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Bucking 90210 image

Beverly Hills executive, a rodeo fan since youth, ropes for charity. 'Even now, I get flak' for being from the wealthy enclave, he says.

October 12, 2008|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

The purr of a Mercedes, the whisper of a sprinkler on a mansion lawn, the whirring of a real estate man's lasso as he ropes a dummy steer on his tennis court: It's morning in Beverly Hills.

In the cool hours after sunup, Steve Freed is sweating. It's not easy being the Beverly Hills Cowboy, as he calls himself. There's only so much rodeo a 50-year-old body can take. And although roping to raise money for his favorite charity is a righteous thing to do, he has to be careful: Making a big show of his 90210 roots can be downright off-putting to rodeo folk from the more modest ZIP Codes.

Still, for someone who spends his days running a family firm that deals in warehouses and other industrial properties, Freed knows how to cowboy up. He is probably the only graduate of Beverly Hills High School whose thumb has been severed -- and later reattached -- in a roping accident.

"It hasn't been easy," he said, laying claim to six hard months of introspection before he could fire up his website, www.beverlyhillscowboy .com. "It meant coming out of the closet, so to speak."

Ever since he was a teenager, the fledgling cowboy's closet has been . . . Beverly Hills.

Long and lean, he caught the rodeo bug at a summer camp in Malibu. For five seasons he worked as a wrangler and grew to love horses. His favorite books were Louis L'Amour westerns; his favorite star was John Wayne.

Over his parents' objections, he started riding at area competitions, forging their signatures on permission forms. Once he came home bloody and tattered, thrown by a bull on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

"It broke up the dinner," he said. "People just left. That's how dismayed they were that I'd chosen this pursuit."

Then there was the ribbing he took from his fellow cowboys, who somehow associated the 90210 more with Botox than barbed wire. And the rodeo announcer who declared that this ol' boy Freed -- from Beverly Hills, of all places! -- was about to get busted up by the wild buffalo he was set to ride. (Freed rode successfully, suffering a mere dislocated shoulder when slammed down to the arena floor.)

"Even now, I get flak," he said. "When I try to buy a horse, the price automatically goes up $5,000. I call it the Beverly Hills Effect."

After his days as a young buckaroo, Freed sat out two decades of rodeos. Marrying, raising two children and running the business founded by his father, he'd had his fling. He had a big cardboard cutout of the Duke in his office, a couple of guns on the wall and trips every summer to a ranch in Montana. His wife, he jokes, was less into rodeo and more into Rodeo Drive.

Then a friend talked him into trying team roping at the age of 43. Relentlessly competitive, Freed still longed for a trophy belt buckle. And a new handicapping system, which allows less experienced ropers to compete with tough veterans, was drawing more people into the ring.

One of the less punishing rodeo events, team roping entails precision horsemanship by a "header," who loops his rope over the head of a running, 400-pound steer, and a "heeler," who does the same with the animal's hind legs.

In his years as a header, Freed has won cash, a horse trailer and Texas-size buckles. When he talks about rodeo, he gets excited, drops his Gs -- as in ropin' and ridin' -- and picks up a twang.

"I find it hard to discuss this topic," he said, half-apologizing, "without sounding like I'm from Texas." But he said he'd still be just plain Freed instead of the Beverly Hills Cowboy if not for his longtime commitment to the Concern Foundation, a group that raises money for cancer research.

He said he has donated his nearly $10,000 in winnings so far this year and is going public with his cowpoke persona to earn the foundation greater recognition.

Of course, he's not the only unlikely dude in rodeo. Actor Kiefer Sutherland has won a couple of roping championships. James Pickens Jr. of TV's "Grey's Anatomy" is said to throw loops over a practice dummy during breaks. The U.S. Team Roping Championships lists some 150,000 ropers in its database -- a huge increase attributed largely to its amateur-friendly rating system.

Walt Woodard, a reigning world champion in team roping, has instructed Freed and many others.

"We get attorneys and bankers and actors," said the 53-year-old Woodard from his home in Stephenville, Texas. "These are guys who have horses and get tired of just riding them down the road."

Three evenings a week, Freed moseys over to the ranch in Sunland where he rents stalls for his four quarter horses. He calls them by color -- the red one, the black one, the paint one -- rather than name.

With a partner and a real, live steer he practices the moves he makes every six weeks or so at rodeos throughout Southern California and as far afield as Oklahoma City. In December he goes to the World Series of Team Roping in Las Vegas, a mega-event with a $2-million purse.

Until then, he wakes up early and does his push-ups. Striding past his rock-rimmed swimming pool, the three waterfalls that tumble into it and a cascade of bougainvillea, he grabs his rope and lassos his dummy, over and over.

He'll keep at it, he said, until he needs another back operation or his shoulder joints have to be replaced. They were shot many rodeos ago, back when more sensible young men from Beverly Hills were learning to play golf.

"I was a crowd-pleaser early on," he said. "I was carried out of more arenas unconscious than I care to remember."

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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