California Rodeo Celebrates 100 Years in Salinas

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Big Week is 100 years old this month. Four generations of my family have looked forward to the great tradition that is the California Rodeo in Salinas, which this year celebrates its centennial event July 15-18.

As was the case with my brothers and me, an annual photo is taken of my sons, Lane and Taylor, by the California Rodeo Salinas sign to mark the milestones of their childhood. The sign that was once over their heads now hits them at the knees. Yes, that California Rodeo Salinas sign serves as the Santos family growth chart.

Old Salinas stories are passed down from generation to generation in my family like priceless heirlooms. My dad (Spin veterinary columnist Dr. Frank Santos) remembers going to Salinas when he was little to watch his dad, Frank Sr., show in the stock-horse class over on the track.

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I’ve been told by friends, family and even strangers all my life that my grandfather was a special hand with a horse. One of the horses he trained, Dick, was inducted into the Cow Horse Hall of Fame. My grandfather let my dad show Dick three times in the junior stock horse class there at the California Rodeo, and he won it all three years. I don’t have a formal list of all my granddad’s Salinas wins, but know we have the coolest old silver treasures—from my sterling sugar bowl and creamer set to a solid silver spade bit and more traditional trophies won over there on that track, all engraved with California Rodeo Salinas, which makes them all the more special.

In those early days, they journeyed to Salinas from the ranch where they lived in the East Bay Area in a Chevy truck that had a horse rack on the back. There was a drop tailgate with a ramp, and one horse loaded up into the bed of that truck for the ride. A two-horse trailer was in tow behind that. When they got there, my dad and his dad slept in the bed of the truck. The sides of the horse rack were solid wood, so no one could see in, but you had to climb up out of there, because you couldn’t lift the tailgate from inside. They kept the tailgate shut for privacy sake. My grandfather had a cot; my dad had a bedroll that he rolled out onto a bed of straw.

The Salinas stock horse class ran all four days of the rodeo back then, and contestants competed in a different discipline each day. First, there was the dry work. They then worked a cow down the fence and worked a cow out of the herd. Finally, on day four, each contestant had to cut one of the big, fresh Hereford team roping steers (which were also used at the rodeo) out of a herd, and head and heel him. They had to push the steer to the other end of the track, head him, have someone else heel him, and put a double half hitch on their saddle horn. The stock horse contestant/header then had to walk down the rope to the steer and touch him while his horse held the rope tight.

My dad took a dollar, and spent a quarter a day for a Hershey bar and a Coke. They ate their meals at the cafeteria that was on the grounds back then, out in the old barn area. The first time my dad entered the rodeo was the summer of his junior year in 1955. In those days, if you had proof that you were in good standing at your high school, you could enter Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeos without having a permit or a card. They called it “entering on a high school letter.”

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Salinas has always been about long scorelines in the timed events and cowboy conditions across the board. It all started in that gargantuan arena, that back then was made of wooden planks painted green. I remember it well, and have one especially vivid memory of being run off with aboard my dad’s calf horse when I thought I’d slip out into the arena to watch the wild horse race, which was held on the track and finished off each performance back then.

My dad’s calf horse was an own son of Go Man Go, and had come off of the track. The crowd going crazy and the sight of those starting gates and guns going off apparently set off some sort of flashback for him. As for me, well, I was small enough that my feet didn’t reach the stirrups. Can’t remember for sure which saddle was on Sockeye that day, and I’m honestly a little surprised that Oakdale or Cow Palace All-Around Cowboy isn’t permanently indented into my calves from gripping those fenders so tight. I was in full-pucker mode, and was pretty sure we were headed straight through the green boards of that back fence. Miraculously, Sockeye and I both zigged and I lived to tell about it.

The roping calves and team roping steers were brought in straight off of the ranches of committeemen back then, and were strong and fresh. The calves were still on the cow, and the cows were kept in corrals across the track during the timed events. They put the 350-pound calves back on the cows each afternoon after the rodeo, when the calf roping and wild cow milking were over.

