LOVINGTON, N.M. – Community is the foundation for the eight-day Lea County Fair and Rodeo.
It’s why ticket prices are just $5. It’s why the Lea County Commission underwrites the event, which begins Friday, Aug. 5, and has been a southeastern New Mexico showcase for 76 years. It’s why the rodeo is part of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Wrangler Million Dollar Tour.
“I think it helps with our entries and with the quality of the contestants,” said Greg Massey, a fair board member who serves as chairman of the rodeo committee. “You get the top 20 percent of the contestants in each event; for our spectators, I think that’s important. You get to see the best of the best.”
It’s also one of three tour rodeos that take place the week beginning Monday, Aug. 8, joining Hermiston, Ore., and Sikeston, Mo. There are 24 tour rodeos across the country, and all are recognized for the large purses available to contestants. That’s a major drawing card for the top cowboys and cowgirls in ProRodeo.
“The tour saved my backside last year,” said 2008 world champion bareback rider Justin McDaniel, who won $80,000 in just four months last season while recuperating from back surgery. “Those tour rodeos offer a lot of money, and I won enough at those to sneak into the playoffs. Then I did pretty well there, too.”
He got a major boost in Lovington. The four performances of this year’s rodeo will take place at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10-Saturday, Aug. 13. Most of the biggest names in the sport will be on hand fighting for every dollar they can get. Not only does money won in Lovington count toward the world standings and qualifications to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, also it counts toward the tour standings.
The top 24 contestants in each event qualify for the Justin Boots Playoffs from Sept. 9-11 in Puyallup, Wash. From there, the top 12 on the money list earn a spot in the Justin Boots Championships from Sept. 22-24 in Omaha, Neb. Both events feature high-dollar opportunities for the contestants in the field – that not only helps pay bills, but it’s also how gold buckles are won; the contestant in each event with the most money earned at the end of the season is crowned world champion.
“Being on tour helps fill our rodeo with national champions,” Massey said. “It brings the best of the best. The contestants want to follow the tour rodeos, because the money they earn in a tour rodeo leads them to the first playoff stop in Puyallup. That’s big for them.”
It’s also big for the fair, rodeo and Lea County communities.
“A few years ago, the attendance was down, entries were down,” he said, noting that Pete Carr’s Carr Pro Rodeo became the primary stock contractor a few years ago. “Since we changed the format with our rodeo and got Pete in with us, we’ve maxed out on all of our entries and our attendance is up.”
That, too, makes it fun for the cowboys and cowgirls who make their livings on the rodeo trail.
“Lovington has been a good rodeo, and I really like that it’s part of the tour now,” said McDaniel, who last year placed third at the Lea County Fair and Rodeo, earning $2,520 in the process. “That moved me into the top 24 on tour.”
McDaniel didn’t begin his 2010 season until early June, so he was still making up ground by early August. By the time the season concluded at the end of September, the 24-year-old cowboy had moved into the top 15 in the world standings and earned a fourth straight trip to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Once there, he placed in eight of 10 go-rounds, winning the average with the best cumulative score and earning $103,189 to move to No. 2 in the final standings.
And the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour got the Porum, Okla., cowboy to that point.
“You’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity you can get,” McDaniel said. “In Lovington, I got on the best bucking horse in the world, Real Deal. That’s the opportunity I needed at that time, and it helped me on down the road.”
Every cowboy has his gold buckle dreams, and they must follow McDaniel’s lead in realizing them. Being in southeastern New Mexico in August is critical for most, and that falls back on the organizers and volunteers who work all year to bring the best show to Lovington.
“There are a lot of ranch people around there, so they know a lot about the rodeo,” said Paul Peterson, one of the pickup men in Lovington who has worked the Wrangler NFR three times. “It’s always been a pretty good rodeo, but the committee has stepped up and added a lot of money. That’s been a good drawing factor.”