The only heeler to have won the Bob Feist Invitational three times has also banked more than $200,000 cash over the roping’s four decades. It’s safe to say he’s mastered the most challenging roping in America.
Just why is it so tricky to win the BFI? Why is it that so many world champs who can rope five smooth all day long at home have so much trouble inside the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center in late June? Skelton’s new partner and old friend, David Key, can tell us from the perspective of both ends.
Key, a nine-time NFR header, has been second at the BFI two times, by the blink of an eye – as a heeler with Kermit Maass in 1996 and as a header for Clay Cooper in 2003.
“You don’t get any mulligans there,” Key said. “You can’t stub your toe or make a mistake. That’s what’s so hard for everybody. If you do barely stub your toe, then you try too hard to overcome it and make a major mistake. There are no seconds. It’s such a different roping. You’ve got one chance.”
Key figures the two biggies are getting the best starts at the line and staying aggressive.
“They don’t give the money away at big ropings, but usually people screw up and try to be too safe, or do something they don’t do normally,” explained Key. “You can get caught up in the moment if you’re not careful. I have a totally different mindset this year – I’m just going to go do my job. When you’re younger, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype or the fact that you really want to win that roping, so bad.”
If there’s nothing else Rich Skelton became known for, it’s doing his job – catching two feet. As a BFI veteran, he thinks there’s one key in particular to winning money in Reno. Looking back, he gives credit to the likes of Bob and Megazord.
“The head horses dictate what happens at that roping,” he said. “The heeler has to rope well, but the head horse has to be fast enough and score really well. The heeler has the opportunity, if you’re a little long and then draw a good one, to go faster and take advantage. But you have to know when to press and when not to. When you do it as long as we have, hopefully you know what to do at the right time.”
Skelton, who will be riding a bay horse he bought from Justin Davis, that Rhen Richard started, especially likes to “take advantage” in the first round.
“At the BFI, to me, the very first steer sets the mood for the day,” said Skelton. “Most every time I’ve done well there, I placed in the first round. If you can get a good start and get off to a roll and win a little money, it helps. Now, the first time I won it, in 1998, we were 12 on the first steer. (Ambien) But the steers were really big and strong that year.”
Incidentally, that’s Skelton’s favorite memory – his first of those three BFI wins with Speed Williams (1998, 2001-02). It was 20 years ago. Over those 20, so much has changed.
“When I was a little kid, I’d wait all year to get the Ropers Sports News to see the pictures of the guys at the BFI,” he recalled. “Nowadays, you can watch the roping on the internet while it’s going on. Technology is so different now. The other change is that, back then, I knew every good heeler in the world – there were about eight or 10. Now, there are kids at a jackpot who heel great that I’ve never heard of and never seen before. And they probably don’t know who I am.”
Well, we might not go that far.