Dallas is pinstripes and commerce. Fort Worth is buckles and steers. So how did Dallas land the Texas Stampede, one of pro rodeo’s premier events? Maybe it’s because Dallas is high fashion and big money, and rodeo is now reaching for both. Add to that rodeo’s rugged Wild West allure, and before you know it, cowboy chic means something more than rhinestones and football. Suddenly, the rodeo and Dallas is like a cowboy and his hat: one just doesn’t look right without the others.

I sat next to Steve Hatchell on a flight from Omaha to Dallas last April. We were both coming back from Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. For a value investor like me, going to Omaha is like a Muslim making a pilgrimage to Mecca. Hatchell had a more earthly connection. Berkshire Hathaway owns Justin Boots, and Justin is a licensee of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Hatchell is the rodeo’s commissioner.

Naturally, Hatchell was wearing Justin cowboy boots and he had stowed in the overhead bin a box containing what was obviously a very expensive cowboy hat. Hatchell really looks more like the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference (which is exactly what he used to be) than a cowboy. Thirty years and 40 pounds ago, he lettered as a quarterback at the University of Colorado. He walks and talks like the slightly paunchy, standard-issue business executive that he is.

Since 1998, Hatchell has been trying to capture a greater percentage of the American sports dollar for the cowboys, stock contractors, and rodeo clowns who make up professional rodeo. Though he makes his home in University Park, he commutes to Colorado Springs where the association is headquartered.

More than 5,000 rodeos take place in the United States each year, 700 sanctioned by the PRCA. Like any popular sport, rodeo has its strengths and weaknesses. Hatchell’s job is to pump the strengths and correct the weaknesses. Demographically, rodeo fans mirror NASCAR fans in age and income. But NASCAR is a richer enterprise in terms of actual dollars and fan awareness. For example, last year Joe Beaver was the pro rodeo World All-Around Champion. His winnings amounted to about $250,000, which is small potatoes compared to NASCAR Winston Cup Champion Bobby Labonte, who last year raked in about $4 million. Few readers have probably heard of Joe Beaver. For rodeo fans, Joe Beaver is a household name. But he’s not a star like the late Dale Earnhardt.

The structure of professional rodeo undermines a true star system and the television ratings and high-ticket prices that star players attract. Stars like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Cal Ripken are huge draws, and as a result they are showcased by their respective sports. In rodeo, almost anybody who has filled out a registration form and can muster up an entry fee can "get a ride." Thus, in most rodeos a wannabe will get the same opportunity as Joe Beaver. The current system is very fair and democratic, but fairness and democracy are not the hallmarks of big-time sports.

Bull riding is the marquee rodeo event, and—by an exponential factor—the most dangerous of the seven sanctioned events of professional rodeo. All of which has created the second major problem for Hatchell and the PRCA: the top bull riders years ago broke away and started their own Professional Bull Riders Association. The bull riders are staging their own finals event during the same October week as the Texas Stampede in Dallas.

Hatchell looks on the bright side. He says it shows that an individual rodeo event can stand on its own and that is a positive for the sport. But the PRCA must contend with the fact that its most exciting cowboys and animals are off somewhere else.

 

Photo: David Bowser

New King of Cowboy
Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association commissioner Steve Hatchell has his work cut out for him: how to turn clean-cut, wholesome cowboys into well-paid superstars.
By Shad Rowe

Horse Sense for City Slickers
To help you discern an appaloosa from an Arabian, we present a guide to horses of Texas
By Elisa Bock

8 Seconds in Stephenville
If you asked any of the 15,000 people who live in Stephenville how it became the Rodeo Capital of the World, "damned if I know" is the answer you’ll probably get. The simple answer is this town is an oasis for the Western way of life.
By Jeff Bowden

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New King Of The Cowboys

The country boys of rodeo have been overlooked and underpaid. Now they want their share of the big-money sports pie, and Steve Hatchell’s job is to get it for them.

