Marek Warszawski

Eight members of rodeo’s first family will compete in Clovis. A new book tells their story

'There's a whole herd of 'em': Excerpt from a Wright family documentary

Watch a clip from a mini-documentary of the Wright family — several generations of Utah ranchers who have dominated professional saddle bronc riding.
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Watch a clip from a mini-documentary of the Wright family — several generations of Utah ranchers who have dominated professional saddle bronc riding.

Eight members of rodeo’s most successful family will saddle up at this weekend’s 104th Clovis Rodeo.

But before Cody Wright, a two-time world champion in saddle bronc riding (2008 and ’10), younger brother Spencer (world champion in 2014), and sons Rusty and Ryder (world champion in 2017) make it to Clovis for Sunday’s performance, there are stops at other rodeos in Lufkin, Texas, on Thursday; Corpus Christi, Texas, on Friday; and Lakeside outside San Diego on Saturday.

A separate truck, equipped with bunks in the bed for sleeping, contains Cody’s younger brothers Jesse (world champion in 2012), Jake and Alex, plus brother-in-law CoBurn Bradshaw.

The journey starts and ends in the Wrights’ hometown of Milford, Utah. Total up the distances and you get 4,137 miles and, if Google Maps can be believed, more than 62 hours in the truck. Over the course of four days.

All of that distance and time for four eight-second rides on a bucking horse – provided they stay aboard – and a chance at prize money in order to bolster their season earnings in the PRCA standings.

“Making a big circle out there and chasing the almighty dollar,” Cody Wright said with a chuckle.

The lives of the Wright family, from Bill and Evelyn Wright to their 13 children (Cody is the oldest) to many more grandchildren, is painstakingly chronicled in a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Branch of the New York Times. Who happens to be a former Fresno Bee sports columnist as well as my friend.

“The Last Cowboys,” scheduled for a May 15 release from publisher W.W. Norton & Company, is the result of more than three years’ worth of Branch’s thorough reporting. Readers not only get an inside look at the grind of professional rodeo, they’re also immersed into the world of cattle raising. For 150 years, the Wright family has run cattle at their ranch on Smith Mesa in southern Utah outside Zion National Park.

But for how much longer? As the West is transformed by urbanization and tourism, ravaged by drought and rearranged by public-land disputes and shifting federal policies, it’s an open question that weaves through the book.

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Author/journalist John Branch

“The Last Cowboys” is an expansion of a six-page feature story Branch wrote about the Wrights for the Times in 2015.

“The book covers a lot of big, arching themes that are very important and hard to explain very well in a newspaper story,” Branch said. “There’s a lot of material there. The Wrights are a fascinating family. Rodeo is fascinating. It gives me some room and space to really get into what these people go through in their daily lives.”

In order to write about the Wrights, Branch practically had to become one himself.

He covered the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas for three consecutive years and was given almost unlimited access. He rode along with Cody Wright and others on their long drives between rodeos, sometimes through the night and sometimes sleeping in the back of the truck. He attended multiple “branding days” at Smith Mesa, one of the rare occasions when the entire family gets together, and spent extensive time with patriarch Bill Wright at the cattle’s winter range. He went to holiday dinners, birthday parties and high school graduations — and never felt unwelcome.

“At some points I was hoping I wasn’t taking advantage of their kindness,” Branch said. “Because none of them are rude enough to say, ‘You’re kind of bothering us. Can you please go away?’ ”

Sure doesn’t sound like that.

“I’d like to think he’s a friend,” the 41-year-old Cody Wright said of Branch. “If he would’ve stuck around much longer, he might have been a family member.”

“He was around so much you kind of got to where you didn’t look at him as the reporter,” added Rusty Wright, Cody’s 22-year-old oldest son. “He started to be part of the family and you didn’t mind having him around. Honestly it’s kind of weird these last couple years not seeing him that much.”

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Saddle bronc rider Cody Wright leans over the rail to speak with son Rusty Wright during an appearance at the Clovis Rodeo. A new book titled "The Last Cowboys" by Pulitzer Prize winner and former Bee columnist John Branch chronicles how the Wright family uses its rodeo earnings to raise cattle and continue their way of life. John Branch Special to The Bee

The result is a 275-page book, both detailed and sweeping, that will appeal to rodeo enthusiasts as well as those with an interest in a way of life that has been heavily romanticized in movies and TV shows but little understood.

“I’m hoping people who are rodeo fans and live out in the West can appreciate it,” Branch said. “But I also hope that people in New York that have little notion of what a rodeo is or have never heard of saddle bronc riding will learn something, too.”

The Clovis Rodeo makes a couple appearances in the book. The event is a favorite among the Wrights because the prize money is good — this year’s purse of $300,000 will rank among the top 10 highest-paying regular-season rodeos — and the quality of bucking horses is high thanks to organizers’ use of multiple stock contractors.

Plus, cowboys always enjoy returning to rodeos where they’ve had past success. Cody Wright won Clovis in 2004 and ’13 and this year drew Juggernaut, the same horse he rode to a score of 85 last month in Redmond, Ore. In addition, Jesse Wright won here in 2012 and Rusty won in 2016.

“Once you win a rodeo it seems like for years after that you can’t wait to go back because you feel like you’ve got some luck going,” Rusty Wright said.

Those of us who will never climb aboard a bucking horse, or smell the burned hide of a freshly branded calf, are lucky to have a book that makes the cowboy way of life so vivid and real.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

104th Clovis Rodeo

Daily schedule at Clovis Rodeo Grounds, 748 Rodeo Drive

Friday: Opening ceremony at 5:30 p.m. with rodeo events to follow (bareback, steer wrestling, saddle bronc, mutton bustin’, team roping, tie-down roping, barrel racing, bull riding), Cam concert at about 9 p.m., tickets $35

Saturday: Clovis Rodeo Parade at 9:30 a.m. (streets of Old Town Clovis) free; opening ceremonies at 2 p.m. with rodeo events to follow, tickets $20; Rodeo After-Party (music, shopping, food and beverages to purchase) on the grounds part of admission; Clovis Rodeo Dance begins at 7:30 p.m. (no one under 21 allowed in dance), tickets $10

Sunday: Special Kids Rodeo at noon; rodeo performance at 2 p.m., tickets $20

Details: www.clovisrodeo.com

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