By: Kendra Santos

The 2019 Windy City Roundup—a World Champions Rodeo Alliance rodeo produced in collaboration with the Professional Bull Riders at Allstate Arena in Chicago on January 11—paid contestants $1 million in new money never before available to them. Event champs Wyatt Denny, Jackie Crawford, Tyler Pearson, Garrett Tonozzi, Joe Mattern, Isaac Diaz, Cheyenne Wimberly and Derek Kolbaba each won at least $50,000 (Kolbaba cashed the biggest check at $67,676 for the bull riding win); five reserve champs earned more than $25,000; and 14 more happy rodeo athletes left Chicago over $10,000 richer. That’s the headline here.

It’s not often we count our cowboy-sport milestones $1 million at a time, and as an original employee of the PBR at its startup all those years ago, I can honestly say the Windy City Roundup was the first time since 1995 that I’ve felt the same level of excited anticipation we all felt when the PBR broke and blazed new ground. To try and put words on the buzz behind the contestant curtain at times like these is that it almost feels too good to be true, followed by a unanimous prayer that this success and prosperity will prove to be a sustainable model that will really, truly raise the rodeo bar for all involved—contestants and fans alike—with positive, industry-wide implications moving forward.

Short-term glitches and growing pains—sometimes fueled by heat-of-the-moment frustrations—can quickly distract us all from the headline due every brand new million-dollar rodeo. I hope we can all be big enough—and smart and wise enough—to take a deep breath and not allow spur-of-the-moment emotions to blur our post-event evaluations at the possible expense of significant, long-term growth and progress. There’s too much at stake here not to focus on the big-picture positives.

Life has taught me that the best way to address issues is with open communication. Team ropers Clay Smith and Jake Long were involved in the instant-replay-related call that caused the most social-media controversy with regard to this $1 million event. So I went straight to the source, and asked reigning Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association World Champion Header Clay to clear the air, and answer some of the questions everyone’s been wondering and speculating about. Here’s what Clay had to say…

Kendra Santos: To back up a tiny bit, how did you qualify to compete as one of the nine teams who got to rope in Chicago?

Clay Smith: Paul (Eaves, the reigning world champion heeler with whom Clay won the world in December) and I nominated rodeos (via the WCRA’s Virtual Rodeo Qualifier system) to get to Guthrie (Oklahoma, for the $500,000 WCRA Semi-Finals, which was held last November at the Lazy E Arena). Our points from those nominations were high enough to get us straight to the two eight-team rounds. We won our round of eight in Guthrie, and that advanced us to Chicago. Luke Brown and Jake advanced the same way, so when we swapped partners for 2019, we did the same for Chicago.

KS: I’ve been doing some addition here, and by my math—you and Paul won $31,000 a man at the WCRA Rodeo Showdown in Las Vegas last May, you and Paul won $7,000 a man at the WCRA Semi-Finals in Guthrie in November, and you and Jake just won $11,917 for third in Chicago—you’ve made about $50 grand ($49,917, to be exact) at three WCRA events since May. Do I have that right?

CS: Yes, ma’am. That’s amazing money. If there were a few more rodeos like these, it would change everything. The opportunity we had at good money in Chicago was outstanding. No entry fees, and every team got at least $1,444 a man for showing up. This is big money, and it’s new money. The concept of showing up and having a chance to win $50,000 for roping two steers in one day is what we all dream of.

Clay Smith PC: Wrangler Network

KS: For those who weren’t there, let’s cut straight to the questions about Chicago. In the end, you and Jake won $11,917 a man for third in Chicago. But you missed your first steer. So first of all, why’d you get another one?

CS: When I threw my rope, the steer’s head went down. We had to be 3 to make it back (to the two-team Championship Match Round), and when that’s the case you hit the barrier and have to be looking for a throw. I took that shot, but his head disappeared. It happens, and I’m a firm believer in no reruns—when you nod your head, the steer is yours. But there’s a WCRA ground rule, which is in place for the cowboys’ protection, that says that if the steer trips before the neck rope comes off, you get another one. I got reminded of that as I was riding out of the arena, so I threw the challenge flag. This is a tough way to make a living, and this is how I feed my family, so just asking them to double check to make sure the right call was made felt fair enough to me.

KS: Then what happened?

CS: We waited for official word from the replay official. We were told no rerun at first, and although I was a little bummed, I’m the same guy who believes in no reruns. So I just took it as a bad break, and went to un-boot my horse. We headed to the warmup tent, then I got word that there’d been some confusion with the communication. I wanted to make sure it was cleared up, and I understood things right, so I went back in and asked the replay judge about it. He told me to go get our horses and get ready to run another steer. So we did.