Rodeo can make money, as professional athletes, Cowboys have untapped marketing potential. A throwback to simpler times, cowboys are physically attractive, hard working, polite, and clean-cut.

Another advantage is that rodeo is not expensive. The average ticket price for a pro event is about $12. For that you get to step back in time, wear your own boots, smell the horses, and see some very scary moments. A decent seat at a Stars game is at least $60. Compared to the NHL, NBA, or NFL, pro rodeo is a bargain.

Professional rodeo is affordable, exciting, wholesome, and uniquely American. Steve Hatchell’s "problem," not surprisingly, is that pro rodeo’s leading participants want to make more money—and they’re looking to him to produce more opportunity. Hatchell, in turn, is looking at the PGA as a model of how to do it.

In professional golf, the pinnacle is winning one of the majors: the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, or the PGA. The way pro rodeo is now set up, the winter and summer finals, both of which take place in Las Vegas before sellout crowds, are the majors. To qualify, a cowboy must be a top money-winner in any of the designated 100 bigger events of the 700 that the PRCA sanctions. The Texas Stampede, officially known as the Copenhagen Cup Finals of the Summer Wrangler Pro Rodeo Tour, is a "major" without question. With $700,000 in prize money, it’s the second richest event in rodeo. "The best of the best will be competing in a finals event that is at the top of every pro cowboy’s list," says Hatchell.

Will the popular and commercial appeal of pro rodeo reach the mainstream? Has pro rodeo’s time come? If hockey can become the fad sport in a place like Dallas—far, far from the frozen ponds of Canada—anything can happen. Steve Hatchell and his cowboys may be about to kick up a little dust.

Photo: Jay Dickman

Horse Sense for City Slickers

Think all horses the same? Think again.

Wild Thing: Arabian 

An Arabian has the spirit of a rock star: glamorously wild. "They have a natural pride that is evident in their personality," says Paul Kostial, regional director of the International Arabian Horse Association. Their strong backs and arched necks reflect the courage and stamina of the breed. A word to the wise: tame the beast or it will tame you.

Info: International Arabian Horse Association Region IX, 214-373-7215.
Where to Buy: Josh Quintus, Colonial Wood Training Center, Arlington. 817-461-7461. 45 Arabians.
Cost: $1,000-$100,000.

Art in Motion: Appaloosa
The Jackson Pollock-splotches that spread from rump to shoulders are an appaloosa’s distinguishing feature. This horse excels in all areas of equine prowess—at the family farm, racetrack, or jumping arena—because of its eager-to-please nature. "The diversity of the colors and coat patterns are unbelievable," says Judy Rich, president of the Dallas/Ft. Worth Appaloosa Horse Club.

Info: Dallas/Ft. Worth Appaloosa Horse Club, 972-596-0788.
Where to Buy: Jackie Lee Jackson, Top Step Farm, Aubrey. 940-365-2081. 150 appaloosas.
Cost: $3,500-$30,000.

Tiny Dancer: Miniature
After more than 400 years, breeders have perfected the toy horse. Miniatures are used primarily as show horses or pets. These mini-horses can only be ridden by children, but there is something to be said for a horse that is less than 3 feet tall. How cute is that? "They are a lot easier to care for. They require less space and less food," says Duane McPherson, executive director of the American Miniature Horse Association.

Info: American Miniature Horse Association, 817-783-5600.
Where to Buy: Gwen and Louis Springfield, Fantasia Farms, Wills Point. 903-873-4577. 138 miniatures.
Cost: $700-$70,000.


Tough Guy: Morgan
Morgan horses are compact symbols of strength and power. Characteristics of this breed include an upright neck and distinctive head with large eyes and small ears. "They are the only breed that the American government bred for cavalry horses because they have stamina and endurance," says Georgie Green, regional director of American Morgan Horse Association. That makes them ideal work horses for a ranch or farm. "You can ride them all day long."

