Roping legend will battle young gun again at Hempstead rodeo
HEMPSTEAD, Texas – There has to be something in the east Texas water.
Whatever it is, the world of rodeo is reaping the rewards. You see, east Texas seems to breed top quality tie-down ropers, many of whom will converge on the Waller County Fair and Rodeo, set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4-Saturday, Oct. 6, in Hempstead. It will be a showcase of great regional talent mixed with some of the greatest who ever played the game.
What’s even more impressive is that two of the top 10 calf ropers in the sport – Fred Whitfield of Hockley, Texas, and Cory Solomon of Prairie View, Texas – live within a few miles of the fairgrounds.
“I think the main reason there are so many great calf ropers in that part of Texas is because there’s just so much competition,” said Whitfield, who is closing in on his 20th qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. “With our climate, you can do it year-round. It’s so freaking competitive at a young age.”
Being in that environment has paid off, too. Since starting his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association career in 1990, Whitfield has earned eight world championships – seven in tie-down roping and one all-around. Solomon hasn’t reached that gold buckle status just yet, but he’s just in his fourth full season in ProRodeo, but he’s secured his spot at the NFR for the second straight season.
“Living in that area, you can be a good cowboy because the competition is so tough,” said Solomon, 22, who won the $100,000 title at this year’s Calgary (Alberta) Stampede by beating Whitfield in a head-to-head matchup on the rodeo’s final day. “You have to work hard enough. It’s tough to win because there are so many that are so tough.”
From youth rodeo through the amateur ranks and into the elite level of NFR qualifiers, the river of talent that flows through the area will be on display in Hempstead the first weekend in October.
“I like that it’s now a ProRodeo,” said Whitfield, who grew up in Cypress. “There are a lot of local people that don’t get to go to Vegas, so they can go to Waller (County), and they get to see all the NFR guys. They were all there last year.
“That’s my hometown rodeo, and there are a lot of little towns that are down there together. You always want to do well at your hometown rodeo.”
That is a major drawing card for Solomon, who won the third round at the NFR last December. He loves the idea of being able to compete in front of friends and family.
“It would be a great feeling to win that rodeo, because it’s my hometown event and it’s a chance for a lot of people I know to see me compete,” he said. “I have a lot of my old childhood friends and people I went to high school with, some teachers that taught me … it’s great. It’s close for family and friends that can’t travel to see me at other events.
“It’s just a good feeling to be able to compete that close to home.”
He also will use the opportunity to help train some of his younger horses for the rodeo trail.
“Hempstead fall at that time of year where it’s after the (regular) season ends, so that’s when my best horse in the world is on break and will be resting then,” Solomon said, noting that the ProRodeo’s season runs Oct. 1-Sept. 30 every year, so the Waller County Fair and Rodeo will count toward the 2013 standings even though the world champion won’t be crowned until the conclusion of the NFR in December. “I rode one of my younger horses there last year, and that’s probably what I’ll do this year.”
Solomon has had a solid season, and sits No. 5 in the standings with $85,615 in earnings; Whitfield is ninth with $69,987. Both have significant wins this season, which is why they’re near the top of the PRCA standings. But there was something special that happened at Calgary in July. Both cowboys posted 8.1-second runs in the final round, which gave them the opportunity to participate in a rope off.
It all came on the final day of the Stampede, when rain left the arena a mud pit.
“When we had to go to the tie-breaker, my rope was muddy and I really didn’t have time to think about the fact that we had to do it again,” Solomon said. “Being as competitive as I am, it doesn’t matter what the situation is, you just have to have the feeling that you can beat anybody in the world, whether it’s somebody you’ve never heard of or a world champion. That’s the kind of mind you have to have.”
It worked. After fellow roper Shane Hanchey used his shirt to remove the mud from Solomon’s rope, the youngster posted a 7.7-second run, beating Whitfield’s 8.4-second mark.
“I felt like I had a chance to win that thing, and I wanted to,” said Whitfield, a three-time Calgary champ. “He won outright. It’s fun. You always want to win, but like I told him, we got to run two calves for $100,000.
“A few years ago, I could see signs of him being good. That dude’s going to wear a gold buckle one of these days. He’s got it all.”
Whitfield knows because of his experience. Now 44, the world champion has seen it all. He knows what it means to stand atop the world and feel the heartbreak of just missing ProRodeo’s grand finale. Solomon is well on his way to gaining the same kinds of experience, and they’ll be able to share it with their friends, family and fans in Hempstead the first weekend in October.
“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Solomon said.