The Swallows of San Juan Capistrano are legendary. The world-famous winged ones skip town by the thousands every year near the Day of San Juan, which is October 23. They winter 6,000 miles south of San Juan in Goya, Corrientes, Argentina. The birds return on or around St. Joseph's Day, March 19, every year to spend the spring and summer at the storied San Juan Capistrano Mission. Their annual arrival is celebrated with a fiesta and parade.
Rancho Mission Viejo is equally famous in California cowboy lore. Back in the day, the vast ranch was 230,000 acres strong. The Department of the Navy bought 180,000 acres of it in 1942 to establish what is now Camp Pendleton, and today the ranch is 23,000 acres strong.
"This was an original land grant, and the O'Neill family has owned it since 1882," explained Gilbert Aguirre, who's worked the Southeast Orange County cattle ranch for 41 years. "We have a tremendous Western heritage that's disappearing here in Orange County."
The cowboy culture native to the California coast will not vanish on Aguirre's watch. Chairman Aguirre and his committee of six started the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo eight years ago, and it's been a smash hit with the crowds and the cowboys alike.
"This is a way to show people in this part of the country what the Western way of life is all about," Aguirre said. "We've made rodeo fans out of Southern California socialites. We've expanded rodeo's fan base by bringing in the best of the best-cowboys and stock. These people are now going to the NFR (Wrangler National Finals Rodeo). And I enjoy that we're giving the cowboys an opportunity to make some money.
"Back in the day, they got 100,000 people to come watch the rodeo in the Los Angeles Coliseum, which was a one-header. I had that in the back of my mind all along. The old cowboys loved coming to L.A. to win a lot of money."
If rodeo makes you think cold Cokes and rodeo dogs, think again-of prime rib served on white china with fine wine. The grass grounds have been used for Olympic-Trial equestrian events such as Grand Prix jumping and dressage. Sand is hauled onto the arena floor for the rodeo, and there isn't a speck of dust to be found.
One length of the arena is a sprawling covered grandstand, which stayed packed at this year's August 23-24 event. The other side consists of tables of eight that sell for $10,000 a pop for the two-day event in the front row, and $5,000 a round in row two. Local companies buy them to entertain their VIPs.
"This is a social event," said Aguirre, whose year-round day job is Executive Vice President of ranch operations for Rancho Mission Viejo. "And we now give about $150,000 a year to charity. (More than $850,000 in eight years, he said.) This year it was $50,000 each to the R.H. Dana School, where the rodeo last year bought playground equipment that's accessible to kids in wheelchairs; the Camino Health Center, where doctors donate their time in an emergency room for underprivileged families with no insurance; and the Shea Therapeutic Riding School for handicapped children. The point is, we give all the money away."And they don't fail to share the wealth with their cowboy friends. ProRodeo Hall of Fame stock contractor Cotton Rosser's been with the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo since day one.
"The first year we were here, Gilbert wanted to know why all the world champs-the Joe Beavers and Fred Whitfields-were up in the slack on Friday. I told him they asked for Friday, so they could get to other rodeos. He asked, 'How do you fix that?' I said, 'Put up $100,000.' So he did. And now it's $140,000. The second year, we went to the top 30 cowboys, no slack, and we have a calf and a steer for everybody. Everybody loves this thing. Ninety percent of these sponsors are back for their eighth year."
Two quick comments before moving on here. One, Cotton Rosser is the consummate showman. Has been all 80 years of his colorful life, and I've been there for more than half of them to see it for myself. So he's all for twists like swapping ends of the arena every event, so each person in the crowd has a front-row seat for part of it. There are bucking chutes at both ends, and the team roping and bulldogging is at one end with the tie-down roping coming from the other.