The times tell the tale of the conditions and the cattle. My dad won the first round of the calf roping in 1959 being 14, and won it by three seconds. He and his brother Russ won the fourth round of the team roping that year in 11, but remember they roped big Hereford steers straight out of the pasture that were fresh and hadn’t ever even been chased, as of opening day on Thursday. That was the first year my dad used a nylon rope in the team roping. Before that, most headers and heelers used grass ropes. He made the change after heeling with a grass rope the previous year, and having it break when things came tight. Another difference was they didn’t use horn wraps back then.

Times over the long Salinas scorelines didn’t speed up along a consistent curve over time. When my dad won the all-around at Salinas in 1974, he was 18 on his first calf and won the round. Talk about salty.

My dad’s been busy rehabbing his roping shoulder after rotator-cuff surgery this year, in hopes of being back in time to enter the Salinas Gold Card roping again. My brothers, Blaine and Wade, roped at Salinas for years too. We’ve celebrated Blaine’s July 20 birthday more years than not during Big Week.

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“Salinas is such a great tradition and social event,” my dad reflected at the table the other afternoon of his 60 years at Salinas. “You’re there for four days, and you get to visit with everyone. The weather’s usually nice—it’s not too hot and not too cold. Salinas has always been a gathering. You might see people there, and that’s the only time you see them all year. The cowboys always used to bet on the horse races, and you just always see things at Salinas that never happen anywhere else. The whole atmosphere is special and unique.”

My dad reminded me that they used to have a live band next to the announcer’s stand that played all the traditional songs throughout each perf, starting with “I Love You California” kicking things off in the opening. Playing that song is still a tradition, and I love to laugh and sing along with that one, which I hear once a year every year and belt out in my best low man’s voice, which is really bad.

Wrecks in the bulldogging are another Salinas tradition, and I remember well the year my dad hoolihaned a steer and tore up his shoulder there.He always took us for banana splits for lunch the days he was going to run a bulldogging steer in the perf. Not sure why, but I loved that.

Bulldoggers didn’t want to climb aboard just any horse there in that event, and a lot of the best mount horses scored Salinas. For a few years, my dad actually rode ProRodeo Hall of Fame team roper Les Hirdes’ great old bay head horse Cowboy in the bulldogging, and had Les haze. Cowboy was honest and controllable in those out-of-control conditions, and you could put him wherever you wanted him. To think of someone jumping on Clay Tryan’s Thumper to run a bulldogging steer at Salinas nowadays, which is a fair comparison, cracks me up.

To compare the California Rodeo to a three-ring cowboy circus is an extreme compliment. You can’t possibly be bored at that rodeo. You’ve got your standard events in the big arena, and the barrel race, horse show and all kinds of specialty acts over on the track. The horse races, wild horse race and wild cow milking went by the wayside a few years back, but I’m told the wild cow milking might make a comeback for old time’s sake this year.

Bullfights are big during Big Week now, and trick riders have been hugely popular over the years. When a scantily clad lovely in tight spandex came flying down that track in front of a solid green sea of Army soldiers when I was a kid, those guys set off a deafening earthquake by screaming, whistling and stomping their booted feet.

In those days, Mel Lambert announced the California Rodeo (which I should mention is pronounced “Ro-day-o” in Salinas). But for all the years of my childhood and beyond, Jim Rodriguez Sr. was the voice of Salinas back behind the chutes. During slack and performances, he walked a wooden plank in front of great big wooden boards that listed all the calf ropers, bulldoggers and team ropers. Rodriguez Sr. kept them all lined out, lined up and ready to rope.

The paying crowd across the track couldn’t hear his commentary, but he was within earshot of the contestants’ families’ grandstand. And if you dragged in for morning slack with a hangover, you dreaded old man Rodriguez daylighting the details. From the contestant side, the late Rodriguez Sr. was the popular voice of the California Rodeo for decades. He was the guy who dubbed me “The Santos Girl” back when I was running around behind the chutes in braids and braces with all the boys. I cut my hair and lost the braces, but some things never change much and I’m still no good at sitting in the stands.