Info: American Morgan Horse Association, 972-727-3663.
Where to Buy: Georgie Green, Roadshow Morgans at Windswept Place, Allen. 972-727-3663. 40 morgans.
Cost: $900-$100,000.

Pretty Boy: American Paint
The paint is the American West’s Cadillac—the breed of choice for style and reliability. Most have white coats sprinkled with islands of color that can be any shape anywhere on their bodies. The value of an American paint is based on the beauty of its coat, not necessarily its athletic ability. "They are close to a quarter horse, but they have color," says Lana Davis, corresponding secretary of the Texas Paint Horse Club.

 Info: Texas Paint Horse Club,
817-431-9999.
Where to Buy: Gary and Linda Gordon, Fossil Gate Farm, Argyle.
942-240-8071. 95 paints.
Cost: $3,000-$150,000.

Working Man: Quarter Horse
Think of the quarter as the Honda Accord of horses. Their calm disposition and speed make them perfect companions on the range or in the gate, which makes them the favorite of modern cowboys, especially in the rodeo. They are very mild-mannered and can even be lackadaisical, which makes them popular for farmers, jumpers, and beginning riders. "Quarter horses are stronger because they are more muscled," says Rob Werstler, director of racing at the Texas Quarter Horse Association.

Info: Texas Quarter Horse Association, 512-458-5202.
Where to Buy: Carol Rose, Carol Rose Ranch, Gainesville. 940-665-9304. 250 quarters.
Cost: $500-$500,000.

All-American: American Saddlebred
This breed should have the stamp "Made in the U.S.A." Famous for its war record, the American saddlebred was the breed of choice for generals Lee, Grant, Sherman, and Jackson during the Civil War because of its courageous spirit and strength. After pulling rank, the American saddlebred steadily developed into a show horse. This breed contains high-steppers known for their proud carriage and attitude. "They’re extremely athletic, but they have an elegance and grace," says Koren Mercer, president of the North Texas American Saddlebred Horse Association.

Info: North Texas American Saddlebred Horse Association, 972-529-5119.
Where to Buy: Patty Milligan,
Milligan Stables, Plano. 972-422-5096.
61 saddlebreds.
Cost: $3,000-$2 million.

The Champion: Thoroughbred
Place your bets on this extremely pure breed. Known for its ability to sustain speed over long distances, the thoroughbred is a horse of sheer will. This horse has a low head and a lighter, longer neck than other breeds so that it can win by a nose. Just beware: they are hot-blooded and have a prissiness that can make you curse. "They are the world’s finest equine athlete," says Judy Rosson, advertising and marketing director of the Texas Thoroughbred Association.

Info: Texas Thoroughbred Association, 512-458-6133.
Where to Buy: Kirsten Johnson, Oak Creek Farm, Pilot Point. 940-686-5596. 70 thoroughbreds.
Cost: $1,500-$2.5 million.


Note: There are Adopt-a-Racehorse programs where people can get a thoroughbred or quarter horse for anywhere from $400-$1,500. Horses have been injured or lacked success on the racetrack. Groups that sponsor these programs are Racehorse Outplacement Assistance Network (ROAN) at www.quarterpole.com/ROAN/adopt.htm, United Pegasus Foundation at www.unitedpegasus.com and Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation at www.trfinc.org.

8 Seconds in Stephenville

A bull ride lasts eight seconds. But a cowboy is a cowboy forever.

By Jess Bowden

01 Nod when you’re ready

Ash Potter has already smoked a dozen hand-rolled cigarettes when he climbs over the rail. "Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer begins, "in chute number two...." Between smokes, Potter prepared the fingers on his left hand by bending them back almost to his wrist. He stretched his legs, his back, and his neck. He put on a knee brace, chaps, and a Kevlar vest. Like many rough stock rodeo riders—bull riders, saddle bronc riders, and bareback riders—Potter took off his belt and buckle. Skinny cowboys tie their front belt loops together with string. Potter’s are not tied; he’s built like Popeye. Earlier, in an empty pen, Potter whirled in a manic preparatory dance as if he were inside a tornado.

