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San Juan Capistrano caters to cowboys in high society style



Putting on a truly great rodeo is a Labor of Love for any committee. The cost—in man hours, headaches, financial commitment and sweat—is almost immeasurable. But such extra efforts don’t go unnoticed, by the cowboys or the fans. San Juan Capistrano is old ranching country on the California Coast that has evolved into a high-society beach community. A cowboy by the name of Gilbert Aguirre has taken on the task of making sure San Juan’s rodeo and ranching roots that beat inside his own heart are not lost. His personal Labor of Love that’s behind the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo is not lost on the cowboys or the sellout crowds, either.

“This site was part of the old Rancho Mission Viejo,” Aguirre explained, on the occasion of the 14th annual Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo, held August 23-24. “The original ranch—Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores—was almost 230,000 acres and was the original land grant given to the first governor of California, Pio Pico. We sold it to the city of San Juan Capistrano two years ago for a park. Now the city uses it for equestrian events and soccer. They’re going to have the Olympic Trials here. They fly in million-dollar jumping horses for that.

“Our No. 1 goal in starting this rodeo was to keep the Western heritage alive. We were the biggest ranch here, and saw the Western way of life slipping away. This rodeo is our way of giving back to this community. We don’t make a dime off of it, but it accomplishes our goal.”

From serving fans and cowboys lunch on China plates on down the line, everything is first class and no expense is spared at Rancho Mission Viejo. “We pay $1,000 an out for the bucking horses, and $500 an out for the bulls,” Aguirre said. “That’s higher than the going rate, but this is a special rodeo. We have the best cowboys, so we want the best stock so everyone has a chance. 

“The main reason we have this rodeo this time of year is for the guys on the bubble. We’re doing this for the sport of rodeo, and giving guys the opportunity to catapult themselves into the NFR (Wrangler National Finals Rodeo) is part of it. Some of these guys are running out of time. We strive to make this a quality rodeo, and we’re not in the path of the rodeo world. If a guy’s going to spend $1,000 to get here, we need to do whatever it takes to make the trip worthwhile. That costs money.”

The format of this one includes the top 30 cowboys in the world in a one-header that plays out over two days in two afternoon performances. There is no slack, and that’s in answer to the event’s early days, when Aguirre was frustrated to see so many world champs go in slack, then skip town without the ticket buyers getting to witness their superstar talents.

“When we started this rodeo in 2001, we added $25,000 total and had a regular rodeo,” Aguirre said. “All the world champions were in slack. I said to Cotton (Rosser, who’s been his partner in producing the event since the start), ‘How can we change that?’ He told me to make it an invitational rodeo and add a lot of money. We now add $25,000 an event, and $50,000 in the team roping (this year’s total payoff at San Juan was $217,602).”

King of the Cowboys Trevor Brazile is the poster boy for Aguirre’s complaint about the stars of the show being, in his words, “Wasted on slack.” Brazile applauds what Aguirre has done to raise the bar on this rodeo every single year.

“The money’s great, and 33.3 percent of the field gets a check,” Brazile said. “The fans get what they want, and the cowboys are running for great money on great stock. This rodeo is the way it’s supposed to be. Everybody has a chance when they get here. The money’s the main thing. The weather and scenery are nice, but they’re secondary. I’m for this rodeo with an exclamation point!”

Aguirre stops at nothing—effort or expense—and the tie-down roping calves are as good of an Exhibit A as anything. 

“Nobody in the world prepares roping calves like Gilbert,” said Flying U Rodeo’s Reno Rosser, Cotton’s youngest son, who has a hand in all aspects of the event’s production. “He goes to the same guy in Texas who provides calves for the NFR six weeks before this rodeo, and works on finding a uniform set of 60 calves, so out of that he can come up with 30 perfect calves for this rodeo. The week before the rodeo he weighs every calf at 6 a.m. They (Gilbert’s grandson, Brent Freese, who’s a Cal Poly Mustang like my boys—and Cotton) then breakaway rope them, and tie to the post, all the while with the calves on special feed. 

