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Back to back in the dreaded heartbreak hole

Cory Solomon, doing his thing at the 2015 Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, refuses to let two straight 16th-place finishes stop him. With the help of his sorrel horse, Spook, Solomon’s currently No. 1 in the world.
[PHOTO: Cory Solomon, doing his thing at the 2015 Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, refuses to let two straight 16th-place finishes stop him. With the help of his sorrel horse, Spook, Solomon’s currently No. 1 in the world.]

When you rodeo for a living, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is the Promised Land; the pot of gold and ultimate goal at the end of the grueling regular-season rainbow. We hurt each year for the guys who wind up in the 16th-place heartbreak hole. Imagine coming close enough to see the big bucks and bright lights of Vegas—only to realize it’s all a mirage—in back-to-back seasons.

Bareback rider R.C. Landingham of Pendleton, Ore., and tie-down roper Cory Solomon of Prairie View, Texas, have both walked that walk, finishing “one out” in their respective events, in 2013-14. Disappointed? Heck yeah. Done? Hell no.

“It’s probably harder, I would say, to come that close and not make it,” said Landingham who, like Solomon, is 24. “You won more money than the guys who finished further back, but you’re kind of the first loser. To be there two years in a row is even more difficult to get by. But it’s just more reason to work harder, and coming that close fuels your fire. There are a lot worse things you could go through than being 16th. That’s another thing my mom’s situation has helped me realize.”

Perspective. It hit Landingham like a brick between his hat brim and his baby blues a couple years ago, when he lost his grandma, Judy Heal, in June 2013 to a four-year fight with ovarian cancer. A few weeks later, his mom, Wendy Skiver, was diagnosed with the same disease. There was surgery. Then chemotherapy. 

You might remember Landingham and his traveling partners at the time—J.R. Vezain, Clint Laye and Caleb Bennett—shaving their heads in solidarity with Wendy. The “Flowridas” then let it roll and steered clear of all barber shears for quite some time with the goal of donating their mops to Locks of Love. Bennett’s now traveling with Jake Vold, and David Peebles has taken his place in the rig, but they all still call Wendy “Mom.”

“Mom is doing really good,” Landingham said. “She has two more chemo treatments left. She’s in the normal range on her cancer count, so she’s pretty much in remission. They told her she’s going to have to live with cancer the rest of her life, but that they can control it. She’s always smiling, so it’d be pretty hard for me to complain about anything I’m going through in rodeo.”

It’d be hard to fault a guy whose injury record alone would make years of fine fodder for the writer of sad country songs. It’s been one thing and so many more for Landingham, whose former PRCA bareback rider stepdad Ty Skiver “got me started riding sheep, then calves, steers and junior bulls. I got on my first bareback horse at the house when I was 12, and have been at it ever since.”

Landingham was the California High School Rodeo Association state champion bareback rider and cutter in 2005, and followed that up as the state champion bareback rider in the Oregon High School Rodeo Association in 2006-07. He won the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association bareback riding title in 2009, just before diving headfirst into ProRodeo waters. 

Three months into Landingham’s rookie year in 2010, he crash-landed in Houston—in the bull riding. It was the end of his bull riding career, and a hang-up that could easily have ended Landingham’s young life. He broke his back, two ribs, his pelvis and shoulder blade. He punctured a lung and lacerated his liver. Against his wishes, the hospital became home. 

“That was the year I’d really started picking up bareback riding and getting pretty good at it,” he said. “It’s hard enough to stay healthy in one event, so I figured I’d stick to riding bareback horses. I felt like I needed to focus on one event, and I was still growing. The taller I got, the more I had to change my riding style in the bull riding. And after I got hurt I didn’t really crave the bull riding. I got scared of it. So I went with the horses and stuck with that.”

He’d finally rebounded from the horrific Houston hang-up when on May 26, 2011 Landingham ran off the road and hit a tree after trying to take a corner way too fast. “I shattered my left leg and broke a couple bones in my riding hand in that wreck,” he said. “That put me out for a full year, and cost me both the 2011 and 2012 seasons.”

Only to rise from the wreckage, return to the rodeo road and finish 16th? Twice?? 

“I’ve had a lot of injuries and setbacks in the first few years of my professional career,” said Landingham, who is sidelined yet again right now after tearing cartilage in his ribs in Fort Worth (Texas) in February. “I can’t wait to get back on the road.”

He’s had his highlights, too, like winning the Dodge City (Kan.) Roundup in 2013 and winning the Buc Days Pro Rodeo in Corpus Christi (Texas) with 87 points on Frontier Rodeo’s Show Stomper in 2014. “He was kind of new to the PRCA at the time, and everybody was talking about him,” he said. “He was one of the rankest horses going, and I was pretty nervous to get on him. But I ended up riding him pretty good and won it on him.” 

Landingham looked to be one short-round ride away from his first Finals last fall, as he started to stick it on Calgary Stampede’s Trail Dust at the Justin Boots Playoffs in Puyallup, Wash.

“I’d been having a lot of issues getting stingers in my free arm, which happens from whiplash in your neck and pinched nerves,” he said. “I was riding in the short round there at Puyallup, and if I’d even placed would have made the NFR last year pretty easily. But I got stingers bad about the third jump, everything went numb and locked up on my left side. It wasn’t pretty. It started out really good, but my body quit about halfway through the ride.”

Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Landingham got on the same horse a couple months later at the Canadian Finals Rodeo and was 87 points on him. 