"...all the way from Australia by way of Stephenville, Texas...." Potter races his glove up and down the rope to make the rope sticky, then wraps it around his hand. A dozen people are crowded around him: chute bosses, contestants, rodeo clowns, the man who owns the bull. At the last second Potter smashes down his hat and gets into riding position.

Potter has drawn bull number 740 at the Top O’ Texas Rodeo in Pampa, near Amarillo; he knew it days ago. He called around to inquire about its tendencies. "He’s not rank, but he’s a good little bull for me," Potter told me in the car on the way up. In bull riding, a rank bull offers the possibility of a winning score or a broken neck. Potter is fresh off a win in Arkansas where he rode a rank bull to a $5,000 payday."C’mon, let’s hear it for Ash Potter!" With a nod Potter signals the gate open and the detonation begins. For the first four seconds he rides tall and square, shadowing the bull’s every move. Then the bull lunges left, into Potter’s rope hand. Potter tries to recover, to pull himself back square, but the bull goes left again, sucking Potter down into the well—a deadly vortex of hooves and horns. The clowns close in, preparing to pull him to safety and to distract the bull. Then Potter is sailing clear. He is limping toward his hat when the buzzer sounds. "Folks," the announcer says, "there’s another cowboy going home with nothing. Give him a hand."

02 Stay off your back pockets

Potter, 28, is not a sulker, which helps make him a favorite on the pro rodeo circuit. "What happened?" I ask as he takes off his glove and chaps. "I don’t think he knew which way he wanted to go," he answers, still jittery from the adrenaline rush. "He’s young." Potter stuffs his rope and bell into a bag where he keeps a Bible with a cowboy on the cover. He claims not to read it, and the Bible’s condition backs him up, but he is not inclined to remove it. When he finishes packing, Potter rolls and lights another cigarette and we walk to a tent that serves free flank steak and baked potatoes to contestants. At the other end of the tent, a woman is giving free haircuts. At 10 p.m., her chair is empty. She sizes us up and looks disappointed when I tell her that Potter and I need to eat and run; we have a six-hour drive back to Stephenville, the Rodeo Cowboy Capital of the World and Ash Potter’s adopted hometown.

Most of the 15,000 people in Stephenville, located an hour southwest of Fort Worth, can’t tell you why or when the town started attracting rodeo cowboys. "Damned if I know," is a common reply. In the same breath, however, almost any resident can rattle off the names of 10 world-class bull riders, saddle bronc riders, bareback riders, steer wrestlers, calf ropers, team ropers, and barrel racers who live there, any two of whom they saw at Wal-Mart or Circle-T Farm and Ranch that very morning. On my first day in Stephenville, before I met Potter and followed him on a two-day swing through Texas, a woman overheard me asking for the names of rodeo cowboys at a local pizza place. She slipped me a note. "You need to talk to him," she said, pointing to the name at the top. "Just don’t tell him I said so. He’s my ex-husband."

About the town’s rodeo cowboy history, this much has been recorded: in the 1940s, Everett Colburn based his stock contracting business—supplying the animals for rodeos—in Dublin, 11 miles southwest of Stephenville. Colburn’s partner was Gene Autry. Together they put on some of the biggest rodeos in the nation, including annual events at the old Madison Square Garden in New York and the Boston Garden. When the season was over, cowboys followed the stock back to Erath County. The cowboys bought houses and ranches near Stephenville and rodeoed through the winter.

Today, the stock contracting business is scattered all over the country, but cowboys keep moving to Stephenville because their heroes are all there; because the nation’s leading collegiate rodeo program is there; because land is relatively cheap; because the town is in the heart of rodeo-rich Texas; and because it’s close to DFW Airport if they need to fly to the Calgary Stampede. Then there’s the comfort of knowing that the best rodeo cowboy doctor in the nation, Dr. Tandy Freeman, is in Dallas.

