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Not since Jim Shoulders began his phenomenal domination of the rodeo world in 1956 has the race for the World Champion All Around Cowboy title been as open and as hotly contested as it is right now. In the early months of the season the lead has swung back and forth between Harry Tompkins, a skillful veteran who, surprisingly enough, was born and brought up in the East, and Bob A. Robinson, a comparative rookie from Rockland, Idaho.
The All Around Cowboy championship is determined by the amount of money won in two or more events, and Tompkins first took the lead for the title with big winnings at Denver in the beginning of the year. By July, which features more than 100 rodeos on the calendar, the standings were changing day by day. In the tough Calgary ( Alberta) Stampede, Robinson managed to maintain a slight lead, but at the end Tompkins was only $542 away.
Both cowboys then took to the air, with Robinson commuting between the Nampa, Idaho and Salinas, California rodeos, and Tompkins flying between Salinas, Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah. And while Robinson slumped and earned only $778 in steer wrestling, Tompkins, riding bulls and bareback horses, won $4,489 in prize money in five days, thus setting a new rodeo record.
Born in Peekskill, N.Y., Harry Tompkins is the only New Yorker ever to become a top rodeo contestant. He began working on an upstate dude ranch when he was 15 years old and competed at his first professional rodeo at Rochester in 1946 at the age of 18. He followed that with third-place day money—$352—at Madison Square Garden, which then had the richest rodeo purse in the world. A year later, while in the service, he tried it again, and on a 30-day pass he cleaned up $1,800 at New York and Boston.
"After that, I just kept on rodeoing," he says. What he actually did was to startle the rodeo world by winning Denver in January, Houston in February and Phoenix in March, winding up as bull riding champion. Since then, he has won five world championships, including the All Around Cowboy title in 1952.
Tompkins last fall came back from a six-month layoff caused by a serious knee injury to qualify for competition at the National Finals Rodeo—the year-end battle for championships between the top 15 contestants in each event. He finished 13th in the bull riding standings, the lowest of his long rodeo career. This year, however, he has had the right combination of luck and skill—drawing good stock, and not wasting any of it.
Robinson, Rookie of the Year in 1957, was born and still lives in the heart of the northwest rodeo country. He is one of those rare cowboys who excel in a number of events. After Cheyenne he was in first place for the steer wrestling championship, ranked ninth in the saddle bronc standings and is 11th among the bareback riders. He has won money riding bulls more than once and occasionally has placed in roping, too. Robinson's midseason winnings already equal his 1959 total.
After Harry Tompkins' July winning streak, Robinson got his best single opportunity to catch up at the Cheyenne Frontier Days, where he entered in the bareback riding, saddle bronc and steer wrestling events. Cheyenne is the biggest of the summer rodeos, with 300 professional cowboys competing for $51,710 in two Go-Rounds. He got off to a good start in his specialty, steer wrestling, downing his first steer in 12.7 seconds for $590 and second place. His second Go-Round time of 17.4 seconds put him in a first-place tie going into the finals—an extra Go-Round on the last day of the rodeo for the 15 men with the best time on two steers. Robinson stood to win some $1,300 more.
The "score," or head start, given a steer varies at different rodeos, and at Cheyenne it is 30 feet, one of the longest in the country. Robinson broke from the chutes, raced down the arena, jumped his steer in perfect form, and threw him in an amazing 9.8 seconds—by far the fastest time of the rodeo. The crowd roared. But his quick burst from the chutes had been a split-second too early. The judges signaled he had broken the barrier, starting before the steer had crossed the 30-foot score line. He automatically drew a 10-second penalty and was put out of the money altogether. So Tompkins again took the lead, his winnings for the year boosted at Cheyenne to $21,542, some $3,000 ahead of Robinson.
While Tompkins and Robinson battled for rodeo's top title, defending champion Jim Shoulders won enough to place among the leading 10 title contenders for the first time this year. Shoulders was seriously injured at Houston in March, suffering 17 facial bone fractures when he was thrown forward on a bull. In spite of a badly broken nose, he began competing again one month after surgery. "I never did hang on with my nose anyway," he told the doctor. His winnings were sporadic until mid-July. Then he suddenly regained the championship form that has made him unbeatable for the past four years. In one weekend he spurred his way right back into the running, winning over $3,200.