Hold on to your hat, cowboys and cowgirls | VailDaily.com

Hold on to your hat, cowboys and cowgirls

Andy Stonehouse
Safty Clown BH 7-26/Monday Photos/ A2 photos

If the measure of success of a public event is the number of rear ends in the seats, the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo opened its 2003 edition Saturday night in fine form – helped in no small part by a new program designed to make the nine-day tradition a little easier on families and their pocketbooks.

Saturday’s kickoff – replete with all the chaotic beauty of the huge bullriding event and a busy dirt dance to round things out – brought a sizeable crowd to the Eagle County Fairgrounds.

And while those in the stands got to appreciate a night full of rootin’, tootin’ cowboy action – with some of the top-ranked bullriders in North America literally facing life and death for a shot at the pot of prize money – behind the scenes at the rodeo’s kickoff evening, a curious mixture of adrenaline-charged action and straight-ahead business existed hand in hand.

Back behind the bull chutes, you can smell the testosterone in the air – human and non-human alike – as some of the gutsiest professional athletes in the world crank up the body armor, pray and set themselves up for the ride of their lives. Decked out in black from head to toe, rodeo vice president Brent Smith helps to keep things as safe as possible for the riders. He admits it’s a sport he’s happy to help out with but not get involved in first hand.

“Do I ride … no sir, I do not,” Smith says, swinging a gate open to retrieve a fallen rider from the path of a snarling, 2,000 pound bull. “Unfortunately, I think I’m too smart to be a bullrider. But these guys have got a lot of guts.”

Helping to open the evening’s festivities, county commissioner Arn Menconi tried his best to blend in with the authentically decked-out downvalley cowboy crowd.

“I’m trying to work the rodeo with a Billy Kidd-styled cowboy hat, a pair of Volcom ergonomic-fit jeans, a 686 snowboarding belt that’s got plenty of bling-bling, and a pair of Harley-Davidson boots, just to “let freedom ride,'” Menconi said. “I guess I love how anybody can come to the rodeo, even somebody from the south side of Chicago … although I admit I had some trepidation when I first stepped in here.”

Slightly more authentic was rodeo opener Rob Bean, dressed in full Buffalo Bill-style regalia. It’s Bean’s second rodeo, although local youngsters may better recognize him from his winter job.

“A couple of kids have come up to me and spotted me as Beaver Creek’s Santa Claus,” Bean says. “But that’s OK. And I really think that rodeos are special – it’s a chance for people to get together and for riders to face some personal challenges and have some good times.”

Meanwhile, over in her office, Valerie Kessler, assistant rodeo coordinator, spent Saturday night overseeing an army of hundreds of volunteers, many of whom were working for the rodeo for the first time. Juggling calls on a CB radio, Kessler says Saturday is the hardest night of the event – but suggests it’s all smooth sailing afterward.

“The only reason I do this is to lose weight,” she laughs. “Last year I lost 12 pounds in two weeks. Luckily, this is also the first time I get paid for my work – I love helping out, but last year, after doing 190 hours in two weeks, I figured something had to change.”

Kessler says she’s impressed by this year’s efforts to help fill the stands with families who may not normally take a trip to the rodeo because of family-friendly packaged ticket prices. She anticipates better numbers this year as a result.

“(The county’s) goal is to have every seat in the house filled up, and I think the $20 family discount packs are going to help that. Even if someone shows up with two parents and four kids, we’re actually encouraging them to find another couple without children while they’re in line and “adopt a kid’ for the evening – everyone will still save money on the deal.”

Eagle County Fair and Rodeo activities continue today with the 4-H Western Horse Show and the set-up day for the Exhibit Hall booths; the dust will be flying again on Wednesday night at 8 as the PRCA Rodeo and Family Night takes place. The fair and rodeo run through Sunday.

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