It’s a go: WNFR ropers Clay Tryan, Jr Dees and Dustin Bird hope for big Christmas bonuses |

It’s a go: WNFR ropers Clay Tryan, Jr Dees and Dustin Bird hope for big Christmas bonuses

Clay Tryan heads for Jade Corkill at the Ellensburg, Wash. rodeo in September. The team enters this year’s WNFR in ninth place in the world.

Three team ropers from the Tri-State Livestock News area have qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

Three-time world champion Clay Tryan, five-time WNFR qualifier Dustin Bird, and first-time qualifier Jr Dees will represent the region.

Jr Dees won’t even be legal to be on the casino floors in Las Vegas, but he’s qualified to rope there at his first ever WNFR.

The twenty year old from Aurora, S.D., won $50,000 in the gold medal round of the Days of ’47 rodeo in Salt Lake City to secure a spot at the Finals.

But roping in Salt Lake came in a round-about fashion. He had been heading for his mentor, Matt Zancanella, a former WNFR competitor, with the goal of being first in the Badlands Circuit. First place in each event in each circuit was invited to the Days of ’47 rodeo. But heeler Matt Kasner pushed Zancanella out of first place in the circuit, so Dees entered the Days of ’47 with heeler Cody Hogan (Hogan qualified for the rodeo by leading the Rookie of the Year title). Four days before the rodeo, Hogan broke three fingers and told Dees he wouldn’t be roping in Salt Lake.

Dees called the PRCA, asking who the next heeler was on the alternate list, but they didn’t know. So Dees spent an anxious weekend, waiting to hear who he would rope with.

It was at the rodeo in Casper, Wyo., as he sat next to Tyler McKnight’s girlfriend, that she asked him, “have you heard the good news?” Dees asked, “what good news?” McKnight was the next one on the list, the one Dees would rope with.

The two went to the practice pen the morning before they roped in Salt Lake, and it did not go well. They caught one out of fifteen.

But things went well during the performance, and they won the round.

This is Dees’ second year of PRCA competition, and Zancanella, with whom he has lived since he was six years old, has helped him. “It’s nice to have someone who’s been there, done that,” Dees said. “He had a plan, and it worked.” Zancanella’s plan was for he and Dees to win the circuit, go to the Days of ’47 rodeo, and it win it. “It didn’t work out for him, but it worked out for me.”

Except for the Salt Lake City rodeo, Dees roped with Zancanella till mid-August, then roped with Sturgis, S.D.’s Levi Lord for a month. Now he and McKnight, with whom he’ll rope at the WNFR, have been practicing. Both are in Arizona.

Dees has a game plan for his first WNFR. “Everyone has nerves for things like that. You can say you don’t, but you do. I’m not going to let things get to me. I feel like, if I do my job and take care of business, I can have some really cool things happen.”

Tryan, who grew up in Billings, Montana, made over half of his year’s earnings of $81,383 in August and September.

It wasn’t what he had planned, but it worked. He and heeler Jade Corkill placed at a lot of the rodeos they competed at, but there weren’t a lot of big checks. “It’s been ‘grind-it-out’ money,” Tryan said.

Tryan, who won the world title in 2005, 2013 and 2014, would rather come into the WNFR in first place. “I’m wired to come in in the lead,” he said. In 2013 and 2014, he and Corkill entered the WNFR in first place and won it both years. In 2015, they entered in the lead, but didn’t win it. Last year, they competed in the Elite Rodeo Association. “I’m not a hanger-on kind of guy. It’s either be great or do something else in my life.”

But with the large payouts at the Finals, anything is possible. “Nowadays, the world title is won there (at the WNFR). Even if you’re in the lead, you have to have a really good Finals or you’re not going to win it.”

He and Corkill have roped together since 2013, and it’s a good partnership. “I think he’s one of the best heelers of all time, and he’s still a young guy.” Corkill catches fast, throws fast, has good horses, and understands how to win, Tryan said. “When you become the best at what you do, you don’t have a lot of weaknesses.”