The other thing I want to stop to personally applaud is this rodeo's $20,000 commitment per event; $40,000 in the team roping. I have never understood why every rodeo does not cut their purse pie up that way. Team roping is a standard event, which means you can't have a professional rodeo without it. We crown two world champions-a header and a heeler-in this event. It takes two to team rope, and each guy pays entry fees, dues, expenses, etc… Thank you, San Juan, and all rodeos that give the team ropers their fair due. I hope your generosity is contagious, and that one day soon it will be universal. I believe in my gut that it's the right thing to do, and long overdue.
Aguirre and his San Juan Capistrano crew go out of their way for cowboys at both ends of the arena. There is a calf and a steer for everyone, so four holes aren't won on the pup, and the cattle are hand-picked to keep them as even as possible. Rosser rounds up other stock contractors to bring in the best buckers, too.
"You have Cotton's best 20 bucking horses, our best 20 and Calgary's best 20," explained Binion Cervi. "All the wolves are here, and our best horses let us showcase the best cowboys' talent."
NFR pickup man Gary Rempel has worked for the Calgary Stampede for 24 years. He travels with the bucking horses and picks up. "The worst part of this rodeo for us is getting here," Rempel said. "It's a long, long ways. We came here from Caldwell (Idaho), which is 950 miles, and we're headed to Ellensburg (Wash.), which is 1,150 miles. But once you get here, it's as good as it gets.
"We all bring our best buckers, and the cowboys are of the same caliber as the horses. (The bulls are Rosser's, Julio Moreno's and a few of Cervi's.) That makes it fun for all of us. This is one of my favorite rodeos. It's beautiful, and you can't beat this breeze. Too bad it's only two days. It'd be nice if it ran for a week."
Announcer Bobs Tallman and Feist dig the drama that comes with the top 30 cowboys in the world heading into the backstretch that now cuts off September 30, with the exception of October's Heartland ProRodeo Series Championship in Waco, Texas, and Dodge Xtreme Bulls Tour Championship in Indianapolis, and November's Wrangler ProRodeo Tour Championship in Dallas.
"This is what rodeo's coming to, a mini NFR in two days," Tallman said. "Committee/economy is the business control that rodeo must have. Those who spend the money deserve to make the money, and contestants are paid as they should be." "It's an announcer's dream to have the cream of the crop to sell," added Feist.
"The only person who's going to say anything bad about this rodeo is the 31st guy," Whitfield said. "We need to have at least 20 of these a year."
They were all there this year, iconic retirees to rookie prodigies. "This is it," said eight-time World Champ Roy "Super Looper" Cooper, who was there with his young-gun son, Tuf. "I wish I could still rope. I'd love to rope here. A rodeo like this is what makes it fun."
The legendary Phil Lyne, who owns gold all-around, tie-down roping and steer roping buckles, flew in to visit his amigo Aguirre, enjoy the rodeo and watch his son-in-law, Shorty Gorham, fight bulls. My favorite feat of Phil's was his winning the bull riding and tie-down roping averages at the 1972 NFR. How's that for handy? And, amazingly enough, Ace Berry struck at both ends of the arena that same NFR in the bareback riding and team roping.
"I've been to a lot of rodeos, but I've never seen anything like this," Lyne said. "Everything is just so nice, and it's all at ease. The quality of the stock and the contestants-it's all here. This rodeo is something special. The arena conditions are perfect, and so is the weather. It's just about as good as you can get."
Their fellow Hall of Fame great Joe Beaver called it a year after Caldwell earlier in August, because he had pressing family business to tend to at home. But even he headed West for this one. "I wouldn't miss this for anything," Beaver beamed. "This is how it's supposed to be. We should have one of these a month. I came out for this one, and I'm going home from here. That's what I think of it. Gilbert's done what everybody wants to do. He's got the best guys, the best money for a two-day event, the best stock and the best seats-covered grandstands or a table under a tent-take your pick."
Reigning Triple Crown winner Trevor Brazile and his partner, Patrick Smith, won this year's team roping title in San Juan in a sizzling 4.5 seconds.
