RENO, Nev. – School teacher Jody Higgins of Monroe, Louisiana, and his horse-trading friend Mark Smith of Broken Bow, Oklahoma, teamed up at the last minute to split $200,000 in the Wrangler National Patriot #11.5 roping in Reno, Nevada.
Higgins, 39, became tearful upon accepting prizes later on stage, both because of his relationship with Smith and because the win came after he fought to recover from cancer treatment that prevented him from swinging a rope for years.
“I’m going to frame this money and put it on the wall,” said Higgins, a No. 6 heeler and fifth-grade special-education teacher. He’d never been to the event before and said he’d always “wanted to ride out of that box once.”
The Wrangler National Patriot for amateur ropers was founded as the Reno Rodeo Invitational in 1996 by local real estate developer Perry Di Loreto and is now owned now by Ullman-Peterson Events. As part of Wrangler BFI Week presented by Yeti, it’s is held in the same facility as the Bob Feist Invitational for the pros and in conjunction with the Reno Rodeo. Designed to give equally matched amateur ropers across the country a chance at six-figure payouts, the event uses a handicapping system similar to golf.
Higgins, a #6 heeler, was scheduled to rope with Wayman Taylor but the latter was forced by heart trouble to draw out of the event last week. Higgins knew Smith would be in Reno all week to watch his three sons, including defending PRCA world champion header Clay Smith and two-time Hooey BFI Jr. Champion Britt Smith, so he talked his old friend into replacing Taylor.
“I didn’t know how I was going to pay the fee,” Smith said. “Now I can pay him back. And the clutch is going out of the pickup I drove out here, so now I can trade that truck in!”
Smith – on a palomino grandson of Stoli that he borrowed from Clay and using a rope with black coils that he borrowed from Britt – turned three steers with Higgins in 30.44 seconds to nail the second call-back position. After making a smooth run of 9.33 in the finals, they watched as the final team’s head loop missed.
“We’re just cowboys,” said Higgins. “Our goal was to catch. We didn’t try to be fast. I’m a school teacher; I don’t get to rope during the week.”
Both ropers were tickled to have secured at least the $48,000 second-place paycheck when they rode out of the arena, since both had battled injuries. Smith, a diabetic, recently had injections in both shoulders to help with pain from being “old and worn out.” And Higgins was grateful to both his original and replacement partners for simply believing in him.
“I haven’t roped much since I got tonsil cancer in 2012,” said Higgins. “I had a lot of radiation and my shoulder really deteriorated. It took four years of therapy until I could swing a rope again and a lot of hard work to get where I could win again. It makes you take a second look at life and be glad you made it. I’m healthy now and very blessed. And this guy’s been like a dad to me.”
As for 54-year-old Mark, the No. 5.5 header was getting plenty of critiquing from his own gold-buckle son Clay, who was driving to a rodeo in Greeley, Colorado, but watching live on the Wrangler Network.
“He would call and tell me, ‘Quit pulling on my horse,’ or ‘Don’t spank him,’ or ‘Tighten up your bridle, Dad,’” recalled Mark. His other two sons were watching in person, and said it made them more nervous than their own competitions. “Now they know how I felt at all their rodeos,” said Mark.
Mark and his wife, a retired teacher, helped set their sons up to join the family business of buying and selling roping horses. The kids – who were all three named after elite professional team ropers – have a web site (JakeClayBritt.com) through which people bring them horses to sell.
Some Reno clients host the Smiths each June during the roping, so Mark is grateful to the Grashuis family, while Higgins mentioned the hospitality of local friend Rich Hutchings.
The horse ridden by Mark was purchased by him as a 2-year-old, then trained by the entire Smith family, while Higgins was riding a heel horse that he’d leased from Smith two months earlier.
Also, Idaho’s Steve Dugger earned the Head Horse of the Wrangler National Patriot award from Montana Silversmiths for riding his wife’s horse, Chingo. The 8-year-old palomino gelding came from the ranch of former world champion Bobby Hurley, and placed Dugger one out of the money in Reno. The Heel Horse award went to a 12-year-old gelding ridden by New Mexico’s Danny Watson. Trained by Troy Howard of Texas, the horse is “gentle enough to fit an old man,” said Watson, who placed sixth.
Wrangler BFI Week continues through June 27. All events are live-streamed on www.WranglerNetwork.com.
Complete Results from the Wrangler National Patriot #11.5 on June 25:
First Round: 1. Donnie Leflett and Brad Breedlove, 7.30 seconds, $5,000; 2. Ryan Morrow and Kelly Tuley, 7.83, $2,000; 3. Alan Chappell and Chad Townson, 7.86, $3,000. Second Round: 1. Ricky Bolin and Brock Middleton, 7.47, $5,000; 2. Jessica Amicarella and Tony Graham, 7.97, $4,000; 3. Randal Shepherd and Manuel Souza, 8.43, $3,000. Third Round: 1. Kylie McLean and Jim Matlack, 6.35, $5,000; 2. Rob Swaim and Wes Swaim, 7.22, $4,000; 3. Rudy Blossom and Norbert Gibson, 7.44, $3,000. Short Round: 1. Vern Serpa and Skip Stansbury, 7.11, $4,000. Consolation Aggregate: 1. Kylie McLean and Jim Matlack, 25.88 seconds on three, $8,000; 2. Sean Pascoe and Kevin Pascoe, 26.88, $6,000; 3. Ryan Morrow and Kelly Tuley, 29.49, $4,000. Aggregate: 1. Mark Smith and Jody Higgins, 39.77 seconds on four, $200,000; 2. Ed Hintz and Kevin Poteete, 40.61, $48,000; 3. Scott Perez and Pedro Perez, 43.18, $18,000; 4. Wes Hardin and Don Elms, 44.79, $10,000; 5. Russell Piazza and Ronnie Seever, 44.87, $9,000; 6. Greg Watson and Danny Watson, 46.99, $8,500; 7. Danny Dubeau and Trevor Helmig, 48.53, $8,500; 8. Tish Luke and Scott Seiler, 49.56, $8,500.