TURLOCK - They're called the "weekend warriors," the cowboys who gathered Thursday night for the rodeo at the 98th Stanislaus County Fair.
Their circuit is the California Cowboys Professional Rodeo Association, which means they stay close to home and do not exactly do this for a living.
There's one important thing, however, to remember: Central California is team roping country, a two-man hotbed. Around here, bona fide stars mingle with the up-and-comers.
And for one day on the CCPRA circuit, youth was not served.
Hughson's Wade Wheatley and partner Kyle Lockett of Visalia, a tandem which lit up the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas more than once, were timed in a quick 5.4 seconds. They shared first-place money, however, with Merced's Cody Cowden -- a nine-time NFR qualifier -- and Todd Hampton of Chowchilla.
Unfortunately for the crowd of more than 2,000 at FoodMaxx Arena, it did not see these veteran teams do their thing. They competed during the morning slack session, the overflow.
But one fact goes undisputed: Ropers do not forget how to rope.
"I rope every day. Me and Wade rope together at the pro rodeos. I do stay competitive," said Cowden, who turns 39 this month. He trains roping horses these days and considers himself lucky.
"It is brutal now because it costs so much to be out there," Cowden said in reference to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the sport's A-list series. "If you don't do good, you could lose a lot of money. It's not like it was before with the economy. It just costs so much to be out there."
Wheatley, 33, took his two sons to the evening performance. Though he and Lockett nearly won world titles, they're content these days to watch the big time from a distance.
"I just lost my horsepower. I like it at home now," Wheatley said. "Traveling got to me. The guys still call me when they're on the road. It doesn't sound fun to me anymore."
That said, it still appears to be fun for 40-year-old Oakdale cowboy Mike George, one of the heavyweights of the CCPRA. In 2005, the timed-event hand won the circuit's all-around championship and its calf-roping title. And this year, he's the all-around leader.
George showed off his form by winning the night's calf-roping competition with a time of 8.4 seconds. He laid down the time as the first cowboy in the arena and dared the rest to match it. Only Turlock's Blake Hirdes, the grandson of the late Hall of Fame cowboy Les Hirdes, came close (8.8 seconds).
"The guys out here are either the kids coming up, the older guys going out, or the guys who rodeo for a living and come here when they have an open weekend," George said. "I'm on my way out, kind of."
George, born and raised in Phoenix, married into the rodeo-rich Santos family in Oakdale and shoes horses for a living. He regrets barely missing the NFR in both 1996 and '97 but is content staying sharp on the weekends.
"If Mike had the money and the horses behind him, he would have made the NFR a lot," Wheatley said. "He's a great talent and a class act."
George is content roping with Hirdes these days, though the pair no-timed at the fair. Hirdes, 22, the middle brother of the family -- Grant is the older, Case the younger -- often is asked if he'll follow his grandfather and try the PRCA.
"Maybe one year I'll go harder and go back east," Hirdes said. "It's hard to get sponsors."
You need the entire package -- the right horse, the right talent and, in today's punishing economy, the right money. And, by the way, being 40 with talent doesn't hurt.
As George said with a grin, "Experience got it tonight."
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.