In Stephenville, a cowboy or cowgirl can talk about his or her dream of "winning the world" at the local dance hall and not have to explain that they mean a championship in one of seven rodeo events. The language is known, the clothes are familiar, and the culture is deep and ingrained. In Stephenville, it’s the animal-rights activists and vegetarians who attract stares and whispers.

The town is an oasis for the Western way of life.

03 Stay Loose

The roster of rodeo cowboys and cowgirls who live in Stephenville is long and multi-generational. Whit Keeney lives in Stephenville. Keeney is the Marlboro Man without the emphysema. He’s tall and handsome and is rumored to have an eye for the ladies. Keeney has just recovered from a broken shoulder; he got bucked off a horse. Neither the injury nor the manner in which he incurred it makes him unusual in Stephenville, except for the additional fact that Whit Keeney is 84 years old. Keeney set the steer wrestling world record with a time of 2.4 seconds and roped with Will Rogers. Even when he was past his prime, Keeney kept roping and riding. He won the national old-timers rodeo all-around championship eight years in a row.

Harry Tompkins, a world champion from the ’40s and ’50s, lives south of town. Tom Reeves officially lists his home in Eagle Butte, S.D., but he lives here. Reeves has qualified for the national finals rodeo in each of the last 16 years and, as of July, was the top-ranked saddle bronc rider in the world.

Tuff Hedeman lives just north of Stephenville. His name will be forever linked in cowboy mythology to the late Lane Frost, his best friend and subject of the movie 8 Seconds, who was killed at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo after a bull rammed him in the back. Hedeman is also famous for successfully riding the rankest bull ever, Bodacious, in 1993. Two years later, when Hedeman tried for a second time, the 1,800-pound bull whipped his head back and hit Hedeman in the face in one of rodeo’s most disturbing wrecks. The impact necessitated the complete rebuilding of Hedeman’s face.

In 1994, Hedeman, fellow bull riders, and Stephenville businessman Ron Pack started the Professional Bull Riders Association. The PBR, in effect, extricated the most dangerous, most glamorous event in rodeo—bull riding—and created its own league with separate events and large cash purses. The PBR tour now has 29 stops and its own national finals and attracts the very best riders and bulls.

Stephenville is simply full of professional cowboys. Jim Sharp lives there. Sharp is a two-time world-champion bull rider and is widely considered to be the best natural bull rider alive. He was the first cowboy to ride all 10 bulls during the national finals—one every night—the rodeo equivalent of hitting 10 home runs in a row during the World Series. "Don’t bother asking him how he does it," one cowboy cautioned me. "He doesn’t know himself."

Ty Murray lives in Stephenville. Murray won the all-around cowboy world championship six years in a row, from 1989 to 1994. The bull-riding Carrillo brothers, Adam and Gilbert, are there, as is champion roper Martin Lucero. Cody Ohl, two-time, calf-roping world champion and wild man, lives there. Ohl, as of July, was the third-ranked calf roper and fifth-ranked all-around cowboy in the world. Troy Dunn used to live in Stephenville until he moved back to Australia. Dunn won the world bull-riding championship in 1998.

J.J. Hampton lives in Stephenville, too. She’s the two-time, all-around women’s rodeo champion.

04 Get between the bull’s shoulders

Tarleton State University has had as much to do with Stephenville’s reputation as the Rodeo Cowboy Capital of the World as any other local institution. Tarleton opened in 1899 as a prep school and college. In 1917, after encountering financial problems, Tarleton was placed by the state legislature in the system that eventually became Texas A&M. Today, Tarleton has 7,400 undergraduate and graduate students on campus and satellite campuses in Killeen, Fort Worth, and Granbury. Twelve hundred of those students are enrolled in various agriculture programs. The school runs a 2,000-acre farm on the edge of town and raises everything from chickens to pigs to dairy cows.

