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The gold buckles that got away

Roy Cooper and Joe Beaver 1994 NFR
[PHOTO: ROPING REVOLUTIONIZERS: ProRodeo Hall of Famers Roy Cooper and Joe Beaver each own eight gold buckles and a boatload of mutual respect. In addition, Joe Fabulous won nine reserve world championships, and the Super Looper finished second in six world championship races.]

The gold buckle that goes with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world championship is the ultimate trophy and treasure in the cowboy sport. You can spot one from across a crowded room—the symbol of a lifelong dream realized. 

To finish second only to one—as the reserve champ of the world—is by most standards a feat in itself. But there isn’t much talk about that, typically. The rodeo world is abuzz about the world championship races throughout the run of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Then it’s the gold-buckle guy who has fans and sponsors lining up for his autograph, as the buzz about that next guy fades fast to a whisper.

Trevor Brazile is the winningest cowboy in rodeo history. His unparalleled collection of gold buckles is 21-strong, and counting. But did you know that the greatest cowboy collector of gold buckles ever also has more near misses than anyone? Trevor’s also won 12 reserve world titles—nine in steer roping, two in team roping and one in the tie-down roping. Let me guess: You, like me, had no idea. Yes, one canceled flight, one broken barrier or one fumbled hooey here or there, and the King of the Cowboys could just as easily own 33 gold buckles. 

“I think about it a lot,” Trevor said. “I got a hefty dose of reserve titles before I ever won a world championship. I know what it feels like to be the bridesmaid, but never the bride. There’s a lot of motivation there, when you get close but don’t quite get it done. If you work hard and miss it by 15 or 30 spots it’s a lot different than a narrow miss. It lights your fire, and you find little opportunities where you could have worked harder.

“I also realize that I could have had 18 or 20 reserve world championships instead of the gold buckles I do have. Another thing rodeo’s taught me is that just because you win one doesn’t mean you’re going to win another one next year. And I’ve had close calls. I’ve lost world championships by less than $400. That’s tough, it really is. But I’ll always choose close to the alternative. It might be harder to take at the time, to lose by a little. But there’s a lot of built-in motivation there also. And you’ve won more money than if you’d finished further back.”

It’s easy, Trevor says, to woulda-coulda-shoulda yourself when you come up just short of rodeo’s brass ring—the gold buckle. “For me, the hardest losses to take are the ones that come down to the smallest margins,” he said. “It’s so easy to question yourself and wonder, ‘What if I’d gone to 75 rodeos instead of 71?’ The close calls are definitely the most glaring.”

The Western world has come to expect so much from Trevor that I think we sometimes forget he’s human. “A couple years ago, I won the all-around and the steer roping (world titles), but not the team roping and calf roping,” he smiled. “And I got calls like, ‘What happened to you?’ At the end of the day, that’s a pretty good year. Since when is two world titles not good enough?” 

The late and so very great roughstock riding superstar Jim Shoulders won 16 gold buckles in his iconic career. But he’s next in the all-time reserve world titles line, second only to Trevor, with 10 reserve championships—four in the all-around, three in the bareback riding and three in the bull riding. 

Third on the most-ever reserve world championships list is eight-time champ of the world Joe Beaver with nine reserve titles—five in the all-around and four in the tie-down roping. 

“Nobody talks about reserve championships, but you have to win a lot to get there,” Joe said. “That’s having a good year. If you’re the reserve champ, one little thing cost you the buckle. But you still won a lot.

“One year, I cost myself another calf roping buckle by breaking the barrier in the ninth round. I was winning the average, and I ran through the barrier trying to win the go-round, too. (That was in 1994, when Herbert Theriot dropped the hammer in round 10 to take the tie-down title over Joe B. by $14.) Another year, I missed a calf in the eighth or ninth round and opened the door. I remember the ones I should have won more than some of the ones I did win, because I feel like I gave them away. Those other guys stepped up and came and got them, but if I hadn’t made a mistake and opened the door they wouldn’t have had that chance. You go on, so you can continue to compete at that level. But you don’t forget the ones that got away.”

I have to imagine the near misses are even harder on guys who didn’t get to grab the gold. “That’s got to hurt,” Joe said. “That’s got to really hurt, if you never got to accomplish what you set out to.”

The man with the most reserve world championships and no gold buckle is longtime tie-down roping mainstay Barry Burk, who put together seven reserve-title seasons from 1967-75. Three men have six reserve world championships under their belts, so to speak—Roy Cooper (five in the all-around and one in the tie-down roping), Dean Oliver (three all-around and three tie-down) and the late Bill Linderman (one all-around, one steer wrestling, one bareback riding and three saddle bronc riding).

“If team roping would have been a standard event with equal money, just think how many titles Leo would have won in the team roping and all-around (Camarillo is one of six cowboys who’ve won five reserve world championships; that list also includes Sonny Davis, Cody DeMoss, Cody Ohl, Homer Pettigrew and Paul Tierney),” Roy said. “If team roping had been a standard event with equal money I’d have gotten after it and the all-around would have been a whole different ball game. As it was, it wasn’t worth all the extra effort to me.”

The three years—1976-78—when the world championships were sudden death and based solely on NFR earnings were the toughest to take for a lot of cowboys. That experiment proved to be a bad idea, but not before taking its toll on the guys who stood out on a season-long basis then got passed by in a relative blink of an eye. 

“That was the worst idea ever,” Roy said. “And in 1978, there were 11 go-rounds at the Finals and no average. The average at the National Finals is a huge thing to me. That’s second only to the world championship, and it wasn’t even recognized that year. The world champion should be the man who wins the most money—the guy who dedicated his whole life to it that year. Period.”

Roy’s closest call came at the hand of his cousin Jimmie—who’s also Jim Ross, Jake and Jill’s dad—when Jimmie edged Roy by $47 for the gold all-around buckle. “I don’t think about the ones that got away,” Roy said. “And that was family, so no complaints.”

Three times the gold buckle’s been won or lost by less than 10 bucks. Eddy Akridge won the world bareback riding title by $7 over Buck Rutherford in 1954. Bobby Berger won the world saddle bronc riding buckle over Tom Miller by $5 in 1979. The closest call ever in a gold-buckle race was Scott Snedecor’s $1.67 margin over Guy “The Legend” Allen for the 2005 world steer roping championship. Allen won 18 gold buckles in his signature event, and that was about too close to call on what could have been No. 19. 

“That was something I’d worked for my whole life, and to come from behind and come out on top was unbelievable, especially to beat the guy I had to catch,” said Snedecor, who also won the world in 2008. “The Legend is the greatest steer roper ever, so that was icing on the cake. How close it was is something everybody remembers. It was neat, because I was the guy who came from behind. If I’d gone in in the lead it wouldn’t have been nearly as cool. People remember that close a call, and it’s a notch on my belt because it sticks out to so many people. 

“Losing a gold buckle by that much would be devastating. Maybe not quite as crazy in Guy’s shoes, because he’d won so many (Guy won four reserve world titles in addition to his 18 championships). But if you lost your only shot at a gold buckle by that much it might break an egg in you. To come up $1.67 short over a year’s time for something you’ve worked your whole life to win—it’s unreal to go all year long and have it end up that close. It happened 10 years ago, and people still come up and talk to me about it all the time.”

 
 
 
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