“Gilbert hauls the calves to the arena on Friday, so they’re settled in and familiar with this arena before Saturday’s first perf. The 15 guys up each day tie those 15 calves before their perf, so the calves are perfectly prepared and the cowboys have a chance to know the calves. It is as fair to every guy as is humanly possible. And all this happens because Gilbert Aguirre is a true cattleman and cowboy.”

Aguirre paid $900 a round for this year’s set of black calves, which weighed 233 pounds off the truck. He had several offers to buy them after the rodeo, but is instead keeping them with the plan of raising roping calves out of them in a couple years. Call it extreme cowboy quality control. Aguirre sincerely loves the cowboys, and wishes the fairest possible competitive opportunity on every single one of them.

“My dad’s been motivated to this level of excellence by heartfelt praise from the likes of Fred Whitfield, Cody Ohl and Trevor Brazile,” said Aguirre’s daughter, Lissa Freese. “He’s become obsessive about it. It costs a fortune to buy these calves, but it’s worth it to him to make the cowboys happy.”

Whitfield’s with Brazile in taking his hat off to Aguirre and the San Juan Capistrano Committee. “We like to get to spend two or three days away from the hustle and bustle,” said ProRodeo Hall of Famer and eight-time World Champion Cowboy Whitfield. “In my case this year, a rodeo like this can be a huge factor in me making the National Finals Rodeo. This is a great rodeo, and it’s the biggest deal to guys in my position this year, who are really needing to win. There aren’t a lot of rodeos left where we can run one calf and win $5,000 ($6,608, to be exact). 

“These are the best quality calves we could rope. They’re bigger and stronger, and they’re going to be mother cows in two years. This whole rodeo’s first class, without a doubt, and having a calf for everybody makes it a lot better roping. If you let the best guys sit around and watch the calves go, PROCOM dictates who wins. That scenario gives a huge advantage to the guys who draw up last.”

There are bucking and timed-event chutes at both ends of the arena in San Juan, because, in Aguirre’s words, “Those people paid just as much as those people.” He’s pointing to both ends of the grandstands (which he paid tall dollars to cover, to keep the general admission seats as cool and comfortable as the seats at the tall-dollar corporate tables on the other side of the arena) and both ends of the great, big, white tent. “Chutes at both ends of the arena give everybody a good view.”

There are 96 tables, each of which seats eight and ranges in pricetag from $5,000-$20,000 (for 20 grand, you get your own wait staff) under the big tent. They’re bought by the likes of Orange County home builders and golf courses, and are sold entirely by word of mouth. They’re sold out, and there’s a waiting list. Community companies are standing in line to become sponsors of this rodeo, too. 

“In this tent are friends of ours,” Aguirre said. “Business associates and personal friends. Lots of company presidents and CEOs. A lot of people who come to this rodeo wouldn’t come without this presentation (the China plates, glass glasses, silver silverware and fresh, fancy food). This has turned into the place to be and be seen. These people are from Newport Beach. They aren’t rodeo people, and there is so much to do in their backyard, with Disneyland, Sea World, Angel Stadium, Knott’s Berry Farm and beautiful beaches right here. But this rodeo has turned into a happening, because it’s something so unique for these people.

“Orange County is one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. They’re wealthy people, and also very down to earth and genuinely nice people. These people are starting to know who Trevor Brazile is. Some of them go to the NFR now. This event is growing rodeo’s fan base, and exposing the sport to a whole new demographic.”

The cowboys and fans aren’t the only winners in the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo mix. The event donates about $150,000 a year to local charities, including CHOC Children’s Hospital and Shea Therapeutic Riding Center, where the love of horses lifts up locals ranging in age from 6-80. Brazile, Whitfield, Tuf Cooper and Shane Hanchey led some extremely excited Shea riders into the arena during Sunday’s opening ceremonies. The rodeo also cut a $10,000 check to the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund, in the spirit of helping cowboys who can’t be at any rodeo right now because they’re on the injured reserve list.

