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Salinas: California Rodeo has an atmosphere all of its own


I grew up going to Salinas every July with my dad, who won his first Salinas buckle when he was 12 and this year was inducted into the California Rodeo Hall of Fame. Salinas is a four-generation family tradition, so the misty-morning slacks, long score lines and smell of tri-tip on the barbecue over at the cowboy camps that make it Big Week feel like home. I’d missed Salinas the last several years because it conflicted with taking my sons to the National High School Finals Rodeo in Wyoming. My kids are in college now, so I got to go back home to Salinas this summer. Thankfully, nothing changed while I was away. We don’t eat banana splits for lunch for luck on the days my dad bulldogs anymore. That ship has sailed. But we still celebrate my big brother Blaine’s birthday there on July 20, like he has for 50 years. Jerold and Leo Camarillo still tip their hats on the back of their heads before they nod, so they rope without them. And the Wheatley Camp is still the gold standard when it comes to cooking steaks. I love it when the best things in life don’t change, and the traditions at this one—like all timeless classics—are set in stone.

We covered this year’s Salinas roughstock champs—Salinas native Steven Peebles in the bareback riding, back-to-back Salinas bronc riding champ Jesse Wright and bull riding winner Elliott Jacoby, who was 90 in the short round—in the last issue. At the timed-event end, this year’s headliners included Cowboy King Trevor Brazile winning the team roping with Travis Graves in addition to the all-around title; Hunter Herrin winning the tie-down roping for the second time in three years; Dru Melvin fanning the flames of his hottest July on record; and David Motes winning his record ninth Salinas buckle—this one in the PRCA Gold Card Team Roping with Monty Joe Petska.

There are three things you won’t see Trevor Brazile without at Salinas—a bowl of fresh strawberries and his kids, Treston and Style. The fertile farm ground that surrounds this rodeo has earned Salinas nicknames like “Salad Bowl of the World” and “America’s Salad Bowl.” Fresh fruits and vegetables, which are picked early each morning, are the cowboy favorites in the hospitality tent at this one.

At 35 feet, the Salinas team roping scoreline is the longest in the sport. For perspective sake, the score at the Daddy of ’em All in Cheyenne, Wyo., is 30 feet in all four timed events, and they set it out there at 25 feet in the tie-down roping and steer wrestling at Salinas. It’s Salinas tradition to set a Styrofoam cup out there in the dirt, and both partners come from the left side of the chute. Salinas is the only five-steer average in ProRodeo, and Trevor and Travis won it this year in 44.4 seconds. It was Trevor’s second Salinas team roping buckle. He won it the first time heading for Patrick Smith in 2012.

“The weather is unbelievable here (70-degree days are typical in July),” Trevor said. “The travel’s crazy this time of year, and it’s hot everywhere. To be able to stay in one place for four days of cool weather, and be surrounded by so much history, is awesome. We (he and Shada) took the kids to the beach and whale watching.

“There are so many things that make Salinas special. It’s a great change of atmosphere for us, and they go out of their way to do things right. They’ve never cheapened their prizes. Some buckles are just buckles, but the Salinas buckles have never been short-cutted. It’s not just a buckle. It’s a good one. Other than the gold buckles, if you win this one you wear it.”

I talked to Trevor a couple weeks later on August 4, as this issue was about ready to roll to the printer. He and Travis had just stepped off of a plane in Sikeston, Mo., and caught a ride to Lambert’s Café, “The Only Home of Throwed Rolls.” Trevor ducked to avoid getting popped in the head with a hot one when he followed up with confirmation that, “Travis hasn’t taken his Salinas buckle off yet.”

They love the five-header, but conflicts at other rodeos in his other events kept Trevor from entering Salinas for a long time. “I’ve only gotten to go to Salinas five or six times, but since I’ve evolved into a team roper I’ve made it a point to go,” said Trevor, whose home base is Decatur, Texas. “I like going to places that are different—not just cookie-cutter scenarios and arenas.”

A guy thinks twice about what he’s going to ride at Salinas, because it matters so much more than at a short-score one-header. “I want run, but controlled speed at Salinas,” Trevor said. “I’ve seen a lot of horses that get going too fast there, and can’t do their job once they catch up.”

Another memorable Brazile family highlight at Salinas this summer was Treston winning his first-ever roping buckle in the 6-8 dummy roping. What a thrill to get to see that for myself. His mutton bustin’ buckles are now officially mantle décor.

Case Key, 4, won his very first buckle in the 5-and-under dummy roping at Salinas. That was twofold special to me, because he was wearing a buckle David had won at the first annual Broc Cresta Memorial last year (where Case was a close second in the dummy roping) and in the blink of an eye it’s been two years since we lost Broc at Cheyenne.

