in this field. Chris and Dean came rolling out of the trailer and they’re checking their rig, and there’s not a scratch. Zanc is mad, because they’re way more concerned about the rig than if we are alright. At the time, there are no cell phones and there is no GPS. Chris was so pissed off and asked Zanc, “Don’t you ever look at a map?” Zanc said, “You ever seen a stop sign on a map?” We backed out of there to the road and took off.
LK: How important is the Fourth of July to your season, and what goes into entering?
DK: The Fourth kicks off your summer, but realistically from then until the middle of August is so good. You can rope for big money almost every day. The Fourth kicks off your summer, and you can start putting runs together. If it goes good, you build a lot of confidence and get to where you aren’t thinking about it. You’re just doing your job. If it goes bad, you second-guess everything. I believed in trying to set yourself up to have the best results. For example, trying to get the best run on the cattle everywhere you go. You do that all year to try to stack the deck the best you can. You get your horses feeling good and are really prepared, but then the Fourth shows up and you stick them in the trailer for 10 days straight and guys get really excited and will enter everywhere they can. They’ll sacrifice the runs on the cattle to get to more rodeos. I took from the barrel racers how well they took care of their horses and entered for the best runs, even if it meant a few less rodeos. Guys try to go to so many rodeos and end up taking first runs. You can make a good run, but then the cattle lope in the reruns and you get run over. I learned to go to fewer rodeos, especially as I got older. When I was younger, I did better tired, so I could handle more all-night drives and still feel ready. One year, we buddied with Zanc and tried to go to every rodeo they had. We were so tired that we’d pull over every 20 minutes to switch drivers. One time we were going to switch drivers every hour, then we’d take off, roll the truck clock forward an hour, pull right over and tell (Lance) Brooks he was up again. I got to where I’d pick and choose, and try to be fresh where I did go. My thought became go to fewer rodeos, get better runs on the cattle and do good where you do go. They add a lot of money and it’s going to pay great, but unless you have three of the best horses and drivers going down the road, it’s not realistic to go to every one of them that week and be on top of your game. For me, there was nothing worse than sending off your best horse with somebody. Nobody’s going to take care of him like you do. I didn’t like the flying around and trusting that my good horses were getting taken care of like I would do it. The most I won was with (Cody) Snow. We both rode our best horse, and entered for the end where we went. It’s easy to get on a roll when you’re on the same horses and go make the same run. If you’re flying in, getting mounted and riding your second-string horses, you have to orchestrate what your header is riding and things get criss-crossed pretty fast. It gets easy when you ride your best horse at the best rodeos with the best runs. You enter too much and start getting up wrong and your good horses are stuck in Arizona and you end up on a second-string horse at the best one-header. It simplified it and my chances of winning went up going less and being on my good horse.
LK: Did you typically have a buddy team over the Fourth, and how beneficial was it?
DK: It dang sure helps to have a buddy team. When you buddy with a team and they’re winning, it creates energy and you rub off on each other. It can go the other way, too. You could be crawling out of your skin with excitement, then they miss and they’re down. It can go either way, but everyone has to get along outside of the arena and get along in the rig. You see guys buddy and take separate rigs, and I don’t see the point in that. To me, it’s there to split driving and expenses. What sticks out in my mind was when I roped with Chad (Masters) and we buddied with T.J. (Collett) and (Mark) Scobie. We were in the same rig all year long, and Brittany (Dugan’s wife) would jump in sometimes too and we’d have five people in the rig. But we had a blast. Sometimes, you’re sleeping in the front seat of the pickup or staying in a hotel with seven guys. You aren’t rested. Your horses aren’t rested. When I was younger, I did better tired. That takes the thinking out of it. But as I got older, it was better to pick and choose. You get to working against yourself. But I never had four $50,000 heel horses, two rigs or two drivers I really trusted and relied on. Some guys dominate in part because they have an arsenal of horses, rigs and drivers, and can be their best all the time. I never had that luxury.
NFR Qualifications: Five (1998-2000, 2006, 2008)
LK: What’s a really memorable Fourth of July story that sticks out?
