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For Barnes, O’Brien, it ain’t their first rodeo

In 1985, the year the National Finals Rodeo arrived in Las Vegas, the No. 1 movie was “Back to the Future” and the top team ropers were Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper.

If the seven-time world champions had fired up the flux capacitor back then and taken the DeLorean for a spin — to say, Dec. 4, 2014 — they would have been thrilled to discover that, 30 years later, they were still contending for titles at the NFR, which started its annual 10-day run Thursday at the Thomas &Mack Center.

Barnes, 55, and O’Brien, 53 — the oldest competitors at the NFR — also would have been happy to see 1985 world champs Ote Berry, Joe Beaver and Lewis Feild at the T&M on Thursday, though only one of them (Berry) was on a horse.

Barnes, a heeler making his 26th NFR appearance, placed fourth in the first round with partner Junior Nogueira, the first Brazilian ever to qualify for a timed event at the NFR.

O’Brien, a header, finished eighth with Aaron Tsinigine in his 28th NFR appearance.

“We all thought what Cal Ripken did was amazing. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to Jake and Clay,” said Berry, a four-time steer wrestling champ who is hazing for Clayton Hass. “They’re not only still competing, but they’re competing at the highest level. They’re in contention for the world championship every year.

“It’s hard to maintain that, not only physically but mentally.”

Besides being blessed with good health, Barnes and Cooper — a Gardnerville resident who made his acting debut in the 1972 John Wayne film “The Cowboys” when he was 11 — both said the key to their longevity has been their love of the game.

“I enjoy every part of it,” Cooper said. “I enjoy the preparation and the practice, working with my horses. I enjoy the competition, and I enjoy winning. You don’t win every time, so when you do win, it’s a thrill.”

Barnes said traveling is the biggest challenge the friends face in their 50s.

“The hardest thing for us in this deal is just the grueling schedule,” he said. “We compete at 75 rodeos a year. Being our age, that takes a toll on you.”

However, Barnes said he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he wasn’t roping.

“That’s all we know,” he said. “We grew up roping. It’s been part of my life ever since I can remember. It’s something you don’t get out of your blood. (Clay’s) the same way. We were basically born to rope.”

Besides the big increase in prize money since 1985 — when the total purse doubled to $1.795 million from the year before in Oklahoma City and has more than tripled since, to $6.375 million this year — Barnes said the biggest change has been how Las Vegas has embraced rodeo’s Super Bowl.

“Before, Vegas wasn’t a rodeo town. Now, it’s the biggest rodeo town there is,” he said. “Everyone wants to come to Vegas in December to come and watch the NFR.

“When they were talking about moving it last year, it was kind of disappointing. I’m glad that it’s stayed here. This is a special place for me.”

Berry remembers a lot of empty seats at the first NFR in Las Vegas.

“A lot of people around town didn’t know what was going on and what all the cowboys were doing here,” he said. “It’s changed dramatically. The first year out here, December was always kind of the deadest month for Las Vegas. Now it’s one of the liveliest.”

Coincidentally, when Berry won the world and average titles in 1985 in his first NFR, he did it on a Horse of the Year called Cadillac. This year, Hass also is competing in his first NFR on a Horse of the Year called Cadillac. If Hass wins the world title, he and Berry might have a new sponsor.

Feild, who won the first two of his five gold buckles in 1985, was in attendance at his 30th straight NFR on Thursday. He was watching his son, three-time defending bareback riding world champion Kaycee Feild, win the first round with a 84.5-point ride on Cactus Juice.

Beaver, who won the first of his eight gold buckles in tie-down roping as a rookie in 1985, was at the event as a TV commentator.

While Cooper and Barnes are still competing at the highest level, there are some things they can’t do anymore.

“I don’t have any desire to go out on the town anymore. That’s changed,” Cooper said. “I’m a little more low-key. I don’t need the nightlife anymore.”

Barnes said he’s all business as well and that he learned a long time ago his best bet at making money in Las Vegas is at the NFR.

“I’m not much of a gambler or a drinker,” he said. “When we were young, I used to try to gamble a little bit, but I figured out they don’t build these things off winners.”

■ NOTES — Rookie bull rider Joe Frost won the first round, pocketing $19,002.40, for his 85.5-point ride on Rattler. Frost, a 22-year-old from Randlett, Utah, is the second cousin of renowned bull rider Lane Frost, the 1987 world champion who died in 1989 after a ride at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo. Lane Frost was immortalized in the 1994 rodeo movie “Eight Seconds.” … The NFR’s 28-year sellout streak continued Thursday with a capacity crowd of 17,591. … The NFR will be televised at 7 p.m. daily through Dec. 13 by the CBS Sports Network (Cox Channel 333).

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.

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