Rumors circulate occasionally of a name change linking Tarleton more directly to A&M, but local opposition is deep, reflecting Stephenville’s fierce independence. "I don’t want to be a little Aggie," one local businessman told me. "I could have gone to A&M if I’d wanted to be an Aggie. But I didn’t."

The Student Development Center, located at the corner of Lillian and Vanderbilt, houses the campus store, a cafeteria, student mailboxes, and various administrative offices. On the ground floor, directly beside the information booth, is a glass entry to a suite of offices. The lettering on the glass reads: "Dean of Students/Rodeo Coach." When I push through the double doors, coach Bob Doty is talking to his wife, who is a career counselor at Tarleton. In a sense, Doty is, too. Chad Biesemeyer was one of his steer wrestlers last year. Biesemeyer won so much money on the pro circuit that he quit school to rodeo. Another student, Jennifer Smith Driver, recently turned pro. Driver is a barrel racer who won the college all-around for Tarleton last year.

Every year a fresh batch of cowboys and cowgirls show up at Tarleton with a horse trailer or a knack for riding rough stock. On the day I meet Doty, he’s on his way to meet a prospect at the university’s 19-acre rodeo facility. She wants to board her horse for the fall semester. In Stephenville, even the apartment complexes have stables. At one, on the west side of town, a student can rent a two bedroom unit for $505 a month and get a 25-horse stable thrown in for $520, plus expenses. "Wrangler jeans and ball caps are just what people wear around here," Doty tells me. Doty is stocky and, like most cowboys, sunburned from the cheeks down. "It’s not a preppy school," he says. "Most of our students come from towns with less than 15,000 people. Rodeo people are comfortable here. They don’t stick out."

Seventy-five students rodeoed for Tarleton last year, 25 on some sort of scholarship. The team is the largest of the 199 colleges and universities nationwide that compete in rodeo. The men won the national championship in 1967; the women won in 1969, 1970, and 1971. The women came in second last year. Despite the fact that the school has had one of the top 10 rodeo programs in the nation for the last three years, Doty sometimes claims that football holds a bigger place in the heart of Stephenville than rodeo. He’s got a point: the high school team won the state 4-A championship in 1993, 1994, 1998, and 1999. The ’93 team never lost a game.

"Bob," I say, "maybe that’s so. But yours is the only college I’ve ever been to where the rodeo coach is given the same prominence as the dean."

"I guess that’s right," he says.

Tarleton State University has had as much to do with Stephenville’s reputation as the Rodeo Cowboy Capital of the World as any other local institution. Tarleton opened in 1899 as a prep school and college. In 1917, after encountering financial problems, Tarleton was placed by the state legislature in the system that eventually became Texas A&M. Today, Tarleton has 7,400 undergraduate and graduate students on campus and satellite campuses in Killeen, Fort Worth, and Granbury. Twelve hundred of those students are enrolled in various agriculture programs. The school runs a 2,000-acre farm on the edge of town and raises everything from chickens to pigs to dairy cows.

Rumors circulate occasionally of a name change linking Tarleton more directly to A&M, but local opposition is deep, reflecting Stephenville’s fierce independence. "I don’t want to be a little Aggie," one local businessman told me. "I could have gone to A&M if I’d wanted to be an Aggie. But I didn’t."

The Student Development Center, located at the corner of Lillian and Vanderbilt, houses the campus store, a cafeteria, student mailboxes, and various administrative offices. On the ground floor, directly beside the information booth, is a glass entry to a suite of offices. The lettering on the glass reads: "Dean of Students/Rodeo Coach." When I push through the double doors, coach Bob Doty is talking to his wife, who is a career counselor at Tarleton. In a sense, Doty is, too. Chad Biesemeyer was one of his steer wrestlers last year. Biesemeyer won so much money on the pro circuit that he quit school to rodeo. Another student, Jennifer Smith Driver, recently turned pro. Driver is a barrel racer