This article was originally written by Bob Welch and published in the Team Roping Journal in mid 2007.
Topofthemarket, or Topper, was undisputedly the best rodeo calf roping horse of the past quarter century. He may be the best ever.
He was owned by calf ropers Roy Cooper, Trent Walls and Stran Smith and carried others such as Cody Ohl, Joe Beaver and Herbert Theriot to great rodeo success. Without a doubt, he should be inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.
The timing involved in his career, however, is best described as peculiar. A world title-caliber roper never owned Topper in the prime of his career, although he did carry one roper to a world championship. Described by all as a horse who knew how to take care of himself, he lived to be 25 years old, but died in great health when he opened his own gate and wandered out onto the highway for green grass, where a truck hit him.
Topper was an athlete beyond compare, a winner with a champion’s heart and an intense competitor. Yet outside the arena he had the personality that somehow mixed between the sweetest dog you’ve ever known and a 13-year-old boy. If he could have fed himself, he would have lived on hot dogs, red-hot Cheetos and peppermints.
The beginnings of Topper
Born in 1982, as a 2-year-old a Henrietta, Texas, cowboy named Kenny Pickens traded for the sorrel with a thick blaze. Pickens, who is deceased, put Topper to work as a cow horse. In 2003, Pickens told America’s Horse that, “He wasn’t even halter broke when I got him as a 2-year-old. He was afraid of people and was kind of a challenge to start because he was so nervous. We didn’t train him for calf roping until he was 5 because up until that point, he was scared of anything on the ground.”
In fact, Pickens told the magazine, he would have never trained the horse to rope calves had it not been for two old-time calf ropers he roped with who saw something special.
A man named Albert Shaw first discovered Topper in 1987 while a now-forgotten college competitor was riding him. Shaw, a calf horse trainer, took the horse in and worked with him. As a friend of Roy Cooper, he happened to know the five-time world champion calf roper was looking for a new horse.
“I run three or four calves on him and as soon as I did I told them I’d take him,” Cooper said. “I bought him when he had just turned six. Actually my dad bought him. I called him and told him I knew where a real nice young horse is over here. He had been to maybe a couple of jackpots but was just started very good. My dad gave $5,000 for him and said buy him if you want to buy him. So there he was and I had him.”
With his father, Tuffy’s blessing, Cooper knew he had a solid prospect.
“He was a nice young horse, big and strong and I knew he could run,” he said. “He didn’t rate when I first bought him he had so much run in him. It took a long, long time to get him to score and a really long time to get him to stop. His front end would come up. I knew if I could get that fixed, he’d be a super horse.”
Tuffy christened him Topper, and for the next few years he went into Roy’s training program.
On the rodeo road
At the age of eight, Topper hit the road with Cooper. Once out on the road, there was no question he was a great horse. Cooper rode him to six Wrangler NFR qualifications, an NFR average title in 1995 and dozens of regular season rodeo wins, including the $50,000 jackpot at the Calgary Stampede.
1994, however, was the year Topper made the transition from a solid mount to a proven winner.
“That was the year I won San Antonio. Cody Ohl won Fort Worth on him and Herbert Theriot won Houston on him. He was good, but that was the year he got really good,” Cooper recalled. “Then I had my shoulder operated on and not too many people rode him. Herbert rode him some that summer, then won the world’s championship on him.”
At the Finals that year, Theriot had a chance to win the title. As the end of 10-day survival-of-the-fittest competition drew near, Theriot felt he had to gain an edge over Joe Beaver, so he found Topper. He had to tie his final-round calf in 7.9 seconds to win the championship and that was exactly what he did-edging Beaver by a mere $14. That was as much as Topper was ever involved in a world championship.
“Winning the NFR when I was 40 years old, making them when I was 45. That’s not supposed to happen. That all comes back to having a great horse,” Cooper said. “If you had him, you had a chance to win on any kind of calf. Big ones, little ones, long scores, short scores…whatever it took. He was big time. He was everything. He was the greatest horse I ever had.”