It’s been five years since David lost his oldest son, Riley, at 18. Riley used to run around Salinas with my boys, Lane and Taylor. Riley died in June of 2009, and I remember David telling me about turning the corner there that next month, seeing three tall, skinny kids and feeling like it was a mirage of happy memories. Lane still keeps a black wristband with Riley’s name on it on his ignition, so he’s reminded of his friend every time he fires up his truck.

His shiny new Salinas buckle isn’t Travis’s only precious new addition. He flew home from Reno just in time to help his wife, Tamika, and little boy, Tee, welcome baby girl True Vista on June 24. As for their Salinas wheels, Trevor rode Boogie and Travis rode Manny.

“Speed is it at Salinas,” said Travis, who lives in Jay, Okla. “The heel horse has to be fast, because you have to let the header go before you do, so you don’t run your leg into the side of the box. You also need one that’ll let you slow him down, so you can control him. A horse has to be able to run, then cow up and not just run off. It takes a pretty special horse at Salinas. I’ve been there a lot of times when my horse wasn’t good enough. It’s too hard to catch five in a row on an average horse.”

They drove all night to get to Monday-morning slack at Odgen (Utah) after the Salinas short round. “I had this Salinas buckle on the next time I rode in the box,” Travis grinned. “Salinas is a big deal. There’s a lot of history there, and I’m a big history guy. California is where team roping originated, and guys like the Camarillos are a big part of our event’s history. Salinas is just one you want to win in your career.”

They say two out of three ain’t bad, and if you consider the fact that Hunter Herrin scored Salinas last year, then he’s actually batting a thousand in recent history. “I’ve had a lot of success here,” said Hunter, who also won the California Rodeo buckle in 2012. “I’ve won second a time or two, third and fourth. I’ve had a lot of luck here. I finally got it won two years ago. Then I didn’t come last year. I’d sold a horse, and didn’t think I would have been mounted well enough.”

Hunter, who’s headed to his seventh Wrangler National Finals Rodeo this year, is with Trevor on the controlled-speed requirement when it comes to choosing a ride at Salinas. “You have to have a horse that’ll score, because you need to let them way out there,” he said. “They have to run, so they don’t take your throw away. You don’t want a big stopper here, because you’re running really fast and you don’t want to jerk one down.”

Hunter found the right combo in brothers Josh and Jon Peek’s buckskin horse Smoke. Hunter’s main mount this year is Rambo, and Hunter and Clint Robinson have won a ton on the horseshoe-less wonder in 2014. “He was a little green last year, so there were some growing pains,” said Hunter, who finished 30th in the world in 2013. “I didn’t make my best runs at the right places last year, and you can’t do that. This July has been one of my best ever. I won about $38,000-39,000.”

Hunter shares his two-buckle California Rodeo collection with his 7-year-old son, Houston, AKA “H.” “Salinas is the premier buckle that’s not given away in December,” said Hunter, who turned 30 on July 30 and won this one with 34.5 on three.

Trevor’s just seven years older than Hunter, but someone he looks up to big time. There are countless reasons to respect the winningest cowboy of all time, and Hunter has his, too. “Trevor probably scores better than anyone going up and down the road, and he’s always riding a good horse that fits him,” said Hunter, who hangs his hat in Apache, Okla. “He’s won more than anyone in the history of the PRCA, of course, and we all pay attention when he’s up. There’s a lot to learn from watching Trevor.”

The world steer wrestling standings won’t quite reflect all of his winnings yet, due to the lag in reporting and recording of Canadian earnings. But Dru Melvin’s books say he’s right at $60,000 for the season. And virtually all of it came his way in July.

“I had $8,000 won for the year going into the short round at Ponoka (Alberta),” said Dru, who lives in Hebron, Neb. “I’ve won about $53,000 since July 1.”

Say what?! That stat was fact when he called me moments after winning the short round and average at the Strathmore (Alberta) Stampede on August 4. “I’ve just been getting out of the barrier and making good runs,” he said. “It’s been crazy. I don’t really know how to explain it.”

I first got to know Dru a couple years ago, under the most agonizing circumstances when he lost his young but already great palomino bulldogging horse Moonshine to a freak accident. He shows the same grace in victory now that he did in those toughest of times then. I always cheer for that. Last year was the first time Dru made the Salinas short round, but he didn’t have any luck. This time, he was high man back and stayed there. His 22.3 on three edged Dakota Eldridge by a tenth.