So many blue-sky triumphs after all the tragedy, only to finish 16th? “It was hard,” Landingham said. “At first it bothered me a lot and brought me down. But then I looked at all I’d been through and come back from. Finishing 16th is like the worst thing that can happen to anybody in the rodeo world. But it’s just one of those things that fuels your fire and makes you work at it that much more. We’ve been going to the gym. Clint (Laye) didn’t make the Canadian Finals for the first time last year, and didn’t make the NFR, either. That got to him and it got to me, too. So we’ve been working harder at the gym to stay in shape and take care of our bodies. It hasn’t really paid off yet, but it’s about to as soon as I can come back.”

Landingham is due back the first week in April. “I always seem to be fighting something,” he said. “But my mom’s the one who’s really fighting something. I’ve seen the way it’s changed her as a person. It’s made her appreciate life so much more, not stress nearly as much and just be happy each day. It’s changed me the same way. I look at the brighter side of life. Hopefully this will be the year I can stay healthy—once I come back from this rib injury.”

Sometimes the lowest, roughest roads lead to the highest, happiest endings. “Of course I’d like to be there (the NFR) by now,” Landingham lamented. “And I feel like I should have been there years ago. If not for the luck I’ve had I think I would have been there. I’m ready for it to be the right time. I switched riggins awhile back and had guys tell me it changed my whole riding style and made me sit up higher and break at the hips, which slowed my feet down. So after Reno last year I switched back. I feel like I’m riding better now than I ever have.”

The potholes in Solomon’s path have been on the all-important horsepower side of the tie-down roping equation. He qualified for the Wrangler NFR in 2011-12. “In 2013 and 2014, I came up short on horsepower,” he said. “My main horse that took me to both Finals (Buzina, who came from Brazil) got hurt in July 2013. To come back and have the same thing happen in 2014 was tough. 

“I was 14th in the world with about 16-17 rodeos to go last year, and Buzina got sick up in the Northwest. My other horse had been hurt since July, so I was mainly depending on my bay horse (Buzina). He died the week of (the Justin Boots Championships in) Omaha. He picked up a rare bacteria, and Lewiston (Idaho) was the last calf I ever roped on him. It was a tough loss. That horse knew me and I knew him.”

Solomon’s sorrel horse, Spook, whom he rode some at NFR ’12, is back this year from a knee injury, and the two of them are literally on top of the world—No. 1. 

“I’ve had a very, very blessed winter,” said Solomon, who rang in the new year with the win at the RAM Texas Circuit Finals Rodeo in Waco, and just won the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. “I’ve won good at just about every rodeo I’ve been to. My best winter before was $20,000, and I have about $40,000 won right now. I’ve never had this much won this early.”

Solomon credits his brother Lawrence and dad, Larry, for lifelong support in good times and bad. “They know my strong points and every detail about my roping,” he said. “They’re right there to do whatever they can do to help. My friend Mark Atkinson has helped me a lot this year, too.” 

Several ropers have earned Solomon’s respect for various reasons. “I like how Fred (Whitfield) takes care of business and takes care of his horses,” Solomon said. “I like Cody Ohl’s winning attitude, and that he ropes for first and ropes to win. 

“I like the person Trevor Brazile is. It doesn’t matter to me how many gold buckles you have. I strive every day to be a world champion, but being a good person will take you way further in life than a gold buckle. If you weren’t at a rodeo and met Trevor, you’d never know he was the King of the Cowboys.”

Solomon was a PRCA rookie in 2009. “I didn’t come from a ProRodeo family,” he said. “My family has supported me 100 percent, but I didn’t come from a rich family and my dad couldn’t tell me what to expect at Reno, how to enter over the Fourth of July or which horse to take where. I had to figure out how to enter and make it work without a herd of fancy horses, so there was a lot to learn the first couple years I was out there rodeoing.”

The great horses are rare and priceless. “I’m not the kind of guy who makes excuses, but I don’t care how good you rope—any of the guys going down the road will tell you that if you don’t have a good horse you will not make the NFR, I don’t care if you’re Trevor, Fred or Cody,” Solomon said. “And they don’t just have to be good, but you have to be able to win on them.”

Solomon is famous for his upbeat attitude, no matter what. “I try to stay positive and surround myself with positive people,” he said. “That next calf could turn it all around, and being negative only makes the tough times last longer. After I finished 16th the first time I knew I needed to refocus and go back at it. To have it happen again really tested me. But I will not give up. That’s not who I am. I had a bitter taste. But I will not quit.

“I decided to attack winter this year. The last few years I’ve been on a late push in September, a lot due to horses, but I’ve been trying to make it at the finish line. I told myself this time I’m going to get off to a big start in the first quarter. I’ve really been drilling myself to win early. I want my late push to focus on winning a gold buckle, not on trying to make the Finals at the last minute.”

Solomon says $70,000 is typically safe for making the top-15 cut in his event. And at press time he’d only used a few bullets out of the 75 rodeos allowed PRCA tie-down ropers. “No sense looking back—having a good chance to win a world championship is my main goal this year,” he said. “I’m less than $30,000 away from securing a back number, then I can really focus on the ultimate goal. 

“You have to be talented to win at this level of the game, but a good attitude might mean more than talent when you’re rodeoing. I don’t care who you are, you’re going to get down at some point. The ball is just rolling for me right now. I’m going to keep pushing and working hard at it, and see where that takes me. I’m off to a great start, but you won’t see me letting up.”
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