On a particular Sunday night in June 2009, Caleb Mitchell was the only person in Reno, Nevada, who thought he could win the BFI. Because it’s not like anybody out there had heard of him. He was 26 and his mainstay was south-Texas amateur rodeos. He’d never entered “the Feist.” Truth is, he’d grown up in a trailer park roping the dummy and never had a horse until he was 16.
The only reason Mitchell was even in Reno that weekend was Cactus Ropes had paid his BFI fees because Barry Berg had seen him rope, and because his two buddies Paul Sterling and Tommy Anderson sponsored him with “a little money to go out there.” Mitchell’s truck was broke down. He had to pay somebody to drive him and his flea-bit gray gelding, Gaucho, to Weatherford, Texas, to get in with Ryan Motes, who Boogie Ray had lined him up with temporarily. Then Mitchell would have to hire a ride back home, too.
The morning of the roping didn’t start out so well, either. He definitely wasn’t the first cowboy and won’t be the last to show up in town and go straight to the sold-out Silver Legacy, luggage in hand, to partake of the free drinks at the blackjack tables.
“Monday morning I woke up running late and had no idea where I was,” he recalled. “That made me a little nervous. I remember trying to call a cab and telling him I needed to get to the arena fast and I’d pay him double.”
Luckily, the room he didn’t remember booking early that morning at the Motel 6 was right near the arena. And once he got his bearings, his old confident mindset took over – his inner belief in himself.
“I never think I’m going to lose; I have to believe I’m the best header in the world and tell Clay Tryan he’s second-best,” he joked. “I texted Barry after I placed in the first round to tell him I was going to win the roping.”
Mitchell’s luck held; he drew good cattle. Or so it appeared. Truth is, Gaucho made them look good, Mitchell said. Nobody knew what he had in that horse.
“I amateur rodeoed a long time in Texas on him and people thought I just threw fast,” he admitted. “Nobody realized how fast he was or how fast a throw he gave me every time.”
The Zan Parr Bar/Doc Tari gelding was only 4 or 5 when Mitchell bought him for $3,200 from his uncle’s buddy, Dave Loving, who also formerly owned the bay horse, Turbo, that Joe Beaver rode at the Finals a few times. Mitchell could throttle Gaucho, then 8, and basically nail the start no matter what he drew. So when he and Motes went 7.15, 7.95, 7.66, 7.40, 7.34 and 7.99 seconds on their six steers, they edged Derrick Begay and Cesar de la Cruz by just under a second to rake in $149,410.
Mitchell sent his crisp new $74,705 paycheck home with Berg to immediately deposit in his Charlotte bank, and used it to buy a pickup. But his sharp roping didn’t just pay off for he and Motes, then 28. Three ladies approached Mitchell to add to the celebration, saying their husbands had purchased the team in the cowboy auction for $600 and made more money than the header or heeler did that day.
It’s all thanks to Gaucho, Mitchell said. He believes every team roper is just one horse away from such a win.
“To me, if you have a great horse, that roping is real easy,” he said. “You need one that can run but also that can set up the steers where guys could heel them. I knew he could run, but nobody else did because he was deceiving,” he added. “He was a freak; he’d make your eyes water. You didn’t think he was running, but you could turn him loose and it was like the cattle just come to you. He’s not one that beats the ground and looks like he’s trying. Same way as Clay Tryan’s great Thumper, that he could go be 3 on and win the world and also won the BFI twice. Most guys need two horses for each setup.”
Mitchell also won the Spicer Gripp on Gaucho. In the spring of 2011, however, he was catching a ride home from Guymon with Kinney Harrel when they stopped for the night in Post.
“Does your horse fight?” he asked Harrell of his great bay heel horse, Taz. “Nah, does yours?” was the response. But the next morning, they found Gaucho with his foot nearly cut off.
Casted and stalled for an agonizing two years, Gaucho actually came back from that and was great again – landing Mitchell in the top 10 in the world standings. But in 2013 at Pleasant Grove, Utah, on the way to Reno, a twisted gut ended the gray’s life.
“When he died, my dream died,” said Mitchell, who borrowed horses and tried to continue for a while. Now he and his wife Jenna are raising three kids in Mason, Texas, and he trades cattle and does daywork. He hasn’t been to a rodeo in two years. Regardless, Mitchell knows this: winning the BFI is one thing they can’t ever take away from you.
“The BFI was one of my childhood dreams that came true,” he said. “Everything just came together. It was destiny, because I didn’t even have the money to get there.”