It’s a rare rodeo where Kaycee Feild doesn’t cash in any chips. But not even “riding like a girl,” as he put it on Sunday afternoon in San Juan, could throttle back his enthusiasm for jumping on this rodeo’s bandwagon. 

“This is an awesome rodeo,” said three-time and reigning World Champion Bareback Rider Feild. “They add the money, and it’s a great environment. To get out of the North and come down South to the beach, and the nice, cool, breezy weather is like a vacation this time of year when we’re all getting kind of burned out. To get on good horses for good money is a good time here. You can go from 30th to 15th pretty easy right here. You could probably jump from 15th to fifth right here. In 2008, I was 14th or 15th, came here, won this rodeo and it sealed the deal for me (to qualify for his first NFR).” 

A couple 2014 San Juan champs who needed it most were bareback rider Tilden Hooper and tie-down roper Clint Cooper. Both were in the 15th-place NFR hot seat when they pulled into town. Hooper’s a three-time National Finalist who hasn’t been back to the Big Show in Vegas since surgery in October 2012 to fuse the C5 and C6 vertebrae in his neck. The 2007 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association/Resistol Rookie Bareback Rider of the Year’s 85-point, $8,954 pop at San Juan jumped him up to 11th in the world, and made a fourth trip to the Finals look a whole lot more likely.

“I’ve come into this time of year 16th, first and 46th,” said Hooper, who’s traveled with Feild since they were rookies and edged Feild for rookie of the year honors. “So I’ve learned that it’s not over until December. Trying to win the world has been my goal since I came back from my neck surgery. This is a stepping stone to getting there, and it’s a big one. 

“I don’t know anyone else in the PRCA who’s riding with a neck fusion. It’s rare to keep competing after the surgery I had (in part because it leaves the disks on either side of the fusion more prone to problems). I have to work a lot harder now. If I learned one thing from my surgery it’s not to take anything for granted. I wasn’t sweating or complaining about being 15th. I’m just enjoying every day, and the opportunity to do what I love.”

Coming so close to losing his beloved line of work only fanned his flames. “There used to be a question sometimes about which Tilden would show up,” Hooper said. “I’m doing my best now to make sure I show up every time and do my job. I train like an athlete should train. I work out an hour or two a day. I had to take on a whole new role as far as the fitness goes to make everything around the surgery site and the rest of me stronger, and it makes me more confident. A guy needs to be in shape to succeed in the roughstock events.”

Watching Feild work inspires Hooper. “What he’s done the last few years has made everybody step up,” Hooper said of his traveling partner. “If you haven’t stepped up, you’ve been left behind. As (stock contractor) Scotty Lovelace told me, ‘Steel sharpens steel.’ Kaycee and I make each other better.”

Four-time NFR tie-down roper Cooper also was dangling on the edge of the cliff at 15th in the world when he rode into San Juan. A mere 7.6 seconds (and $6,608) later, Cooper was 12th in the world. 

“I’ve been to this rodeo since ’04, and I love it here,” said the eldest of Roy’s Boys, who once again banked on Karen Herbst’s Sweetness, who’s 20 now, for the assist. “There just aren’t rodeos around with only 30 guys that pay 10 moneys. These calves are bigger, fresher, fuller and stronger, and Sweetness really helps set my run up for me the way he stops and pulls so snappy. A guy offered Karen $250,000 in a briefcase for him one night, and thank goodness she just laughed at him. Sweetness is family. I check on him like (his wife) Amber checks on the kids. 

“This win is so crucial for me right now. I’ve gotten kicked, and haven’t won a dime the last two weeks, so this is a big boost. I’d slipped from 13th to 14th to 15th in the last week or so. This is darn sure going to make the 20-hour drive to Walla Walla (Wash.) better.”