Bucky Campbell: The most fun was when I was roping with Pook (Richard Eiguren), and buddied with Kyle (Lockett) and Jason Stewart (Stewy). We were leaving Prescott, and Kyle bought about $1,000 worth of fireworks, like he does. Our driver, who didn’t really ever drive, was back in the trailer. He’d stick his head out the window, and was jacking with us. So we decide we are going to shoot some bottle rockets back at him. Well, he got smart to that and every time we’d roll the window down he’d hide back in the trailer. So Kyle crawls into the back of the truck and he’s going to get back there and sneak attack our driver from the bed of the truck. Then Pook throws a brick of Fat Cats into the bed with Kyle. Stewy is driving, and he’s got it set on cruise control going about 70 (mph). He’s trying to watch the road and watch Kyle in the back—well, the road turned and we kept going straight. So now we are bouncing out through the desert with Kyle bouncing around in the bed and Kyle is trying to break the window trying to crawl back up in the truck and beat Pook up. That was fun. Kyle would make Pook cry every night. He’d grab Pook by the big toe every night ’til Pook cried. Me and Stewy slept on the couch. The funniest part of the story was that we took my truck and I never had a truck—it was amazing. We had a ball.
LK: How important was a buddy team over the Fourth?
BC: It was pretty important to us, because back in the day it cheapened everything up. We all got along good, so we just buddied all year. For one, Kyle kept us all lined out. Nobody got down or blamed anyone. We rodeoed because we loved rodeoing. You could go to a 100 rodeos back then. Stewy and I slept down on the bottom couch for 200 days one year. That’s when living quarters first came out, so it wasn’t real fancy. We weren’t going to argue with Kyle for top bed, and it was Pook’s trailer. It was just what you did back then. Plus, me and Kyle kind of shared horses. His was pretty good and mine wasn’t great. We tried not to fly very much, but got to as many as we could.
NFR Qualifications: Eight (1997-98, 2000-03, 2005, 2019)
LK: What stands out as really memorable over the Fourth?
Kyle Lockett: Well, I can confirm Buck’s story. That was pretty fun. The Fourth really kicked off when you left Reno. You’d go to Greeley (Colorado) and the Gateways and all that, but my favorite part was pulling into Molalla (Oregon). We always stayed at the Coleman Ranch, and I loved pulling in there. There would be 40-50 rigs. I’d get to stick my horses out in an 80-acre permanent pasture with their cattle and get to relax a little bit. The Burches (Burch Rodeo Company) would be there, and (John) Growney—they’d have all their rank bucking horses and bulls right there. I’d go up to the house and see Steve and Cathy (Coleman). I’d get to stay down there at their bunkhouse with the crew. You could watch the fireworks from Molalla, and maybe catch a few from St. Paul. One time, me and (Chance) Kelton cruised over to the rodeo at Molalla on our horses through the pastures. You might get to rope at Mollala and St. Paul the same night, and I just liked hanging out with all of my Northwest buddies. Right there at the Coleman Ranch was a highlight of the whole year. You finally got somewhere and it was like a break. The days were cool, and the nights would cool off and everybody was there. I got to see some good calf roping practice and matches right there. I saw Kelton ride a bull there one year. When you got there, you could park your rig and go jump in the river. The people that pick you up when you break down and the people that let you stay at their places are all great, but the Coleman Ranch sticks out as really cool. And I loved driving the nights of July 3 and 4 and seeing the fireworks everywhere.
LK: What was your strategy for entering over the Fourth?
KL: I’ve done different things depending on my partner, but I preferred keeping it simple. I’ve always done good at the rodeos I enjoy going to, so rather than flying around and being where you don’t even want to be, I liked easing around the Gateways and Northwest. I thought it was best to have your rig and be on your best horses, so you could win good at the ones you went to.
Two-time World Champion
NFR Qualifications: 12 (2003, 2005-15)
LK: What is a memorable story from the Fourth run?
Patrick Smith: I was roping with Trevor (Brazile), and we drove to Canada for Ponoka. Trevor hit his head rope on a pole, that’s nowhere else in the world. We are however many hours from home—he hits his rope on the pole and we are driving to make Greeley. We hit a national forest and Trevor’s truck starts making a funny sound, so I mashed on it hoping it would work itself out and blew the motor. We had oil on the windshield and everything. We are now a head rope hitting a post and a blown-up truck into the Fourth. Some really nice people stopped who we’d never met, gave us a ride to their house to drop off the horses and lent us a truck to take to the airport. Well, we get to there and we just miss them closing the gates on the flight to make Greeley. There was this older lady that was so nice, so we are offering to buy her flowers, take her and her husband to dinner, whatever it will take to get us through the gates. She starts laughing and takes us through security, so we made the flight. We made Greeley on time and ended up winning it, so that bandaged that wound. But that led into the greatest story of all time that ends with the greatest cowboy of all time eating a plane ticket that was in a urinal.