Rodriguez Sr.’s sons, Jim Jr. (who’ll always be Jimmy to most, including me) and John Bill, were stars in that Salinas arena. NFR heeler John Bill was the Salinas all-around champ in 1967, and as I remember was a pretty popular mugger in the wild cow milking. (See more on Jim Rodriguez Jr. and Sr. and the rest of this year’s inaugural California Rodeo Salinas Hall of Fame Class of 2010 on page 56.)

“When I was rodeoing, Salinas was the most prestigious rodeo I went to,” said ProRodeo Hall of Fame team roper Rodriguez Jr. “Gene (Rambo) and I won it four times, right there in my hometown (he grew up in neighboring Castroville). It’s one of the toughest things in the world to win your hometown rodeo.

“In 1960 at Salinas, that was the first time they ever showed team roping on TV, and we won it. You got a steer every day over the longest score in rodeo (the 35-foot Salinas scoreline is still the longest in the sport; Cheyenne’s is 30 feet long). Running four steers—a steer a day—was unique and unusual (it’s now four full rounds and a short). In those days, the bulldoggers and calf ropers ran one a day, too (those events are now two and a short).”

Salinas is a Wrangler Million Dollar Tour Gold Rodeo in 2010, and the team roping event fittingly sports equal money. A Salinas buckle is one of the most coveted cowboy trophies in all of rodeo. Though Rodriguez Jr. says he didn’t get a buckle for all of his Salinas team roping wins, he did add to his collection that includes the 1968 calf roping buckle when he won the Jim Rodriguez Sr. Gold Card Roping there in recent years with John Paboojian.

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“That first year I won it I was 16, and I got two bottles of whiskey instead of a buckle,” he chuckles. “Gene and I each got two bottles of Seagram’s. They didn’t always give a team roping buckle back then, or an all-around saddle when I won that, like they do now.” The buckles and saddles they give now are gorgeous, and we have a similar chuckler of a story. When my dad won the all-around at Salinas in 1974, he got a small statue of an Arabian looking horse with his tail stuck in the air.

“I have great memories from Salinas,” continued Rodriguez Jr. “There was always extra pressure, because all the locals were there pulling for me and hoping I’d win it. It was the biggest team roping rodeo in the United States. It was a big, big rodeo—and still is.

“Salinas always had big, fresh steers—one for everybody, same with the calves. That was really unusual. The committeemen, Ki Silacci and Chet Behen, furnished all the calves and steers. The Hereford steers we roped were unique and unusual too. A couple years they made us rope without rubber on the saddle horn, because they thought it was easier on the cattle.”

Then came the David Motes era, where he owned the California Rodeo arena like Rodriguez before him. Motes has the biggest collection of Salinas buckles of anyone I know. I quizzed him on the partners he won it with over the years, and his answer was simple: Dennis. David Motes won the Salinas team roping title in 1974 and ’77 with his brother, Dennis Motes; the 1984 and ’89 championships with Dennis Watkins; and the 1986 buckle with Dennis Gatz. Add three Gold Card wins with John Bassett, Gary Ford and Walt Woodard, and you have a California Rodeo Great Eight.

“Salinas is one of the best rodeos there is,” Motes said. “It always has been a great one. It’s not your typical rodeo. It’s about a long score and horsemanship. You score steers out there 35 feet, and have to see them roughly halfway to the line. Then you just have to cowboy up, get your position, rope and create a good handle when you’re going 900 miles an hour, so your heeler can get a throw at one. It’s a five-head average, which is the only one in the PRCA, so there are a lot of chances and ways to win money there. They pay eight places in the rounds and the average. And it’s equal money now, which is always great.”