San Juan makes sure all the cowboys are fed like kings. After hours, many of them make a point to visit former PRCA tie-down roper Marty Wells’ Bad to the Bone BBQ joint right there in San Juan. Wells married a California girl, Mary, and now lives life in shorts. “I look forward to seeing Marty, eating at Bad to the Bone and going to the beach every year I come here,” Cooper said. “His steak and barbecue is unbelievable, but I love the sea bass the best.”

Every move matters this time of year, even for those already in the driver’s seat. Trevor Knowles used his 3.3-second win at San Juan to extend his lead in the world steer wrestling standings and move $5,295 closer to his first gold buckle.

“I wish there were a couple of these a month,” Knowles said. “After Salinas and Cheyenne, Pendleton’s really good, and Puyallup and Omaha. A rodeo like this can move a guy up 15 spots. It keeps guys going who are just outside the bubble. I’ve been 30th before. I’ve been in a lot of situations over the years, and a rodeo like this one can make such a big difference in any of them. 

“Anytime you limit your entries, you better have the best stock. There are no excuses not to, and you need to give everybody a good opportunity. If there are only two steers, there’s always one better than the other. But you want them as fair as possible, so everybody has a chance. Nobody wants to win by outdrawing everyone. As a competitor, I want to know I did my job the best and that’s why I won. They dang sure go out of their way to treat us good all the way around at this one.”

Defending World Champion Header Clay Tryan and his co-star champ, Jade Corkill, split sixth in the team roping at San Juan, and the $2,767 they won for 5 seconds worth of work similarly extended their lead in their gold-buckle charge. 

“I’d say this rodeo is the most important to the guys who are trying to make the Finals (like, say, San Juan team roping titlists Aaron Tsinigine and Cole Davison),” Tryan said. “But it’s also a big deal for the guys at the top trying to win a world title. This rodeo is unique—the format, the payout. It feels like you’re at a polo match, but it’s a rodeo. Everything is first class. You go heads up with the best guys for a great payout. If there were more rodeos like this one it would mean a lot to the sport. Some rodeos just figure out how to have a big-time atmosphere, and this is one of them that’s done that. 

“There are luxury boxes at big-league games, because that’s what corporate sponsors want. San Juan is bringing that concept to rodeo. The guys at the top want to go into the Finals with the lead. I come here to complete the course. Guys in the middle of the pack come hoping to move up, and get closer to the top. The guys toward the bottom are trying to get the Finals made. There’s a lot at stake at this rodeo, and the stakes are high.”

Twin bronc riding brothers Jesse and Jake Wright were 13th and 18th in the world, respectively, when they unloaded their bronc saddles at San Juan. 

“It’s awesome having $25,000 added at a two-day, one-header,” said 2012 World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Jesse. “It makes you want to bear down pretty hard. If they had more rodeos like this one you’d see me at every one of them.”

“The weather’s nice, and the committee treats us so good here,” Jake added. “It’s just sunny California, and there’s not one rodeo here I don’t like. Having good broncs makes it a riding contest instead of a drawing contest.”

A 10th-place finish at San Juan didn’t move bulldogger Casey Martin up or down in the world standings. He held steady at fifth in the world, but his take on San Juan is the same as everyone else’s. “The hospitality’s awesome, and the weather is great,” said Martin, who’s bulldogged at the last three straight NFRs. “They feature the top guys in the world, and 30’s a good number. The crowd gets to see it all, because it’s all in the perfs. I wish they had one a week just like this one.”

That’s unanimous in the cowboy crowd.

“My whole deal when I started this rodeo was to help the cowboys and give them a boost this time of year,” Aguirre said. “This is a show of talent. That’s the reason we go out of our way to get the best stock. It costs $400,000 to put on this rodeo, if you do the math. We treat cowboys like professional athletes instead of second-class citizens. We want to be a class act, and a class act costs money.”
 
 
 
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