After we roped at Greeley, we are trying to make it to Livingston (Montana) that night. Everyone said we couldn’t make it, but we got to the airport and we had to run to the other side of it to make the flight. I was running, but kept having to stop and wait up for Trevor. We finally got to the gate, and luckily the flight had been delayed a couple minutes, so we made it. I’d had to go to the bathroom since we left the rodeo, so I asked if I could use the restroom right by the plane. Well, everyone else is boarding, so Trevor beats me on the plane. We used the same travel agent, so we always had seats next to each other, but our deal was that whichever one of us got on the plane first got the aisle and whoever was second had to sit in the middle. When I was in the restroom, I dropped my plane ticket out of my shirt pocket into the urinal. I grabbed it out of pure panic. I come back out and walk on the plane and Trevor is sitting in my aisle seat. I told him, “Hey, my ticket is for that seat, so I need you to move to the middle.” He asked, “What are you going to do, tell on me?” So that’s exactly what I was going to do. I hit the flight attendant call button to have them come make Trevor move, and he grabs my ticket, puts it in his mouth and chews on it to destroy the evidence. So I just sat right down in the middle seat and I told him what had happened and he denies that I was telling the truth. But if you’re reading this, know it’s the truth. It just happened to be the only plane ticket I’ve ever dropped in a urinal. And that was the greatest middle seat ride I’ve ever had.
LK: How’s your strategy this year compare to previous years with Covid-19?
PS: What I believe is there is no strategy this year. We are going to get anywhere we can get. With the pandemic and as far behind as I am, it’s going to be about who can get to where and it’s a high-pressure situation. The steers that didn’t used to mean as much count for double now. The Cheyennes and Renos aren’t there. The smaller rodeos count now, so I’m going to treat every rodeo like it’s Cheyenne.
Monty Joe Petska
NFR Qualifications: 14 (1985-86, 1988-1992, 1996-97, 1999-2001, 2003-04)
LK: What’s a story that sticks out from over the Fourth?
Monty Joe Petska: When I roped with Shane Schwenke it was one of the better Fourths. We get done at St Paul and a bunch of us jumped in a truck to go charter to Cody. I jumped in the back of the truck, and we were hauling butt. A big truck passes us on a two-lane road and my glasses blow off. They’re laying right in the middle of the road, and I’m banging on the truck for them to stop and turn around. Just as we got back to them, another truck runs smooth over them. Shane said, “What are we going to do?” I said, “You’re going to have to slow them down, because I’m going to have to feel them. I can’t see them.” We ran 13 steers and placed on 12 of them.
LK: How has the Fourth of July changed over the years in terms of rodeoing?
MP: Guys now have no concept you had to look for pay phones back in the day. At the fairgrounds, you’d have to go to the midway to hunt a pay phone. You had to have guys’ phone numbers in your book to trade. You couldn’t get a trade list sent right to your phone. Shane had a phone book. When you got a trade it was like you’d just won something. It’s so simple to call up and get a list now. You poke your phone and poke the number and you can basically get ahold of a guy. You had to manually write out trades lists when you called in. And when you did get a guy’s phone number, they weren’t even home. They’re rodeoing and on a pay phone, too. It was tough. You wouldn’t get ahold of them until they called home and checked messages. That’s why I think it’s easier without a buddy team, because getting a trade is so hard and it’s even tougher to find two trades. You typically did find a buddy team, because you needed a couple of rigs and help driving and all that. A couple rigs helped when you were flying around a little bit. Buddy teams add and subtract from each other. You need to have one that you’re compatible with. You’re stuck around them for a few days, so you need to be on the same page. It also helped when you had to share horses, but nowadays guys have a couple good horses and they’ve all got rigs. Then, guys had a horse and didn’t always have a rig. Times have changed.