What's key to the Clovis Rodeo's record of success and safety? A dirty little secret.
Sure -- the cowboys, cowgirls and animals are stars of the event, which runs through Sunday in downtown Clovis. Professional Bull Riders are up first tonight, followed by ropers, horse riders, barrel racers and kids hanging on for dear life to bleating sheep.
But there wouldn't be a show without the very earth beneath their feet and hooves. We're talking dirt here -- the arena soil, which is worked and manicured and fussed over to prevent slips and spills that could cause serious injuries.
At the recent PBR event at the Save Mart Center, where dirt was trucked in and poured over concrete, bull Pillow Talk broke his leg and had to be destroyed. A few other bulls had tough footing and fell.
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That doesn't happen at the Clovis Rodeo, which has a permanent dirt arena and a crew that treats it with loving care.
"We want it as optimum as possible for the athletes, and I mean animals," said Vince Genco, the Clovis Rodeo's arena director. "They need to keep their footing and get good traction to buck and run their best."
Former rider Rocky Steagall of Sanger sees it as critical to the sport's public image. Steagall retired from riding bucking broncos in 2002, but he'll be at the arena this week as a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association judge.
"Animal welfare is so important to show nothing is inhumane in our sport," Steagall said. "If one of them slips or falls, we'll stop the rodeo and rework the ground. It doesn't happen often."
Not everyone is impressed. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is opposed to rodeos no matter how safe the surface is in the arena.
"It still doesn't eliminate all the other cruelties," PETA spokeswoman Lisa Wathne said from her home office in Seattle. Bulls and horses can be hurt falling to the ground, getting spurred or being pulled by ropes, she said.
Genco disagrees, saying the rodeo association has laid down detailed guidelines for humane treatment of livestock.
"We've had no incidents at the Clovis Rodeo," he said. "We're not going to abuse animals, some that are worth six figures. It just doesn't make sense."
There's also an on-site veterinarian, Dr. Troy Ford, who has worked 18 Clovis Rodeos and oversees every event. He inspects the stock before and after they compete, tends to any injuries and writes a report he turns in to the state Department of Consumer Affairs veterinary division.
"Without a doubt, the Clovis Rodeo has been very safe," Ford said. "These guys take care of their animals. They won't be in business long if they didn't."
Taking care of the rodeo arena ground, though, is key. Conditions differ for each event. What's good for bulls and broncs isn't what's best for steer wrestling and barrel racing.
Most important, Genco said, is laying a good base. Some years, sand is hauled in to loosen the clay soil. The rodeo even has contingency plans in case it rains. Special implements were brought in this week to make a good crust on the ground so any moisture or rain will run off.
For bull and bronco riding, the area closest to the chutes needs to be firm but not too slick so the animals get good traction for bucking.
"We put a base of decomposed granite, then soil on top so the bulls can explode out of the chutes," Genco said. "We replace it every year and keep working it."
For steer wrestling, calf roping and barrel racing, the soil is loosened so the animals can take quick corners. In barrel racing, the ground is worked after every 10 riders.
"It's something that can make a huge difference," said Wayne Brooks, back for his seventh year as Clovis Rodeo announcer. "It's an event where 1/100th of a second decides whether you throw your entry fees out the window or win some money."
For steer wrestling, it's important that ruts are made smooth and the ground is free of moisture.
"They're big guys hitting the ground at 30 mph," Steagall said. "You don't want them hitting any clumps or sliding on wet ground."
Stock contractor John Growney of Red Bluff, who has been supplying the Clovis Rodeo for 28 years, said it does the best job on ground maintenance of the 25 rodeos he works with every year.
"Our stock bucks so much better there. It's because of the ground," said Growney, who is bringing 30 bulls and 35 horses to Clovis. "They've got the best drainage system on the West Coast."
Clovis Rodeo dirt this time of year gets prodded and poked and disced and rolled to iron out any inconsistencies. PBR and PRCA officials, Clovis Rodeo's staff, judges and the four stock contractors all take turns inspecting the grounds and offering their two cents.
Then the heavy equipment is brought in for the dirty work. Circular harrows spin and rake the top of the ground. Spring-tooth harrows break up the ground, and rollers flatten it.
When the rodeo is over, reports are written with suggestions to make it better next time. "It's kind of a science, a fine line. We're very conscientious about this," Genco said. "We've done it so many years it's like second nature."