Roy’s time with Topper lasted 15 years. The horse allowed Cooper to compete against ropers half his age. He prolonged his career. Unquestionably, Cooper shaped the horse. The winner’s attitude and the toughness the horse possessed came from his time with the Super Looper.
In his own words, Cooper stated, “Great ropers make great horses.”
Cooper’s personal life was changing, however, as were his goals. He knew rodeoing for a living was no longer in his future and had to move to a new chapter in his life. He also knew that Topper was still a strong, willing and ready competitor. He began to float the idea of selling him.
Another cowboy for Topper
In 2002, Trent Walls had the makings of a great ProRodeo career. He had made the NFR in 1998, had the PRCA/AQHA Horse of the Year that year, Deuce, won the California Rodeo Salinas twice, Pendleton and Caldwell once. But he was having horse trouble. He had sold Deuce and bought a young horse that ended up crippled. He sold a horse name Hustler that Cody Ohl went on to win the world on in 2003. Walls had missed the previous three Wrangler NFRs. Traveling with Trevor Brazile, who was dating Roy Cooper’s stepdaughter Shada at the time (they married in 2001); he began to talk about moving on.
“I had just gotten married (to Wrangler NFR barrel racer Cheyenne Wimberley-they’re now divorced) in 2002 and I went with Trevor to Sisters and Livermore. I told him, ‘I’m about fed up. This sucks, I haven’t had a horse, I’m about ready to go home this year.’ He told me he knew where there was one for $50,000.”
Immediately, he knew it was Topper, but he didn’t think Roy would really ever sell him.
“I told my wife, ‘I’m either going to buy Topper, or I’m going home.’ And I called Roy right then and he said, ‘There is probably not three or four people I would sell him to, but I would sell him to you. If you’re interested, it’s $50,000. There’s no bargaining. If you want to come run a couple on him, fine. But other than that, I don’t want to talk about it.’”
Walls got busy. He ran his calf in Flagstaff, Ariz., that afternoon, jumped in the truck, drove all night and got to Cooper’s in Childress first thing the next morning. He roped three calves on him and knew he wanted him.
“I asked my wife, ‘What do you think?’” Walls said. “She said, ‘It would be like me not buying (Kristie Peterson’s famous barrel horse) Bozo if I had the chance.’”
Walls scrambled around and found the money.
At the time, everybody was like, Holy moly, $50,000 for a 19-year-old horse?” Walls said. “I had a lot of doubt. I had only rode him once. We were at Vinita, and I was rodeoing with Stran and my horse had yanked a shoe and was kind of crippled. I asked Roy and he said, ‘Yeah, you can ride him, but you’ve got to win something or you can never ride him again.’ I was probably more nervous then than the first night I went to the NFR. I won fourth and at least didn’t embarrass myself.
“I gave him $50,000 for a 19-year-old horse I didn’t know the first thing about. He might not last two months, but he X-rayed like a colt. Not one blemish, like he was brand-new.
“The next week was Reno. I flew there and rode Trevor’s horse while Cheyenne got Topper shod and in shape. We went to Greeley and got started. In the first two months, Fred (Whitfield) won the $50,000 on him in Calgary and I won $40,000 on him. After Caldwell I had him paid for.”
The next year, Topper carried Walls to his second (and so far final) Wrangler NFR qualification. Once again, Topper rejuvenated a roper’s career.
He only owned him for two years, but one of Topper’s greatest transitions came during his time with Walls. Whether it was part of the aging process, the treats Cheyenne spoiled him with or some other unsaid factor, Topper became a character.
“It was hard not to fall in love with him,” Walls said. “He was always happy. Cheyenne spoiled him right quick on the treats. He would pat you down like a policeman, sniffing every pocket trying to find them.”
