LOVINGTON, N.M. – Rodeo isn’t just a piece of the puzzle at the annual Lea County Fair and Rodeo.
In this part of the country, rodeo is a way of life, a celebration of a lifestyle that is woven into the fabric of the landscape.
Lea County is home to rodeo greatness, where gold buckles are forged with sweat dispensed through hard work passion. It’s where Jake McClure developed his tremendous talents and where Troy Fort set the ground work for world titles and Sonny Davis battled through a ProRodeo Hall of Fame career.
It’s where the Coopers established a family legacy and a man named Allen carried home a record number of PRCA championships. It’s also home to one of the biggest and best Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events, a the Lea County Fair and Rodeo, part of the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour and home to the greatest cowboys and cowgirls in the sport during its four performances set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10-Saturday, Aug. 13.
“Lovington is a good rodeo and has been for a long time,” said bull rider Wesley Silcox, the 2007 world champion from Payson, Utah, who won the Lea County Fair and Rodeo title last year with an 89-point ride on Carr Pro Rodeo’s Charlie’s Bandito. “It meant a lot to me, because it bumped me up in the tour standings. Because of the money I won in Lovington last year, I was able to go to Puyallup (Wash.) and Omaha (Neb.).”
Puyallup is home to the Justin Boots Playoffs, and it takes the top 24 tour contestants in each event. The top 12 after that rodeo qualify for the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha, and both stops offer a large purse for competitors. That’s what rodeo is about and why the tour is so important to cowboys and cowgirls.
It’s why they want to be in southeastern New Mexico in August, where the only thing hotter than triple digit temperatures is the action inside Jake McClure Arena.
“I used to enter Lovington when they had just $3,000 added,” said saddle bronc rider Cody Taton, the 2008 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo average winner from Corona, N.M. “I drove from Duluth, Ga., to Lovington to Yankton, S.D., one time just because I love that rodeo so much. I’ve always loved that rodeo. It’s a good rodeo, and the horses are usually good, plus it’s a great committee. They work really hard, and you can see that.
Taton was referring to a much smaller purse than the one that’s available today. The “added” money is referred to as sponsorship dollars in each event, and it’s added to the entry fees to come up with the total available purse. The 2011 version of Lea County’s festival provides more than three times the added money.
That’s important, because money doesn’t just allow cowboys and cowgirls to make ends meet; it’s also how they win titles. The contestant with the most money won in each event at the end of the season is crowned world champion.
“Winning Lovington really helped a lot,” said Louie Brunson of Interior, S.D., who won saddle bronc riding last year with an 88-point ride on Carr Pro Rodeo’s True Lies. “I was in a bit of a slump, and it just felt good. Plus the money helped me get to Puyallup. I don’t think I had any tour money won until that rodeo.”
The annual rodeo takes place in Jake McClure Arena. It’s only fitting to celebrate just the second world champion calf roper in the history of the PRCA. McClure was one of the most renowned cowboys of his era who died way too young but who was so well recognized that he was in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2002, 62 years after his death. But it’s a telling tale of the great rodeo legacy in Lea County, which is almost as old as the sport itself.
The next generation of rodeo will be showcased inside the fantastic arena, whether it’s Trevor Brazile, the most celebrated cowboy in the PRCA today, or J.W. Harris, the Texas bull rider who has won the last three gold buckles. They know the path to the next world championship goes through Lovington.
“It’s a good rodeo that has a lot of money, so if you do well, it can really help,” said bull rider Howdy Cloud, a three-time NFR qualifier from Kountz, Texas. “Now it’s a tour rodeo, so you definitely want to hit it. We make sure we’re there every year.”