Story by Gavin Ehringer
OPTIMISM A cowboy calls up buckets of it when he starts his pickup in a South Dakota snowstorm and turns his rig south toward the big winter rodeo events.
Whether he's headed for Denver, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston or a half dozen lesser towns and rodeos, that cowboy heads out with winter on his mind but springtime in his heart. The entry fees are high, the winter driving sometimes arduous, and competition is guaranteed to be stiff. But the rewards can be huge. Money won can pay off a truck loan, start a cattle herd, or pay for an engagement ring. More pointedly, the money won can catapult a rider to the forefront of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's world standings and ease a competitor's anxiety throughout the year-long rodeo season.
"The winter is important because you have a handful of big rodeos where, if you do well at just two of them, you can have $30,000 won," said Luke Branquinho, PRCA's 2008 world champion steer wrestler. "Before the season is underway, you're halfway to [qualifying for] the National Finals Rodeo."
In short, winter is the time when a rodeo cowboy's dreams take flight. "Awestruck" best describes a cowboy's emotion the first time he gets out of his pickup and walks toward a coliseum big enough to house a commercial airliner. Soon, he'll lower himself onto his bronc and feel the deafening roar of the crowd. Optimism is his riding partner, and it's a long, cold road home.
Here's a roundup of rodeo's biggest, best, winter extravaganzas.
STOCK SHOW & RODEO
PRCA's regular season officially begins in October, but cowboys consider Denver the true season-opener. Denver held its first rodeo in 1933, on the 25th anniversary of its stock show. It paid $7,300 in prizes, a princely sum during the Great Depression. Today, rodeo contestants vie for shares of a prize purse exceeding $600,000, among the top 10 largest payouts in pro rodeo.
As a leader both in time and tradition, the National Western strives for high entertainment value across the board.
"Besides the seven rodeo events, we always have a variety of specialty acts, performances by our drill team, and a stirring and exciting opening and closing-something you don't see at most other rodeos," said Marvin Witt, vice president of operations.
Denver's carefully scripted show attracted more than 155,000 spectators in 2009, but it's the unscripted rodeo action that lifts the fans from their seats. To heighten the caliber of competition, the National Western contracts with 16 livestock companies, bringing in a full slate of NFR-quality bucking stock. In 2010, the stock show debuts its own carefully chosen, pre-conditioned cattle for tie-down roping, team roping and steer wrestling.
Bull rider Kanin Asay of Powell, Wyoming, certainly appreciated that level of quality assurance. During the second round of action in Denver in 2009, Asay drew Lucky Strike, of the David Bailey string. The bull had been selected for both the Professional Bull Riders championship finals and the NFR. Asay posted a score of 93 points, advanced to the Denver finals, then claimed the rodeo's overall title with a three-head score of 264 points. He pocketed $15,179 in earnings.
"I've driven through many snowstorms headed down south," said Asay, looking back over that win. "When [winter] gets to be exhausting, a deal like that makes you think of your blessings."
STOCK SHOW & RODEO
Fort Worth, Texas,
January 22-February 7
Fort Worth is home to the longest continuously running livestock show in the business. Its rodeo claims many firsts: the first indoor competition, first to hold a bull-riding event, first to use side-delivery bucking chutes, and first to feature a premier contract act when the legendary Gene Autry performed a "half-time" show there during World War II.
Ironically, the rodeo is best known for its old-time traditions.
"We're a very traditional rodeo," said Brad Barnes, the rodeo's general manager. "We don't have any advertising signs in the arena, and we are the last rodeo to have a live orchestra. Our patrons come here for the true flavor of the West."
Even with seven standard rodeo events, plus a kids' calf scramble, contract acts and Canadian chuckwagon racing (rodeo's short-track version of NASCAR), its 28 performances generally clock in at a tidy two hours apiece. While rodeos such as Houston, Denver and San Antonio have altered their formats to pre-qualify contestants, Fort Worth still keeps its system democratic. Any PRCA cowboy who pays his entry fees gets to ride.
"We run this as always, with two or three rounds per event and a short-go finals," said Barnes. "We feel that it gives all contestants an even chance to get a good start off to the year."
Still, with more than a half-million dollars in prize money, the cream of professional rodeo always surfaces in Cowtown, producing one of the sport's most exciting closing rounds.
STOCK SHOW & RODEO
San Antonio, Texas,
Since the cattle drive days, "ol' San Antone" has stirred cowboys' hearts. But modern San Antonio, with its $1 million payoff and the most high-tech arena in the business, has an allure that owes little to the past. The action takes place in the AT&T Center, a $175 million facility that also houses the four-time NBA champion Spurs.
The Spurs give way to real spurs each February, as the round-ballers hit the road and cowboys come to town. Like the NFR, held at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, the rodeo action here happens in an arena barely larger than a basketball court. Even fans in the upper deck risk getting hit by flying clods of dirt. The rodeo performances are followed by concerts featuring top-drawer music acts.
Several years ago, San Antonio upped the ante on its livestock, contracting for NFR-caliber buckers.
"The stock got so tough, we were throwing off too many riders," said Glen Phillips, the show's assistant executive director. "So we limited entries and went to a new format."