At the Puyallup (Wash.) Fair and Rodeo, timed-event competitors have to ride their horses down a carnival midway to get to the arena. It’s always packed with people eating fair food and playing games. After the performance once, Trent and Stran were leading Topper down the midway. A boy was holding a hot dog in one hand and approached the cowboys hoping for a chance to pet their horse. Topper snatched the hot dog from the boy’s hand and devoured it instantly.
“I bought the kid another hot dog,” Walls said.
Unfortunately for Walls, later that year, after the 2002 NFR, his father, Terry, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Soon it was obvious that Trent was needed at home to run the family’s stock contracting business.
“Stran had always done really good on Topper the whole time Roy had him and just thought he was Superman on him,” Walls said. “When my dad got sick I called Stran and said, ‘Hey, are you ready to be Superman, because I have to quit going.’ Any-way, he came and got him. We partnered on him for a year so I could see what happened with my dad and the next year Stran went ahead and bought me out of him.”
“Topper was always meant to be Stran Smith’s horse.”
Topper was always meant to be Stran Smith’s horse. Perhaps, however, they both had to go through their share of experiences before it would be as meaningful a partnership as it became. Topper’s specialty, remember, was rejuvenating careers.
In 2002, after making six NFRs, Smith was forced to undergo knee surgery and missed the Finals. Then, early in 2003, unbelievably, he suffered a stroke. Some doctors told him he was finished, and that he would never rope another calf.
After finding a willing doctor and an experimental procedure, the small hole in his heart that caused the stroke was repaired and he could get back to roping. He just needed the right horse to get it started.
“I passed up on buying him when he was eight,” Stran said of Toper. “I passed up on buying him when he was 19, so when he was 21 and I had had a stroke I figured I’d better buy him. Truth be known, I wouldn’t be rodeoing if I didn’t have Topper. He was what inspired me to come back. I about had all I could take. I was about at the end of my rope and the opportunity to buy Topper come up and I was like, hey, why not?”
It was no secret that Topper fit Smith. For a time, Cooper and Smith were brothers-in-law, Roy being married to Stran’s sister, Shari. Smith, therefore, had a little easier access to Topper than most ropers.
“I filled my permit on him,” Smith said. “The first PRCA rodeo I ever rode him at was in Amarillo, Texas, in 1993. The first go-round I ever won at the Finals was on him. The first year I went to the Finals I wasn’t gelling with the horse I had and Roy let me get on Topper.”
Interestingly, it wasn’t until 2003, the year Walls and Smith partnered on Topper, that he won the award he’d deserved for probably the past decade. He was named 2003 PRCA/AQHA Horse of the Year.
“It was almost comical,” Walls said. “It always seemed odd that the horse of the century had never won horse of the year. Then Stran, the political machine, gets ahold of him and he gets it done and we were pretty proud for him.”
At the time, Smith told the ProRodeo Sports News that he felt Topper was at the top of his game. In 2005, Topper won the award again.
By the time 2004 rolled around, Smith was healthy, armed with the best calf horse in the business and motivated to make a run.
Smith gives the best perspective on what Topper brought to the arena.
“He gave everything he had every time,” Smith said. “It didn’t matter if you were practicing at a jackpot or the NFR. He was made for it, he was a natural. There are probably 200 horses out here that have as much ability physically as he had; so then it comes to try and his heart. Everybody always says they want to be around a winner and everybody who rode him won. No matter what the circumstances were.
“It didn’t matter what you had drawn. He was an equalizer. I won as much money on calves that were bad on him as I did on calves that were good. That’s the part about his professional side that made him such a phenomenal calf roping horse.”
Cody Ohl puts Topper’s legacy in more stark terms.
“He was probably one of the greatest horses that ever lived,” the reigning world champion tie-down roper said. “There’s not a whole lot more you can say about it, it’s pretty black and white. He lived his whole life in a trailer and made a whole lot of guys a living.”
Gregg Veneklasen, DVM, who has probably seen and worked on more rodeo horses than any other veterinarian, could tell Topper was special, too.
