OAKDALE — A down economy could mean slower ticket sales at this week's 58th Annual Oakdale Saddle Club Rodeo, but that's not what people were talking about at the rodeo grounds Thursday afternoon.
With four hours to go before women's barrel racing, the question on everyone's mind was: How long would the rain last and would it turn the arena into mud soup?
Well, that's probably not what the roping steers were thinking about. About two dozen of them grazed in the pasture along Highway 108, calming down after their journey from stock contractor Cotton Rosser's ranch in Marysville, 40 miles north of Sacramento. "They've taken a long trip on a truck and they're nervous and fidgety," said Dan Vigil, a Saddle Club director.
As the steers feasted on grass, last-minute preparations swirled around them. Two men pieced together a mechanical bull. Flatbeds stocked with portable toilets rolled past. Pickups hauling horse trailers made their way to the field behind the arena, where rodeo competitors were setting up camp.
Among them was 22-year-old Ashley Garcia of Temecula, who would be riding an appaloosa named Chief in Thursday night's barrel racing competition. The event involves maneuvering a horse at about 35 miles per hour in a series of tight turns around barrels.
A little rain is good for barrel racing, Garcia said, because the moisture makes the ground "set up." When the arena is too dry, the dirt is too loose. That makes horses lose their footing like a skier hitting an icy patch. But too much rain makes for a dangerous ride, especially because horses don't slow when they make turns, Garcia said.
To help avoid an injury, Garcia planned to walk and trot Chief to warm him up before the competition.
For good luck, Garcia wore a jumbo silver belt buckle she won in the Oakdale Rodeo's 2005 barrel racing event. She said she didn't know how many inches wide it was, but this will give you an idea of its size: "I eat off of it when I don't have a plate," Garcia joked.
Also getting ready for the night was professional rodeo photographer Dan Hubbell of Casper, Wyo. Hubbell takes photos at rodeos across the West. He said rodeo is different from other sports, such as football and basketball. "The people are fairly reserved, kind of loners who don't like to be messed with too much," Hubbell said. "They like to keep the Western way of life."
That's why Saddle Club director Bill Cantone likes the rodeo. On Thursday, he could be found alone on the far end of the field behind the arena, tying a banner marked "contestant parking" to a fence. Nearby, his dog, Wyatt, a standoffish border collie, tunneled into the dirt after an unseen critter.
"I've been around cattle and horses all my life," Cantone said. "I don't think there's anything more soothing."
Cantone said this year's rodeo has 447 contestants, down slightly from last year, but not by much. Some sponsors dropped out, but other businesses stepped in to take their place, he said.
As for the rain, it was supposed to go away by Saturday and Sunday. Even if it doesn't, the show would go on, he said. "It could be sloppy, but it'll still work."
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2378.