Sweethearts of the Rodeo
An old event venue can be as com- fortable as a well-worn cowboy boot. Sure, it may look a little worse for the
wear, but it’s proven itself over the years and
there’s that reliable familiarity.
Daly City, California’s Cow Palace, a
stone’s throw from San Francisco, is one
The facility was constructed in the
depths of the Great Depression as part of
a Works Progress Administration (WPA)
program to build a home for the Grand
National Rodeo, prompting press wags to
label it a “palace for cows.”
Thankfully, the name stuck.
Since opening in 1941, the imposing
concrete barn has been an old friend to all
those who live near her.
Tech giant Salesforce held its Dreamfest
there in 2016, but only used the “
re-imagined” parking lot—cleverly dubbed
“The Cloud Palace”—when the indoor
offering was deemed too antiquated for a
30,000-strong show boasting U2.
Modern-day event planners have issues
with The Cow Palace because it takes so
such money to spruce up, and you might
even catch the whiff of cow from the lower
bays. But that’s part of the charm to me,
and being such, the real warm fuzzies are
sure to occur when the Grand National
Rodeo comes calling.
Once the top rodeo in the world, the
vaunted Grand National now plays second
fiddle as a qualifier for the National Finals
Rodeo, held in Las Vegas like everything
bigger and bolder, new and improved.
I got to cover the Grand National Rodeo
in October 2018 with my niece, Katie Frank,
digital editor of Western Horseman magazine. Some of my observations follow.
The Power Behind the Throne
Flying U Rodeo Company is the engine that
drives the Grand National, supplying the
specialized livestock and other essentials
that power the spectacle of Americana.
Founded by rodeo legend Cotton Rosser,
who was forced to abandon competing
when he nearly lost a leg in a horrific
hole-boring auger accident in 1956, Flying
U also brings the showbiz to the ring by
producing the emotive opening ceremonies at the Grand National Rodeo, the
National Finals Rodeo and the Houston
Livestock show. Although 90-years-young,
Cotton is most definitely the master of ceremonies, surveying the proceedings either
from his golf cart or riding into the ring on
his trusty white steed.
But while Cotton is out and about making sure everything meets his high standard of entertainment, his daughter Cindy
Rosser—the business end of the Rosser rodeo empire—is working hard with her crew
in one of the spartan interior offices to herd
the tangle of logistics that accompanies any
show relying on that hard-to-corral combo
of cowboys and livestock.
Both seem bred to be wild, and Cindy’s
the one who keeps them on the trail.
I soon discovered that Cindy is but one
of the many multigenerational stories that
follow the rodeo around, such as Ellen
Carr, a 70-year-old former competitor
whose granddaughter tested her skill at
jackpot barrel racing while her mom super-
vised the proceedings at the arena gate to
make sure everything was just so.
I also discovered that rodeo is in one’s
blood, and neither age or society’s pressure
to conform to a life of structured monotony
can tame devotees such as Cathey Valler-
ga, a 68-year-old jackpot barrel racer who
gave all the credit for her previous-year win
to her horse, but whose eyes lit up when
asked about the secret of her longevity.
“Drink beer and raise hell,” she offered,
with a mischievous smile and a wild twin-
kle in her eyes before entering the ring and
driving her horse like a bat out of hell.
Sure, the rodeo certainly evokes images
of sad-faced yet funny rodeo clowns, the
elegant athleticism of barrel racers, some
barbecue and maybe a beer or two.
And yes, it is at its heart about the
death-defying danger of bucking broncs,
bull riding and on this night the headlining
entertainment provided by French bull
jumper Emmanuel Lataste.
But tonight it was about stories told just for
the asking by the folks who make rodeo their
life and bequeathment, and that old concrete
barn that has a few stories of her own.
ROPIN’ AND RIDIN’
COTTON ROSSER AND KATIE FRANK
By Tyler Davidson
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The Cow Palace and Grand National Rodeo are a perfect pair