“He was physically gifted,” Veneklasen said. “At an older age, he had more and more ailments. I see horses that are 15 that have the same problems and he was 25. He was so much fun to work on. He was one of those you could always say, ‘Yeah, he’ll be alright,’ because he was Topper. He’s been a wonderful part of my life and taught me lots of things as a veterinarian. I really, really enjoyed that horse. There’s a handful of great calf horses and he’s one of them.”
But there was even more. Smith contends that Topper knew how to disassociate competition and relaxation. Most performance horses like that don’t know how to turn off their competitive nature and are always edgy and even harbor a certain amount of fear in them. Not Topper.
“I’m sure that all great athletes have that air about them. Maybe it’s different for horses. You knew it whenever you were around him. I let (my son) Stone ride him and he was good about it, but when it come to business time, the kids got out of the arena. He knew it was business. He wasn’t buddies anymore. He knew when to turn that on and turn that off. We were buddies and pals until it came time to rope.
“He could pump himself up. If it was go time or game time, he knew it. He’d be calm as he could be. You’d ride him in there and you’d best be ready and take care of your own business. You could never just play on him or rope for a good time. You couldn’t go 75 percent or he’d hurt you. It was serious.”
The two years that Smith was able to put a full season in with Topper at his disposal (he only used Topper sparingly as he got older) he finished second and fourth in the world. Both years, 2004 and 2005, he was the last calf roper to back into the box in the 10th round of the NFR-meaning up to that point he had won more money than anyone else-but both times lost out because his competitors had more average money. Simply put, Topper made Stran Smith a better roper.
Those around Smith and Topper knew it, too. Smith’s father, Clifton, took care of the horse while Stran was on the road and, of course, saw the horse in action as much as anyone.
“In the calf roping business, he was a winner,” Clifton said. “What made him a winner were several things-a lot of people know more about it than I do, but they probably haven’t thought about it any more-Topper always gave you everything he had. He didn’t try to cheat you. He’d break and run out of the box at 25 better than most 8-year-old horses. He had a way of stopping that would shut a calf down. When they hit the end of it, he made them feel dominated. You could take a rank calf and make an average calf out of him.”
Kyle Kukla, who drove for Stran when he was competing on Topper and now competes himself, echoed those sentiments.
“Stran is a roping son of a gun and no one can ever take that away from him,” Kukla said. “He’s won on lots of horses and he’s been hurt. But that horse right there, when he rode him at the NFR he won $100,000 both years. He was like getting Babe Ruth off the bench. You didn’t want to run him everywhere, but when the game’s on the line, the winner wants the ball. He was invincible on that horse. There’s a reason he won three rounds at the NFR.”
Stran Smith + Topper = Superman
In 2004, Smith won three rounds at the Finals and made $64,070 there and finished second in the world. In 2005, he was second in four rounds, won $64,111 in Vegas and finished fourth in the world. Stran knew that Topper brought him to a higher level, too.
“My win percentage on him was probably 70 percent my entire career,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, he made me feel like Superman. When I rode into the box on him, I pretty much knew that if everything worked for he and I, everybody else was roping for second.”
All that right there would have been enough to secure that horse’s legacy in the professional rodeo world. But there was more to Topper than that. His personality was unequalled. He made those around him love him. To a man, they all said they’d miss his personality more than his in-arena abilities. Plus, old Tops had one more rejuvenation project.
“What made him so special to me was knowing (his calf roping ability) and then knowing his personality,” Smith said. “People got attached to him the way people would get attached to a dog. Anybody who does this professionally realizes that usually you can’t be friends with your horse. You can’t have that relationship to where they’re your buddy and you can spoil them. That’s the way I treated him, though. He was my best friend and that’s the way I treated him because I respected him that much. He was one of a kind. As amazing as it was to get to ride him, it was even more amazing to get to be around him.”