Only 60 qualifiers (and 60 team-roping teams) contest in each standard rodeo event. Contestant pools are drawn from the previous season's NFR qualifiers, year-end money leaders, circuit champions and top- finishers, plus a handful of standings leaders from the current season. It's a format that heavily favors veterans over rookies.
Sweetening the experience for those who qualify is the fact that cowboys don't have to pay entry fees.
Fans benefit from an easily understood competition patterned after the familiar NCAA college basketball tournament. Cowboys from the early brackets advance to a semi-finals. The winners and runners-up from each event, plus a slate of "wild card" contestants, compete in the championship-deciding finalé.
"San Antonio has 16 stock contractors, and they bring the better stock, which gives everyone an even chance," said NFR-qualifying saddle bronc rider Bryce Miller of Buffalo, South Dakota. "And I love that [tournament] format."
Rodeo assistant director Phillips says, "With the format, the prize money and no entry fees, you know that the very best rodeo cowboys all want to compete."
STOCK SHOW & RODEO
San Angelo, Texas,
San Angelo is a big rodeo in a small town. While the other winter events have huge, sprawling urban areas from which to draw spectators, San Angelo's population struggles to reach 100,000. Nearly 45,000 visitors pass through its rodeo turnstiles each year; the other half of the population, it seems, are rodeo volunteers.
Community pride explains how a city of this size can host one of the top 30 highest-paying PRCA events, with roughly $500,000 in prize money.
San Angelo's purse also bulges from having one of the largest contestant pools in the business, with as many as 1,700 competitors. All comers are welcome, making San Angelo the place for a rookie to make a name for himself. Competition is especially heavy on the timed-event end of the arena, as local ropers and top-caliber NFR contestants vie side-by-side for shares of the huge bankroll.
On the rough-stock end, San Angelo benefits from falling between the big events in San Antonio and Houston. The same top-caliber bucking broncs and bulls seen in the big city shows also appear in San Angelo.
"These are true rodeo fans," said San Angelo rodeo chairman Mark Duncan, "and you can't run a second-rate product by them. They'd know it in a heartbeat."
With headliners such as Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw and the Jonas Brothers, Houston's annual bash can make the rodeo competition seem like the under card. But it remains one of the biggest, most spectacular events on PRCA's annual calendar.
Houston's rodeo and concert series draws a mind-walloping 1.2 million spectators, a number that simply dwarfs all other events. Held in Reliant Stadium, home to the NFL's Houston Texans, it's rodeo on a Texas-sized scale.
Like San Antonio, Houston features a tourney-type format called the Super Series, in which riders compete in groups. Top finishers from each group advance to a semi-finals and then a finals. There, they vie for a $50,000 grand prize, all of which counts toward PRCA world standings.
It's a format designed to simplify rodeo for the urban Houstonian, who is more likely to be acquainted with the NCAA tournament than rodeo's long-go and short-go formats.
It's a giddy feeling to contest for such a big purse. The Calgary Stampede also offers a $50,000 bonus, but traditionally that big payoff hasn't been tallied in PRCA world standings. Winning Houston's outsized prize nearly assures a competitor of a berth in the NFR come season's end.
In 2008, two veteran saddle-bronc riders-seven-time Canadian champ Rod Hay and five-time PRCA world champion Billy Etbauer-found themselves in a ride-off for the prize. At times in their careers, the two had often matched for big money and both had won the big prize at Calgary. Etbauer, a South Dakotan who now calls Edmond, Oklahoma, his home, recalls the setup for the final ride-off.
"We had both tied in the final four, and that set up the ride-off in the final. Roddy had a nice little horse [Traildust], but the one I rode from the Burch string was just a little wilder and bucked harder. It was fun for me and Roddy, matching horses at this point in our careers, and a little extra fun for everybody who watched."
Still competitive in his mid-40s, Etbauer was more than pleased to have earned a trip to the 2008 NFR in almost one fell swoop. Twenty years had passed since the bronc rider first left his home in South Dakota and headed south for the winter rodeos. Etbauer had what it took to prosper over the long, cold months of winter: optimism and a darn fine spurring lick.
THE BEST OF THE REST
STOCK SHOW & RODEO
Cowboys anxious to get a jump on the season warm up their ropes at this fair-weather contest in the heart of the Texas oil patch. It plays second fiddle to Denver as the season-opening competition, but its prize purse of more than $350,000 ranked it among the top 30 events on PRCA's 2009 calendar.
STOCK SHOW & RODEO
Rapid City, South Dakota,
January 29-February 7
In a word, this event is "ranchy." Ranch rodeo, livestock show, national sheep dog trials, ranch horse and an AQHA horse show. Plus, the largest PRCA rodeo in the Dakotas.
LA FIESTA DE LOS VAQUEROS
An event for those who prefer their winter rodeo outdoors. Originated in 1925, this is one of rodeo's most historic contests. That first year, a line in the Arizona Star newspaper read "cowboys are asked not to shoot up the town." La Fiesta de los Vaqueros gives a nod to rodeo's Spanish heritage.
STAR OF TEXAS FAIR & RODEO
Austin, the "live music capital of the world" (as well as the state's capital), hosts the sixth-largest regular-season indoor PRCA competition. Concerts featuring country and pop music stars headline an indoor showcase featuring both PRCA rodeo and PRCA Xtreme Bulls competitions.
Gavin Ehringer is a veteran journalist who has covered rodeo for Western Horseman for nearly 20 years.