"This is kind of a different rodeo atmosphere," Brazile noticed. "The limos are dropping off the fans. It's a laid-back atmosphere, which is how it should be, and it's one of the biggest rodeos of the summer. They pay the price to get the best guys, and a third of the field wins a check. This is a season-changing rodeo this time of year. Winning this rodeo is like winning two two-headers. It has a big impact."
"We go to 70 rodeos a year, and this one's special," Smith said. "They give us Haagen-Dazs ice cream here."
Two of this year's San Juan champs get the gold star for making me feel old, because I've written many a story on their dads. Tuf Cooper is one of Roy's three boys, who also include Clint and Clif. Baby boy Tuf edged their next-door neighbor, Brazile, by a tenth of a second for the Rancho Mission Viejo tie-down roping victory lap.
"I love one-headers, because I don't like to hold anything back," Cooper said. "Sometimes you've got to safety up a little in an average. I'm 18, so I have to take as many chances as I can. I try to win first every time. It's won me a lot of money this year, but running at the barrier, reaching, and wrap and a hooeys have cost me too. But I'm not changing anything. It's gotten me this far."
Like Cooper, Kaycee Feild is headed to his first Finals in December. Kaycee's the 21-year-old son of World Champion All-Around Cowboy and Bareback Rider Lewis Feild, and under the counsel of Coach Lewis won this year's National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association bareback riding crown in dominating style in June while rodeoing for Utah Valley State College in Orem. Feild went all the way in San Juan with 85 points aboard Calgary Stampede's notorious stud Grated Coconut.
"I was really excited to have him for the first time, but I knew I had my hands full," Feild said of the 2003, '04, '06 and '07 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Bareback Horse of the Year. "I knew he was going to be a lot of work. But it was fun after it was over. It makes a big difference when a few stock contractors bring in their best buckers. It's not a drawing contest before you get here. This is a ritzy, high-class rodeo."
World Bareback Riding leader Steven Dent and three-time Champ of the World Will Lowe split second and third in their specialty event, just one point behind Feild. "We all get to fly into this one and see some different country," Dent said. "I grew up in Nebraska. I'd never seen a palm tree except on TV until I started rodeoing."
"We're all here to relax and enjoy ourselves," added Lowe. "The sun's shining, and the horses are bucking. These people work hard to make it fun for us. It's top notch across the board."
Eight-time World Champion Team Roper Speed Williams hears that. "I wish more rodeos made you feel like San Juan does," he said. "The cowboys eat right with the people who are paying $10,000 a table. We rub elbows with a different class of people here, kind of like we do in Dallas. We don't see so many limos at other rodeos. Gilbert was one of the first guys who limited his rodeo to a small number of contestants. He wanted two perfs, the top 30 in the world and no slack. He wanted a show, and he got one."
At 45, five-time World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Billy Etbauer is headed to a record 20th straight NFR (raising the bar on his own record) and has his sights set on a record-tying (Casey Tibbs and Dan Mortensen) sixth gold buckle in the event.
"This is what you want to do-come ride one horse for big money," Etbauer said. "When you can get on one horse for this kind of money, it's awesome. They take care of the fans and the cowboys at this rodeo." Cody Wright won San Juan this year, and Etbauer split eighth. They were one-two in the world at press time.
Dean Gorsuch, the 2006 world champ, won the 2008 San Juan steer wrestling championship in 3.7 seconds. Defending World Champion Steer Wrestler Jason Miller didn't place this time around, but he still likes the odds in San Juan. "Ten guys win money here, so every third guy gets a check," he noted. "And every dollar counts right now. They do a good job of putting 30 steers together so they're even."
Zack Oakes came out king among the bull riders at San Juan this year. But nobody needed a boost more than bubble-boy New Mexican Spud Jones, who was 16th in the world before San Juan and 13th afterwards, thanks to a fourth-place finish.
"This is sweet," Jones said. "You can't beat this scenery. It's pretty awesome to be right by the ocean when you live in New Mexico. I want to achieve my goal of my first NFR, so this is really fun and exciting."