By Kendra Santos
The race has been on since the last World Champions Rodeo Alliance major event in Corpus Christi, Texas in May. And now that 10 talented contestants in each event have punched their tickets to Rodeo Carolina, the rodeo-rig road leads right here to the Tryon International Equestrian Center and Resort, where cowboys and cowgirls from coast to coast will take their best shot at the $400,000 on the line here this week. There could be no more compelling storyline than Texas cowboy Isaac Diaz riding at the $1 million Triple Crown of Rodeo.
Rodeo Carolina is the richest rodeo East of the Mississippi, and no one stands to gain more than 37-year-old husband, dad and world-class saddle bronc rider Diaz of Desdemona, Texas.
Diaz has qualified seven times for Rodeo’s Super Bowl, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, in 2007, ’09, ’12, ’13, ’15, ’18 and ’20. He’s won nearly $1.5 million in his successful professional career over the years. Now here he is with a shot at $1 million at one event, if he can manage a third-straight victory here at Rodeo Carolina.
The WCRA Triple Crown of Rodeo—which is presented by the Lazy E Ranch and Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma—is an unprecedented $1 million bonus up for grabs to any athlete (or group of athletes in the case that more than one pulls off the feat) who manages to win three consecutive WCRA majors.
“A million dollars would be life-changing for most people who rodeo, definitely including me,” said Diaz, who’s married to two-time NFR barrel racer Britany Diaz, and is daddy to daughter Whitlee Grace, who’ll be 5 in December, and an adorable little 2-year-old cowboy by the name of Reese.
“My goals for 2023 were to put myself in a position to win a world title, and to win the Triple Crown.”
Bareback rider RC Landingham of remote Hat Creek, California proved the million-dollar mission possible last December, when he became the first and thus far only Triple Crown of Rodeo winner at the WCRA’s Cowtown Christmas in Fort Worth, Texas.
Diaz rode the rodeo bubble and teetered on the brink of this year’s Top-15 NFR cut to the bitter end, but that half of his 2023 goals went by the wayside when he finished in the 16th-place heartbreak hole. Such is the rocky road of a rodeo cowboy, though that now adds all the more spotlight and spark to this $1 million chance.
On the bright side, Isaac and Britany have built a beautiful family and life. So he’ll ride away from Rodeo Carolina happy, regardless of the million-dollar outcome.
“We’re in a great place in our life,” he said. “We have the freedom to do what we want, and life is good. Everything with us is just awesome. As far as my rodeoing goes, I feel as good physically as I ever have. So that hasn’t been weighing on me at all coming into this rodeo.
“The hardest part about rodeoing full time at this stage of my life is that I hate being away from my kids. The good news is that even though I’m gone a lot, I get to spend five times as much time with my kids as somebody who works 8 to 5 every day. I don’t go more than 10 days without seeing them, and when I’m home, we’re together 24/7. The summer’s tough, but I get to be around them all day every day most of the rest of the year.”
Diaz describes the general tone of this rodeo season as “consistent,” which is a solid success up against the renowned rodeo roller coaster of peaks and potholes.
“I’ve been on a lot of nice horses this year,” Isaac said. “I haven’t drawn the top of the pen very often, but I’ve gotten on a lot of good horses and it’s let me place a lot and keep riding good. It’s been really steady, with no big highs or lows. I’ve only had five wins this year, but I’ve had a lot of seconds and thirds.”
Isaac’s been traveling with Shorty Garrett, Brady Hill and Brandon Lansford. But he’ll be flying solo here at Rodeo Carolina, as his running mates missed the 10-man cut.
How did Diaz make his way here?
“My first win was at Cowtown Christmas in Fort Worth last December (Isaac closed the deal with 86 points on J Bar J’s solid-black Painted J),” he said. “I was excited to go to that one, because it was right there in my own backyard. It was nice to get to go there and ride at a lot of money, especially after I didn’t have that great of a year last year. I got there by nominating my circuit finals. But to be honest, the Triple Crown didn’t really cross my mind until after that first win.