“I love this buckle,” said Dru, who immediately swapped it out with the one on his belt. “It’s one of those that you can spot from a ways away, like a gold buckle and an (NFR) average buckle. It’s one of those I’ve always wanted to win, like everyone else. Salinas, Pendleton and Cheyenne—their buckles never change, and they just stand out.”

Dru was three-tenths of a second from a very tough decision—as in which one to wear—after finishing a close second to K.C. Jones at the Daddy this year, too. “I like the long scores,” Dru said. “They fit me and my horse.” He bought Sambo from Bray Armes this spring. “He was our backup horse last year,” Dru continued. “Bray was going to sell him, and he was too important to have in the rig, so I bought him. He’s good everywhere, but he really stands out over the long scores.”

Sean Mulligan hazed Dru’s first two steers, and Tyler Pearson lined things out for him in the Salinas short round. Sambo’s 16, but last year was his first out on the trail, so “he hasn’t had his wheels hauled off,” said Dru, who travels with Bray, Sean and Casey Martin. “He’s just easy to be around and easy to ride.”

Dru, who was ranked 20th the week before Salinas, is now No. 5 in the world. Time to start planning December daytime activities for son Jaxson, who’ll be a year old on September 15. Back to Vegas, Baby.

“Everyone says you get on these heaters,” said Dru, whose previous NFR appearance was in 2006, and placed at Cheyenne, Ogden and Deadwood (S.D.) the week after Salinas. “Everything’s just been rolling. I’ve been in the top 25 four times since I went to the Finals, and was 17th going into the last week of the regular season last year, when I went home to have Jaxson. I think I locked in Vegas and the Canadian Finals today (at Strathmore). I’m safe now, and it’s a good feeling when you know you’re there. It’s been a long eight years, and I’m glad to be back.”

He’s always glad to be back in Salinas, too. “You get to run one in the fog in the morning, and one in the sunshine in the afternoon,” he said. “This is a fun, fun rodeo. There’s so much going on, between the big arena and the track. We let the steers out a long way, so it’s about being a cowboy. And the good horses really shine at Salinas. What you need here is an old cowboy horse that’ll score good, run hard and help you read the play.”

There aren’t many places where the hazer plays a more vital role than Salinas, and the hazing box is 10 feet shorter than the bulldogging box. “Your hazer can make or break you here,” Dru said. “There’s so much ‘left’ in this arena. Straight and to the right are awesome. One step to the left is awesome. If you get too much left, it runs you out of it. A lot of factors have to come together for it to work at Salinas. You don’t want one that runs too hard, too slow or too far left here.”

There are no official arena stats to base it on, but when Dru was 4.9 in the short round there in 2011 the cowboy crowd told him that was the record. I took an unofficial poll of a few of my gold-buckle bulldogger friends, and they say it’s so. The guys I talked to—Jack Roddy, John W. Jones Jr. and Luke Branquinho—represent 10 world titles spanning 1966-2012, including the one Johnny’s late, great dad, John W. Jones Sr. won in 1970, which counts because his historic perspective lives in Johnny now through all of his priceless stories.

Through a hot tip from Luke’s memory bank, I pieced together that there’s actually a tie at the top. Tyler Holzum, a cowboy’s cowboy from the Cowboy Capital of Oakdale, Calif., was 4.9 in the Salinas short round in 1998. “It was the last year they took 15 guys to the short round,” Tyler told me. “I had a steer that got away from John W. (Johnny) in the second round. He was phony-headed, and it was probably the worst run I made there, but it was the fastest.”

Like Johnny and his dad, Jack’s a Salinas Hall of Famer. He won the bulldogging there in 1962, ’64 and ’66, and won a fourth Salinas buckle in the PRCA Gold Card Team Roping with my dad in 2003. It’s impossible to say how much Jack and my dad have missed their third amigo on the golf course and fly-fishing rivers since John left us so suddenly last fall. It makes my heart happy that the three of them will live forever in the California Rodeo Hall of Fame, home of so many of their favorite memories.

“I have a hard time believing anyone’s thrown one down in 4 at Salinas,” Jack said. “But then, I remember bulldogging at Salinas in 1961, the only year they held it on the track. Phil Stadtler brought 850-pound Hereford steers fresh off of the Topo Ranch, and I won a round in 10.1.”

At 61, David Motes just won his ninth Salinas buckle. He won the first one 40 years ago, in 1974, with his brother Dennis. The brothers struck again in 1977, and David went on to win the team roping title three more times—with Denny Watkins in 1984 and ’89, and Dennis Gatz in 1986. David’s got four PRCA Gold Card buckles from Salinas, which he’s won with John Bassett, Walt Woodard, Gary Ford and, this year, Monty Joe.

