There are countless reasons why certain rodeos have a special spot in the hearts of cowboys. For some of our industry’s icons, it’s mainly big money; for others, sentiment and fond memories factor into the equation also, especially after decades out on the rodeo road. It was fun polling a few of the sport’s longtime roping kingpins—some of the guys who’ve been to the most Wrangler National Finals Rodeos ever—who were all over the map with their answers to this one:
What are your three favorite regular -season rodeos, and why?
Veteran of 26 Wrangler National Finals Rodeos:
For me it would be San Antonio (Texas), Salinas (Calif.) and Cheyenne (Wyo.). San Antonio’s an obvious choice because of the big payoff. It’s the best-paying rodeo of the regular season, and money talks when you rodeo for a living. That’s always the biggest factor. I’ve always really liked Salinas, because it’s five head and it’s a long score. It’s really a fun one. You don’t get to score them out there, chase them down and set up runs like that much anymore. Salinas and Cheyenne, which is my other top-three rodeo, are more old school. Salinas is the most fun, because you get to stay there for four days, except needing to go to Nampa (Idaho). You also don’t have to try to be 4. If you have a good horse and can draw decent, Salinas and Cheyenne are really fun.
Veteran of 30 NFRs:
One of the first would be San Antone. I’ve rodeoed all my life—professionally since 1978—and love the sport and our people so much. (San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer, and Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Chairman of the Board) Keith Martin has been very forward and progressive with that rodeo. He’s seen the needs of the rodeo business, and he cares about the contestants. We pay no entry fees, they add a lot of money, we’re treated really well and we can win the most money there of any regular-season rodeo. Watching Keith build and build that rodeo and make it not just better for himself and that committee, but better for the rodeo cowboy has been great. I appreciate him, and that’s my favorite rodeo because of that. Reno (Nev.) is another rodeo that never stops trying to add more money and do more for the cowboys. And Reno’s one of the game changers. It starts off the summer, and it’s a big financial boost. Reno can give you the lead for the world if you’ve had any kind of winter. Ellensburg (Wash.) is another great rodeo. I’ve been to that rodeo at least 20-some times, and it seems like that committee never ceases to try to make it better and better. They’re consistently trying to improve their added money and what they do for us cowboys. It does make you feel good to see a full crowd—that they’ve marketed the rodeo and the entire Ellensburg community is behind the rodeo. That’s my big three, but St. Paul’s (Ore.) another rodeo that’s amazing to me. It’s out in the middle of basically nowhere, and they keep adding more and more money, they have great hospitality for the contestants and it’s just a really good rodeo.
Clay O’Brien Cooper
Veteran of 28 NFRs:
My three favorite regular-season rodeos are Salinas, Ellensburg and Red Bluff (Calif.). I like the long score and five rounds at Salinas, and also date afternoons with my wife, Alisa, when we eat seafood walking along the beach. It’s starting to turn to fall and cooler temperatures when we get to Ellensburg. There’s a nice little golf course there, and a good jackpot there. That’s just such a pretty valley. I like the four head and cool morning slacks at Red Bluff in the springtime. It’s another beautiful area, and we have good jackpots there, too.
Veteran of 19 NFRs:
I’ll go with Reno, Salinas and Cheyenne as my three favorites. Most guys’ favorite rodeos are the ones they win at, of course, then there are the ones that are fun, like say Salinas and Pendleton. I’ve won Salinas and Cheyenne, but they aren’t necessarily easy to win. I love Reno, because it’s a great setup and I’ve done really well there. You kind of have to draw good, but you have to go rope good there, too. None of my three picks are gimmes. You have to draw good, rope good, choose the right horse and execute well in order to win those rodeos. There’s not really a rodeo out there that’s a gimme, but these three rodeos are all big money, too. And you should have to execute to get the big money.
Veteran of 24 NFRs:
My big three would have to be Pendleton, Joseph (Ore.) and Ponoka (Alberta). Pendleton is because I went to college (at Blue Mountain Community College) in Pendleton, it’s Oregon’s biggest rodeo and I’m from Oregon. And it’s on the grass, which makes it the most unique rodeo of them all. I’ve won the all-around at Pendleton three times and got to retire the Let ’er Buck trophy there, plus got inducted into the Pendleton Round-Up Hall of Fame two years ago. Joseph, because when I was a kid growing up we used to go to Wallowa Lake, which is right there in Joseph. I have great memories from there, and when we started going to that rodeo in the ’80s my mom and dad would rent a cabin up there and we’d get to relax for a week in the middle of the summertime. I like Ponoka because it’s different, too. You run down a long alleyway, kind of like Pendleton only it’s on the dirt instead of the grass. I’ve won Ponoka twice with (my son) Brandon, and we won about $7,000 there both times right in the middle of Fourth of July week. It meant a lot to us. One year it helped us make the Canadian Finals.
