Long before Jill Tanner stopped the clock in 2.65 seconds to win $100,000 at the 2021 RFD-TV's The American, the horse she rode there—Tombstone—was done.
The shaggy-coat, big-ankle, 200-pounds-overweight, turned-out-in-the-pasture-with-a-mare kind of done. The kind of done that comes with a joint that could shatter if he ever turned a steer again in a high-pressure, ProRodeo setup.
Kicked out in Jake Cooper's Stephenville, Texas field, the cresty-necked, 12-year-old gelding registered as Parker County Oak was a far cry from the promising young head horse that Cooper debuted at the 2015 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
Tombstone was the first in the long-line of Starlight Gypsy-bred horses that Lari Dee Guy, Hope Thompson and Trevor Brazile helped make famous. He was in the first batch of colts the trio bought from JoAnn Parker—a batch that included Thompson's AQHA World Champion mare Super Chrome Ink. The second batch included Ransom, a horse Clay Smith rode to make the NFR now owned by Clint Summers, and Tombstone is a full brother to American Greed, the horse of Guy's that Brazile was high call on at the 2020 American Rope Horse Futurity Association's World Championship.
Jake, who's roped at rodeo's big show three times, had bought Tombstone in July 2015 from Guy. She'd already won $80,000 on him as a 5-year-old in Las Vegas at the Ariat World Series of Team Roping Finale, and she rode him at the Spicer Gripp and Windy Ryon, too. Jake's parents pointed him in Guy's direction.
"My parents told me how good he was," Cooper said. "When I bought him, I almost had the Finals made and I was trying to get Tyler McKnight to the Finals with me. I rode him at three or four rodeos that summer, but he was still a tick green. The horse I'd been riding all that year, though, tore a deep digital flexor tendon, so Tombstone was what I had for Vegas."
Cooper roped with Russell Cardoza at the 2015 NFR, where he rode Tombstone in nine out of 10 rounds, placing in two of them.
"He did really good in that setup," Cooper said. "I was really excited he was so young, so I started on him at Odessa in 2016. But at Houston, on our third set, he did something to his ankle and was out the rest of the year and most of 2017, too."
Cooper got Tombstone back in the fall of 2017, and rode him when he roped with Logan Medlin in 2018. But over the Fourth of July in Estes Park, Colorado at the Rooftop Rodeo, Tombstone's heading career came to an abrupt end.
"He wouldn't face," Cooper remembered. "He was packing a front leg out of the arena, and I sent him home that day and haven't been back on him since."
Vets told Cooper that Tombstone would never hold up to heading steers again. They warned that, even after more than a year off, by the time they injected him and Cooper legged him back up, that front ankle would be too weak to turn a steer and shatter under the pressure.
For two years, Tombstone sat in that pasture, eating as much grass as he could muster and living a life of retirement with his mare friend. But by the spring of 2020, breakaway roping had exploded, and the opportunities abounded—enough to nudge Jake's sister Jill out of roping retirement.
"I wanted to start doing it for fun," Jill said. "I bought the dun horse, Gus, I rode at the semifinals of The American. But in March or April of last year, Jake called me and asked if I wanted Tombstone because he was tired of looking at him going to waste. This horse was turned out in Jake’s back field, and was grossly, obesely fat. He looked like a wild mustang. He was turned out in knee-high grass living the good life. He called and asked if I wanted him, and I said, 'What for? He’s crippled?'"
But Jill knew the horse's history with Guy—she'd actually been there the day Jake tried him in 2015—so she called her vets for a consult just to see what the chances of running a few breakaway calves on the horse might be.
"Both of them told me it wasn’t an ideal situation, but three seconds in a straight line he might be OK, or he might not. It would be a flip of a coin."
So armed with a good friend and a rope halter, Jill set out to recapture Tombstone during the COVID-19 quarantine.
"He runs away from me like a mustang," Jill laughed. "It takes me and my friend Amanda forever to catch this sucker. I think it’s so dumb that I’m doing this. After I caught him, I was talking to my friends and I said I don’t know what I was doing with this wild, snorty sucker. It would take me months to get him drawn down enough to ride him. So we spent like three or four months to get him back in shape-ish."
Luckily for Jill, Tombstone didn't need much tuning in the run.
"He’s a little bit piggish in the box. He wants to waller on you. I talked to Jake and I talked to LD. She said to get his front end moving like I do my barrel horses. I started doing that a lot, and Jake told me things he'd learned to do. The first calf we roped on him he just went out there and worked. He didn’t need anything—he just needed to lose weight," Jill said.
They went to a few amateur rodeos, but Jill still preferred her dun horse. So Tombstone got the easy life—turned out in a dry lot of his own, regular Summit injections and a regulated feeding schedule.
"I don't ride him because his foot can't take it, and we don't want to risk anything. I just watch his diet and make sure he's moving all the time. We don't want to waste any of his steps."
So when it came time to choose a horse for AT&T Stadium, Jill—who isn't aggressively hauling up and down the road like many of the other ladies competing—wasn't sure what to do.
"I get along better with my dun, but I thought the score would be a tick longer at AT&T than it was. My dun really excels in little short scores which is most places we go. I thought it would be a little bit longer score, and Tombstone scores outstanding. I talked with my parents about it. He’s been there done that, he’s been in that situation before. I can trust him in that situation."
Jill made a 2.81-second run in the long round to come back second to the top 8, and then a 2.63-second run to come back fourth in the semifinals. That meant she roped first in the final round, where she turned in a smooth, 2.65-second run.
"I have a hard time throwing fast on him, while most people don’t," Jill admitted." In every single one of my runs at AT&T, I took an extra swing, because my tip didn’t feel like it was right in the right spot. Me and him aren’t exactly synced up yet, but he just took care of me there. He babysat me there. He was so good."
PRCA World Champion Tie-Down Roper Shane Hanchey was in Jill's corner throughout the American, and even he was surprised when he saw she'd swapped to Tombstone for AT&T.
"I’ve known that horse for a while, even when LD had him and when Jake bought him to head on him," Hanchey said. "I’d helped her through the semifinals process, and she made it on her dun horse. I just assumed she was on her dun, and I was kicking the box down and here she comes on Tombstone. Knowing the horse, I knew quickly what he was. I figured she knew something I didn’t. The number one trait of him was his scoring. She knew she could get the barrier on him. She could let her hair down on Sunday, and the horse just scored so good. When they step right, he’s so easy to rope on. That horse did his job at the biggest stage of breakaway roping. With that many people and the bright lights, he worked like the horse I figured he was.”
Guy, too, was there watching her old horse because Hope Thompson was riding Guy's other good one—Gangster—in the final round.
"I thought what made him good there is that he ran to the calf and he doesn’t only run to the calf, he’s able to kill the rope quickly," Guy said. "He doesn’t get tight but the rope pops fast. In that big arena, what made him really good is what made Gangster good there—they both ran to the calf. Those horses that run out there straight, in that arena, those calves duck and dive around. The horses that ran to them got them caught quickly.”
Jill and her husband Jimmy sold their living quarters rig before she won that $100,000 at RFD-TV's The American, not planning to rodeo a ton in 2021. That plan didn't change because of the influx of funds.
"We might sneak off over the Fourth, but we don't really have any plans on going much," Jill said. "I’m at such a different place in my life, that I’m not interested in being on the road all the time. We very well might go some. I went to Springfield and I never would have thought you’d have talked me into going to Springfield. That’s why I really like the American because I can just stay home and go when I want." BRJ