No one talks about Salinas without mentioning the morning fog and cool coastal breeze. “It can be 100 degrees everywhere else, but it’s cool there,” Motes said. “We all hang out and barbecue. We’re usually in and out of everywhere, so when you get to stick around and spend some time in Salinas it’s very relaxing for everybody. Good weather and good money—what else do you want? You see a lot of old friends, and get to visit. We’re not all in such a rush. Cheyenne’s a week later this year, so not having that 18-hour drive to get there an hour before they start the slack will be nice.”

The Styrofoam cup set out in the arena dirt has been part of the scoring deal at Salinas all my life. I asked Master Motes to explain it to you in his own words. “They started putting that on the bulldogging line as a marker years and years ago,” he explained. “If you let the steer’s head to the Styrofoam cup that’s sitting on the bulldogging line (that scoreline is 25 feet out there), you usually get out if a steer runs hard. If he’s a slower steer, you have to see him all the way by the Styrofoam cup and not start quite as hard. That cup just kind of gives you a ballpark idea of where things are at.”

The steers are chute run at Salinas. The luck of the draw is always a factor, but factoring in five rounds allows for a little leeway, where you don’t have to have the best one every round, and one runner doesn’t automatically eliminate you. So, Motesy, what’s it take to come out king of the California Rodeo mountain?

“To win Salinas, you have to be on a very good horse,” he said. “Then you need to score really good and rope really good. And last but not least, you need to be lucky. Everybody has to be a little lucky when they win, regardless of how good they are.

“Salinas is a great rodeo. The fact that it’s 100 years old proves it’s a great rodeo.”

Enter Clay Tryan, and the most recent era of team roping dominance at the California Rodeo. Like his fellow world team roping champs Rodriguez and Motes, Tryan has figured out how to twist the three-headed monster that makes mere mortals skip breakfast before backing into the Salinas box. Tryan has won Salinas five times—in 2003 with Allen Bach; in 2004 heading for Cory Petska; in 2006 with his 2005 co-champ of the world, Patrick Smith; in 2007 with Woodard; and repeating the feat again in 2009 with Petska.

“The first time I ever went to Salinas I thought it was a really cool rodeo,” Tryan said. “Team roping feels like the headline of that rodeo. It just has a unique feel to it, and that’s part of the mystique. You don’t get that feel everywhere, but you do at that rodeo. The weather’s beautiful. Both guys come from behind the same barrier on the left side of the steer, which is unheard of. All the Gold Card guys are there, so it has an old-school feel to it. I really look forward to Salinas every year.”

Tryan has been the consummate mistake minimizer under the trying California Rodeo conditions. “Not making mistakes is the deal,” said the guy who’s only missed one steer there since he first entered in 2001, and that’s when he was out of the average. He broke a barrier the first time he went, but hasn’t made that mistake twice.

By now, the confidence that comes from repeated successes has him feeling the California Rodeo mojo the minute he pulls into the grounds. “When you feel like you’ve got something figured out, and your partners show up feeling like they have a chance to win it, you’re both so motivated,” Tryan said. “It doesn’t always work out, but that confidence helps you a lot along the way. At a lot of rodeos we go to now, everybody throws as soon as they leave the box. At Salinas, you have to sit there in the box a long time. You get rolling down through there pretty fast. It’s a real challenge. Having to let a steer out there that far is one of the hardest challenges of the year. But it’s hard not to like going anywhere you’ve done that good.

“It’s like Speed (Williams) and Rich (Skelton) when they were winning the world every year (eight straight from 1997-2004). During that time, they went in knowing they were going to win it. I have so much confidence when I get to Salinas that I believe I’m going to win it every time.

“Daniel Green has the Salinas book (“California Rodeo Salinas: 100 Years of History”). Every year when I’m at his house, I look through that book, read it and look at all the pictures. Junior Muzio has a Salinas tape from the ’60s, and that was pretty awesome to watch. Salinas paid a lot back then too, which is pretty cool. People say, ‘Of course you love it, you’ve won it a lot.’ I loved Salinas the first time I went. There’s just something about that place.”