The 38-year-old will take two horses to Las Vegas. Johnson, a twelve-year-old sorrel, has been owned by Tryan for the past few years. Dew, an eighteen-year-old bay, has been Tryan’s mount at the last few WNFRs. The Thomas and Mack arena, which is smaller and has a shorter score, requires a different horse for ropers. “What’s crazy,” Tryan said, “is that some of the best horses at the Finals might not be the best horses throughout the year. It’s a unique setup and guys are so fast nowadays, you need a horse that’s good in a building with a short score.”

Tryan is competitive, he says, “and I don’t want to lose. I want to be great, or I want to do something else.” Being a three-time world champion and two-time WNFR average winner can be a challenge. “It’s hard to keep motivated when you’ve won everything you want to win. You have to keep the drive.”

He and his wife Bobbie are the parents of three boys: Tyler, 11, Braylon, nine, and Dash, who is three. The two older boys are roping, and Tryan takes Tyler to jackpots. It’s hard to be gone with three kids at home, and retirement is a bit closer than it was twenty years ago. “I’ve had a good career,” he said. “Once you’ve had a great career, and your kids are older, there are other things.” He has some ideas for careers after full-time roping.

He and his mom, Terri Kaye Kirkland and his brother Travis were the first ever mother-sons combination to qualify the same year (2003) for the WNFR, and they did it again in 2004 and 2005. In 2010, Clay, Travis and Brady were the first set of three brothers to qualify for the WNFR. His dad, Dennis, competed at the WNFR in 1984.

Although he considers Montana his home, Tryan and his family live in Lipan, Texas. Being able to rope year round is a “huge advantage. When you grow up where I grew up, you aren’t roping outside today in a t-shirt.”

Fellow Montanan Dustin Bird has qualified for his fifth WNFR. The 37 year old cowboy, who grew up in Cut Bank and considers that his home, will head for Terrebonne, Oregon’s Russell Cardoza.

Bird enters the Finals in twelfth place with $78,288 won, in a year that wasn’t too bad. “We had a few missed opportunities this winter,” he said, noting they made the short rounds in Denver, San Angelo and Ft. Worth.

He and Cardoza have roped together for two and a half years, and Bird appreciates Cardoza’s easy going attitude. “He never gets too high or too low. He rides good horses and is consistent in catching two feet.”

For Las Vegas, Bird will take two horses: Dolly, an eighteen-year-old bay mare, and Yahtzee, a fourteen-year-old gray. Dolly has been his good horse for most of his career and has finished in the top three in the AQHA’s Head Horse of the Year Award. Yahtzee, who was purchased from Kaleb Driggers three years ago, was Bird’s mount at the 2016 WNFR and the Canadian Finals Rodeo the last few years. Dolly was Erich Rogers’ mount the past couple of years at the WNFR; Rogers needed a horse, and Dolly is a good fit for him, Bird said. Bird rode Dolly for his first three WNFRS but feels he can be more consistent on Yahtzee.

He and his family ranch near Cut Bank, but when it gets cold, Bird heads south. He is a proud Montanan, but the climate doesn’t work well for full-time ropers. “It makes it more complicated when you only have four good months to rope out of the year.” But as the seasons change, “you can change the towns you live in.” Bird and his fiancée Alicia Stockton spend winters at their place near Wickenburg, Arizona. They have a son, Stockton, who is a year old.

With his fifth trip to the “big show,” Bird has bigger goals. “The first couple years I went, I was just glad to be there, was having fun and throwing fast. Now I’d sure like to get in that average this year, catch more, and place in more rounds.”

Bird also tie-down ropes.

The WNFR runs Dec. 6-17, with the top fifteen contestants in each of seven events (headers and heelers in the team roping) competing once daily. Contestants earn money by placing first through sixth in any round, and pick up more money by placing first through eighth in the average. Two champions are crowned in each event at the end: the average winner, who won the WNFR by having the best cumulative time or score in their event, and the world champion, who finished the year with the most money (including what they won at the WNFR). The average winner and the world champion may be the same person or different people.

It will air nightly on CBS Sports Network at 10 pm ET/7 pm PT. It will also be available for a fee on twelve hours after the CBS Sports broadcast.

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