Kukla, who likened getting to meet Topper to a kid who loves basketball getting to meet Michael Jordan, found the same things in the horse,
“If you needed a friend, boy, he was there,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it. There are a lot of good roping horses and stuff, but I tell you he was the kindest hearted animal you’d ever been around in your life.”
Clifton was also touched by the horse’s warm personality.
“I never remember walking up to him or watching him and him backing his ears,” he said. “He didn’t even want to fight horses, Shetlands could run him around. He just wanted to get along and be friendly with everyone.”
In 2006, Stran struggled. On the bubble as the year ended, he was pressing to make the Finals. At the last regular-season rodeo in Kansas City, on Topper, he dislocated his shoulder and tore ligaments away from the bone in the process. At first, his career again looked to be threatened.
He missed the Finals, had to wear a sling and undergo intense physical therapy. Smith recovered, and at his first rodeo back called on his go-to guy.
Kukla, Smith and Topper all loaded up at Smith’s home place in Childress for the trip to Rodeo Austin. For Kukla, who had moved on from driving for Smith, it was like old times. The old gang was back together.
Stran placed fifth in the second round, third in the final round (a 9.4-seond run where Topper made a bad calf workable) and second in the average. He was back.
Yet again, Topper was there to rally his rider.
The end for Topper
Ten days after the win, on April 5, with Stran, his wife Jennifer and sons Stone and Scout out of town, Topper got out of his stall, grazed around the yard and eventually out onto the highway approaching Childress. A truck hit him. Amazingly, with a broken leg, Topper drew on his incredible strength, heart and try, made it back to his stall, lay down and died.
“The first rodeo I came back for after surgery was Austin and I said then, man, when I lose Tops, it’s going to be hard to keep me from retiring,” Stran said. “He’s been my safety. I knew I could always count on him. If I get in a jam I could always go get on Topper and I always had that in the back of my mind. And I don’t now. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with, that’s for sure. I’m glad I wasn’t there to have to see him.”
Trent Walls was just as saddened. He still loved the horse.
“It was three or four days until Stran and I could talk about it,” he said. “I called him and cried like a big, fat baby. It wouldn’t have mattered if you’d never run another calf on him; it’s just the personality that you’re going to miss. He had the best personality that you’ve ever seen.”
He was buried, standing up, on Clifton’s ranch-the highest point just outside of Childress. Those who knew and loved the horse have struggled with his untimely death. But Topper took good care of himself and was always right where he was needed. Perhaps he was needed somewhere else, somewhere more important than the planet earth, somewhere high above the little town of Childress.
Clifton knew the horse was something special and hopes he’s awarded for it someday.
“He went out winning,” he said. “He deserves to be recognized. I hope they get him in the Hall of Fame. Stran said, ‘I gave that horse to the Lord when I bought him and he’s the Lord’s and He took him and I’m never going to ask why He took him.’”
Instead, Stran is determined to find the good in what happened.
“Let’s try to go on and find something positive about this,” he said. “The good out of it was that he was 25 and I never had to make the decision to put him down when he was 27 or 31 or however long he would have lived. I didn’t have to see him standing there crippled and losing his health. I’m just trying to look on the positive side of it. As far as missing him, man I don’t know. My whole rodeo career is built around that horse, especially the last four or five years.”
But, due to modern technology, there’s still hope for Topper’s future. Although he was a gelding, the Smiths worked with Dr. Veneklasen to have Topper cloned.
“We got tissue on Topper,” Veneklasen said. “Hopefully in the near future there will be another one. Will he be the same horse? Of course not, but at least we have the genetics here.”
Stran’s enthusiasm is a little less tempered.
“The plan is to clone him five times, see which one is the closest one to Topper and keep him a stud,” Smith said. “Then the other four I’m going to experiment with. You’re not guaranteed to get the same thing. I’ll be curious to see if that heart comes through. If my boys want to rope they’re going to get Topper’s clone in their prime.”
With Topper’s history, who knows, the boys might just need a good one about then.