“This is a very, very lucky arena for me,” said Salinas Hall of Famer David. “I can go to Cheyenne in the same type of situation and I’ve never even made the short round there. It’s funny how you can hardly do any wrong in some arenas. At this stage of the game, I’ve kind of quit going to rodeos where I’ve never done any good.”

Part of Pard’s magic at Salinas is it suits his style. “My law of averages is a lot better in a five header and over a longer score vs. a short score and a 4-second roping,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of good horses over the years, and you have to have a great horse to score and catch up at this rodeo. That’s why I’m still pretty good at my game here. Horsepower.”

The Arizona native, who spent decades of his life living in Cali, keeps his unparalleled collection of California Rodeo buckles front and center at home in Texas now. “They’re in a trophy case, so my friends can look at them,” said David, who wore a Salinas buckle the five years his 1977 gold buckle went missing, after forgetting it in a rental car in Dallas. His gold buckle was lost, then randomly found and returned to him last February.

“When I think of Salinas, I think of having a four-day blast barbecuing with my friends at one of the best rodeos in the world,” said David, who I’ve seen at Salinas all my life. “Without a doubt, the Wheatley Camp is No. 1. It’s amazing what Terry Wheatley and Sharon Lockett do over there every day to make everybody happy and comfortable. Everybody comes by and tells a story. I give them a double A-plus—five stars.”

As someone who personally ate three steaks in two nights over at Wheatley Camp, and also has counted the Wheatleys as close family friends for generations now, I’ll second that. I’ll also crown Clay Tryan this generation’s Salinas master, even though I’m pretty sure he’s just getting warmed up. Clay’s got his own five-strong California Rodeo buckle collection. He won it in 2003 with Allen Bach, ’04 and ’09 with Cory Petska, ’06 with Patrick Smith and ’07 with Walt Woodard.

“There’s so much that makes Salinas Salinas,” said Montana native Clay, who currently rodeos out of Texas. “The setup, to me, is just awesome. Both coming from the left side from behind the barrier is unique, as is the length of the score. Salinas has as much old-time tradition as we have anymore. They still post our names on a wooden board up in back, and call our name on a little loud speaker back behind the chutes (just like Jim Rodriguez Sr. did when I was a kid). There’s so much that makes Salinas different from every other rodeo, and I like all of it.”

Clay and his fellow reigning World Champion Team Roper partner Jade Corkill are wicked at Salinas, just like they are everywhere else. Jade literally wore a hole in the drought-hardened ground underneath the little wooden sawhorse over at his trailer this Big Week. Why has Clay Tryan dominated at Salinas?

“I got to see the guys before me who don’t miss—the Jakes (Barnes), Tees (Woolman) and Speeds (Williams),” Clay said. “So that’s a weapon for me. Salinas has just always felt easy for me. I know how to get out of the barrier and turn every steer, so I give myself a good chance every time. There are a lot of go-fast guys in this generation. Salinas is one of the throwback rodeos that’s old school.

“Salinas is the only rodeo all year where there’s so much to it. There’s really no art to winning some rodeos. But you spend four days trying to win this one. You can see a guy get into a good rhythm and get tapped off at Salinas. It’s not about drawing the loper, being 4.2 and riding out. Or drawing the fastest steer, having no chance and riding out. There is an art to winning the big events, and five head is so cool to me.”

Yes, it’s more of a survival-of-the-fittest marathon at Salinas, and we all stop and watch when they call Clay’s name. Clay and Jade were flawless there again this year, and roping what they drew finished third in the average to Trevor and Travis, and Erich Rogers and Cory Petska.

Just when we thought we’d seen it all at Salinas, in rides a bulldogger in a Superman cape wearing two different boots. I took an elbow in the ribs from Trevor when he saw red and wheeled around to video it on his phone. “I got this,” he said. I got to meet Duffy Ducheneaux right after he brought the cowboy house down in slack one day.

“Please be sure and spell it S-I-O-U-X-P-E-R-M-A-N,” he said. “I’m a Cheyenne River Sioux Indian from Eagle Butte, S.D.” So, (World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider) Tom Reeves country, huh? “Yes, and (late saddle bronc riding talent) T.C. Holloway, too.” Duffy went on to tell me he’s riding Sug, a horse he bought from Bill and Riley Duvall in the steer wrestling capital of Checotah, Okla., and that, “I was a stuntman in the movie ‘Dances with Wolves,’ so this (the caped wrestling of steers) is nothing.” Duvall Dynasty descendent Riley placed third in the average at Salinas, and has a good shot at making his first Finals this year. He was 16th in the world at press time, thanks in part to Salinas.

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