“My second win came at Rodeo Corpus Christi in May (Diaz was 80 points on Frontier Rodeo’s Cowboy Cowtown to take that title).”
This is Diaz’s first shot at the million. But he’s no newcomer to the WCRA, and this new-money/big-money concept has always made sense to Diaz.
“I’ve been entering WCRA rodeos since they started,” said Isaac, whose biggest career win to date was a $62,500 whopper at the WCRA’s Windy City Roundup in Chicago in 2019. “We all want to see growth in this sport, and this is another avenue for rodeo athletes to win without having to travel as hard. I was in full support of what the WCRA is doing right away.
“What’s not to like about the chance to win more money? It doesn’t change my goals at the end of the year, but it makes it a lot easier to pay my bills when I can go to one rodeo and win good money. There are very few professional rodeos where you can win what these WCRA events pay.”
Diaz is somewhat of an elder statesman now, as he closes in on 40 and fabulous. When this wise veteran speaks, the young guns listen. And he’s big-time bullish on what’s going on here.
“The WCRA is a pretty easy concept to understand,” he said. “At any other association where you ride for this much money, you have to go to at least one other rodeo to qualify. We’re already going to every rodeo we nominate to get the chance to be here, so there’s no additional travel expense. And we don’t have to compete again and take more chances at getting hurt.
“Some people have the misconception that the WCRA is more complicated than it is. It’s a great opportunity for young guys—and all contestants—to compete against fewer people. I only wish they’d had this when I was a rookie.”
Here comes the chance at a cool million. Here’s how it’s going to work at Rodeo Carolina for Diaz and every other contestant: Everyone entered gets two shots in two rounds of competition. The winner of each round will advance to the final showdown, along with the top six on two head in each event.
The slate will be wiped clean come Sunday, and it’ll be a sudden-death one-header amongst the big eight for the big bucks—in Isaac’s case, the tallest dollars in all of rodeo if he can pull off a third-straight victory.
One interesting plot-twist detail is that Diaz gets first pick in those first two long rounds, based on the fact that he earned top-of-the-leaderboard status in the WCRA segment since Rodeo Corpus Christi.
With that earned trump card up his sleeve, Diaz hopes to outdo the ride of his life so far—a 90-pointer in Round 3 at the 2018 NFR—with one that tops it all here at Rodeo Carolina.
How heavy has this $1 million chance of a lifetime been weighing on his mind?
“As little as possible,” Isaac said. “I’m trying to dumb it down as much as I possibly can. I don’t process intensity that well, so I like to be calm and cool about stuff, and keep things as light as I can. I haven’t let it cost me any sleep by telling myself this is just another rodeo. I might not ever have this chance again, but I don’t want to make such a big deal out of it in my mind that it affects me just doing my job.”
Diaz lives a simple life, and doesn’t see that chosen lifestyle changing much, win, lose or draw here at Rodeo Carolina.
“If I win the million, I’ll probably just invest it for retirement,” he said. “I wouldn’t spend any of it. I’m pretty sure it would go straight to the bank.”
This three-time Florida High School Rodeo Association state champion and National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association bronc riding titlist plans to keep his Rodeo Carolina entourage to a minimum, and keep that low key and calm also. With age comes experience.
“I know how to distance myself from pressure better now than when I was younger,” Isaac said. “There’s a reason I didn’t do as well the first few times I went to the NFR compared to the last few.
“You learn how to handle pressure, and we create most pressure ourselves. I just keep that down as much as I can, and know that God’s got me, no matter what happens. I love my chances at the million. I think I’m as prepared as I’ve been in years, and I feel confident in my riding. That said, my identity does not rely on what I win in the arena.”
How refreshing. An athlete who cares more about who he is as a human than his ranking. That’s Isaac Diaz.