Veteran of 20 NFRs:
It’s different nowadays than it was back in my day. When I was rodeoing, it was kind of seasonal. In the wintertime, I looked forward to Scottsdale, Tucson and Phoenix (Ariz.). They were good-money two-headers. Nowadays, Denver (Colo.) is the one you want to kick off at to get going with a pretty good punch. They didn’t even used to have team roping at Denver, San Antonio and Fort Worth when I was rodeoing. Then for us the big spring rodeos were Oakdale, Red Bluff and Clovis. Being from California, I kind of felt I had the home-field advantage. I couldn’t wait to get home and rodeo in my part of the country. Those guys were coming to my house. Those were big-money two-headers also. Santa Maria (Calif.) was my old home stomping grounds. Prescott (Ariz.), Greeley (Colo.) and Pecos (Texas) were always big over the Fourth of July. The week after that I’ve always looked forward to Salinas. It’ll either make you the world champion or allow you to make the Finals. Ellensburg and Albuquerque were a couple of the big fall rodeos, but they didn’t have team roping until relatively lately. That all happened later on in my career. At the end of the day, the Cow Palace rolled around right there at the regular-season finish line, and it was a big day for team ropers when they added our event to the “Playoffs to the NFR.” Back in the day, all the big dogs were in San Francisco for one last hurrah. Every rodeo has team roping nowadays, but a lot of today’s young guns don’t realize that wasn’t the case in my time and my prime. About a sixth of the rodeos had team roping back then, and we were trying to win all-around championships. That’s a tough horse to ride.
Veteran of 22 NFRs:
Salinas is my No. 1. Cheyenne is right there, too. There are so many other good ones now, in different ways, from good money to sellout crowds. San Antonio is a great rodeo with big money for the top guys. It’s just a harder rodeo to get qualified for nowadays. Rodeos like Fort Worth (Texas) have really come along, since they didn’t used to even have team roping. Oakdale (Calif.) has always been a good two-head rodeo. Clovis (Calif.) is a good rodeo also. There are a lot of other good rodeos these days. The two-, three- and four-head rodeos are better rodeos, in my book. There are more chances to win money and you aren’t so dependent on the luck of the draw if you’re doing your job.
Veteran of 21 NFRs:
San Antonio is my favorite. It’s always been pretty lucky for me over there, there’s a lot of money up and it’s close to home. I like Dodge City (Kan.), because they have a really good committee and have a roping there with that rodeo. They’ve had a match roping between Dodge City and Garden City, so we roped for the trophy and who got to keep it for that year. Dodge City is just a fun rodeo. I’ve won the steer roping and team roping at Pendleton, but I haven’t gone back so I can’t really use it as a pick, I guess. I’m afraid to ruin a good horse or hurt myself on that grass. I just don’t have anything I want to ride there. Another rodeo I always liked is Ellensburg. The first year I made the Finals (1990) I won Ellensburg with Jake Milton, and got the Finals made right there.
Veteran of 21 NFRs:
I’m going to say Pendleton, Cheyenne and Deadwood (S.D.). Pendleton’s my favorite because it’s a cowboy’s rodeo, in my eyes. I just love the challenge there and the different things that can happen. If you go there and are scared of the grass or anything else, you’re not going to win. When you go there and treat it like a rodeo that pays good money I feel comfortable about it. Cheyenne’s different, too, with its long score and fresh cattle. The challenges there are scoring good, and your horse and horsemanship really come into play. Your odds of winning go way up there on a good horse, and I take pride in riding a horse that scores good and can really run, so I like that challenge. Deadwood’s like the hometown rodeo you go to with the fairgrounds in the center of town. You can walk anywhere you want to eat. It’s just a fun atmosphere rodeo. It’s good competition and a fun place to go. You get to go there for two or three days and just kind of relax.
Veteran of 15 NFRs:
When I rodeoed, the Dallas (Texas) Stampede was one of my favorite rodeos. It’s close to my house, and Rich and I won $35,000 there. The whole facility and production was state of the art and the rodeo was very intense. I got to drive two hours from my house to a National Finals setup with a chance to win $20,000, $30,000, $40,000, and that building made it like the NFR. There weren’t really three rodeos that I started every year just having to go to. Certain places had great hospitality and really went out of their way to treat you special, like Bremerton (Wash.). Bremerton made the cowboys feel like royalty when we showed up. They fed us breakfast, lunch and dinner, had laundry service for us, chiropractors and the whole deal. When you were there, you were somebody. Some places that treated you good had small facilities that made things like cowboy parking and warming up our horses tough. Salinas was always one of my favorites. Salinas was a rodeo that I particularly loved because it’s such a different situation, with the multiple rounds, and you got to stay in one place if you got up right at other places. Of course if you got up wrong it made it hard to charter in and out of there to go to it. But it was really enjoyable when you had a chance to stay there, run a steer every day and take your family with you. And Salinas has such a longstanding history. It’s a special rodeo, and everybody wants a Salinas buckle. I liked a lot of things about Ellensburg also. I kind of had my second home up there. We stayed at Scott Repp’s place and went to rodeos around there. Ellensburg’s another rodeo with a long history. They did a lot to try and accommodate the cowboys when we were there.