KS: We all watched Garrett Tonozzi and Joe Mattern be 3.73, then Lane Ivy and Buddy Hawkins be 3.64. I know they announced that you and Jake were 3.49 on your rerun steer, but that didn’t get relayed correctly, right?

CS: Right. The announcer wasn’t physically near the timers, so the announcer said we were 3.49 when we were really 3.89. We were, of course, tickled to death when we thought we were advancing to the two-team round. We were also naturally pretty disappointed to find out we didn’t get to run another one. Now that it’s all said and done, I realize it was an honest mistake.

KS: I know it’s brand new, but what’s your general feeling about instant replay and its application to rodeo?

CS: It would be awesome if we had instant replay everywhere, if we could be sure to have professional judges with expertise in every event they’re making calls about. If an expert set of eyes is watching that replay, and looking for clear evidence to overturn or confirm a call, I’m all about it. I think everybody’s on board with getting the call right. I’m fine with winning last place, if the right teams get the money.

KS: At any other rodeo—without instant replay—you’d have ridden out of the arena empty-handed after missing that first steer, and with no recourse. In this case, instant replay was the difference between you leaving Chicago with $11,917 and $1,444, right?

CS: That’s right. They were open-minded enough to see that we deserved another steer in order to have the same chance of winning as everyone else. Getting that steer back was outstanding. All you can ask for is a fair shot. I’m fine with the fact that we weren’t fast enough to get another one in the match round. These WCRA guys are wanting to do right by the cowboys, and that’s always appreciated.

KS: When I was a kid, team roping was not a standard event, so most rodeos didn’t even have it. Fast forward to more and more rodeos offering you guys equal money, and millions of dollars in new money to rope for at WCRA events. I know you’re only 27, but do you savvy how sweet a time it is to be rolling into your prime right now?

CS: I’d be crazy to say I hope this WCRA thing crumbles. I want it to survive and succeed. We all do. There will be growing pains, just like there are with anything new. But these guys are wanting to make rodeo better for all of us. And that takes a lot of hard work and effort. I know the stuff that happened to me in Chicago was not intentional, and I also see that there was a lot of good, starting with that rerun when we didn’t have a fair opportunity to win. With all the right people in all the right places, I’m on board with the concept of instant replay and the WCRA. They owned the unintentional mistakes made at that rodeo, and are doing everything they can to fix them. That’s all we can ask for. The WCRA is outstanding, and we all want it to work.

KS: Another cowboy-friendly feature that was déjà vu of the early PBR days was the way that million-dollar pot was divvied up and paid out. Do the cowboys appreciate that, too?

CS: Absolutely. Seems like everybody wants to top load everything to make it look good. They could have paid $100,000 to the winners, $5,000 to second and called it good. But they didn’t do that. First paid $50,000—in some cases more, including Garrett and Joe winning $62,500 a man in the team roping—and everybody entered got paid. So your trip was paid for, no matter what. I loved that they spread the money out like they did. And the chance to win big money was huge.

KS: What else did you like about the Windy City Roundup?

CS: I was tickled to see so many people in the stands. To see that many people show up for a rodeo in Chicago on a Friday night was pretty cool. We had a really good place to keep our horses, and the stalls were free, which we really appreciate. They fed us all, and had a heated tent outside to keep our horses warm. A heated tent in Chicago means a lot to us, and shows how much the WCRA cares about the cowboys. I loved how they did the payout, and I believe in the concept of instant replay. These guys are clearly pro-cowboy, and I can live with the unintentional hiccups, because the finished product will be well worth it.

KS: Things didn’t go exactly according to plan for you in the Windy City, but a $11,917 paycheck is better than most, huh?

CS: Yes, ma’am. And I’m tickled to death for the winners. Garrett and Joe, and Lane and Buddy deserved to make the top two and win what they did. And what Jake and I won at a one-day rodeo—that’s a good day. I’m the first to point the finger at myself. When I miss or mess up, it’s my fault. When I’m not fast enough, it’s my fault. I’m happy for those guys who won, and I’m happy to win almost $12,000 for third. That’s awesome. Without instant replay, I’d have ridden out of there with the last-place check, and it’s not everyday you get paid $1,444 for missing a steer. So to sum it up, thank you, Chicago. And thank you, WCRA.