Rodeos are like stock car races: It's the possibility of a crackup that fills the stands.
With a full slate of bull riding--a misnomer if ever there was one--and bucking broncs, there should be plenty to rivet fans at Frontier 101's annual Cowboys of Color Invitational Rodeo. After all, the best cowboys only last eight seconds.
The father-and-son team of Hugh and Denny Pickett have been putting on rodeos since 1988, but it's in their blood. Hugh Pickett is the great-nephew of famed rodeo star Bill Pickett, generally recognized as the man who taught movie cowboys Will Rogers and Tom Mix everything they knew.
But the real claim to fame for Bill Pickett--who weighed only 145 pounds--was his unusual steer-wrestling tactic. Legend has it that he would grab the bull by the horns, twist its head and then bite it on the lip. Pickett would then wrestle the startled beast to the ground.
"That's how my Dad got his second wife," cracked Denny Pickett.
Frontier 101--which gets its name from the Oklahoma ranch where Bill Pickett got his start, not the California freeway--puts on a dozen rodeos a year, most of them in the West. Hugh Pickett grew up in Oklahoma and brought his love for the rodeo with him when he moved west. "I grew up on a farm," said Hugh Pickett, who works as an administrator for Frontier 101. "It's stuck in my blood. If I'm not around it, I get lonesome."
He is, apparently, not alone in that sentiment. While there will be plenty of professional cowboys at the event--members of the two major rodeo associations--many of the participants are "weekend cowboys" who earn enough--say, driving a truck--to support their bronc-riding habit.
With the costs of transporting both rider and animal, not to mention entry fees, rodeo is not a cheap hobby. At the same time, the payoff for top riders is sizable. Ty Murray, the six-time world rodeo champ, collected $190,000 in prize money last year--which doesn't include money from endorsement deals with Wrangler and the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.
In the automotive sprawl of Los Angeles, it is easy to forget that rodeo is huge. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. sanctions more than 750 rodeos a year, drawing in some 22 million people.
California had 64 PRCA rodeos in 1995, second only to Texas. The PRCA and the International Professional Rodeo Assn. have a combined membership of more than 15,000. Compare that to, say, 1,800 players in the NFL.
About 200 of those cowboys will be in Los Angeles this weekend for the Cowboys of Color Invitational. In addition, youth groups such as the Junior Posse of Richland Farms from Compton, Calf Riders Only from Norco, and the Junior Rough Riders from Los Angeles will show off their ropin' and ridin' skills.
Parents who are reluctant to let their children drive might cringe at the notion of putting them on a bucking bull. But Denny Pickett says not to worry. "We don't pull kids out of the stands and say, 'Here--ride this horse,' "he said. "These kids have been training for a year."
Arena director Lester Sims spent nine years roping calves and getting thrown off bulls on the pro circuit. Now he's mostly content to run the show, keeping both feet on the ground. He offered some viewing tips for the rodeo novice:
* The trick to calf-roping is to pull the slack out of the rope immediately after lassoing the calf. Otherwise the animal will run through the rope like it's doing the double Dutch.
* Barrel racing is a high-speed maneuverability test on horseback, and one of few events open to women.
* To successfully wrestle a steer, a cowboy has to get all four hooves in the air. Could be worse. You could have to make the steer say, "Uncle."
* Bull riders must keep one hand in the air at all times, and they get extra points for kicking the animal, prodding it to jump harder. Maybe three riders out of 30 will be able to hold on for eight seconds.
* Riders are judged on form, not just endurance. Bareback bronc riders, for example, have to come out of the box with their feet up by the horse's shoulders or they're disqualified.
Big, jumping animals may be all the same to you, but there's a world of difference to the real cowboy. Most bull riders don't ever ride horses, said Sims. "Bull riding doesn't really get dangerous until you hit the ground," he said. "With bronc riding, you can get hurt being up on the horse."
Watching isn't enough? Ante up 25 bucks and join the round of "Bull Poker." In this, the final event of the rodeo, four people from the audience sit around a table in the middle of the arena playing cards. Then, a bull is let in. The last person to lose his composure wins.
"We had this lady play last year," said Sims. "The bull came at her and she ran right out of the arena . . ."
" . . . and," added Hugh Pickett, "right to her car and drove home."