When Richard O’Neill, the late patriarch of Rancho Mission Viejo, set out to bring a rodeo to San Juan Capistrano, he made it clear that its intent and purpose was to preserve the Western way of life.
He told his family and ranch leadership that the rodeo would not only serve as a reminder of the daily lives of cowboys but of the values by which they lived them.
“Mr. O’Neill said, ‘Let’s show the people in south Orange County what it once was,’” said Gilbert Aguirre, Rancho Mission Viejo’s executive vice president and head of ranch operations. “Your word is your bond, and you do what you say. It’s the old Western way and culture we’ve all been raised on.”
It’s safe to say that the current ranch leadership has kept their word.
In 12 years, the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo has become one of San Juan Capistrano’s most anticipated yearly events and one of North America’s most celebrated rodeos. Last year, “Cowboys & Indians” magazine, a Dallas-based publication that focuses on Western lifestyle, placed the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo on its list of “11 Rodeos Worth the Drive.”
“Gilbert and I, and all of us at Rancho Mission Viejo, are honored and proud to bring the sport of rodeo and this quality of rodeo to our south Orange County community,” said Tony Moiso, O’Neill’s nephew and the ranch’s CEO and president. “This is the best of the best, so you see firsthand, up and close, this segment of Americana.”
The 12th installment of the rodeo will take place this weekend, Saturday, August 25 and Sunday, August 26, at the city-owned Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park. More than 200 of the best cowboys from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and nearly 300 animals are expected to arrive and compete in seven events, including bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, tie down roping and team roping.
The Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo is known as the richest two-day rodeo in the country. Other rodeos can range from one day to over a week in duration. Payouts also vary, depending on the size of the rodeo and entry fees. Cowboys, however, make it a point to circle San Juan Capistrano’s rodeo on their calendars because of its $200,000 purse.
“We’re at a little bit of a disadvantage because we’re a little bit out of the way, but even though they complain about it, they can’t afford not to come,” Aguirre said.
From a competitive standpoint, the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo provides a unique opportunity for many cowboys who hope to make it into the National Rodeo Finals, a 10-day event that begins December 6 in Las Vegas.
The finals accept only the top 15 money winners in each rodeo event. The rodeo season typically begins in October and earnings, or points, stop accumulating in September. In each of the seven events offered, the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo draws the top 30 money winners, many who are sitting just outside the top 15, or are “on the bubble.” The rodeo, therefore, provides a final opportunity to make some money and earn a shot to compete in Las Vegas.
“A win in San Juan is really going to boost a person up in the standings,” said Cindy Rosser of the rodeo’s longtime production team, the Flying U Rodeo Company. “They can win anywhere between $5,000 and $8,000 for first place, depending on the entry fee for an event. The rodeo pays ‘eight-money,’ so eight guys are going to place out of the 30 for each event.”
Typical rodeos can have 50 to 60 cowboys competing in each event, and although the potential payout in San Juan Capistrano is larger than average, the pressure to perform perfectly is much higher.
A cowboy’s final score is usually an average of two to three attempts in an event, but at the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo, cowboys will only get one shot to place in the top eight. Furthermore, whereas other rodeos reuse the same animals to compete, there will be enough bucking horses and bulls this weekend for every cowboy to compete on a fresh animal.
There will be 180 animals for the roughstock events, which includes any riding event with bucking horses or bulls, and another 90 for the timed events. The animals will be provided by three stock contractors: the Flying U Rodeo, Mike Cervi Championship Rodeo from Colorado and Flying 5 Rodeo Company out of Washington.
One of the more notable competitors in this week’s event is, in fact, a bull.
Bring It, a 2,000-pound red, white-faced bull, has bucked over 130 times over his career and has garnered quite the reputation among cowboys. Most bulls’ prime years are between the ages of 5 and 7. At 10-years-old, Bring It is an anomaly of sorts, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down.
“Bulls usually get hurt, something happens or they give [bucking] up,” Rosser said. “I’ve been ready to retire him, but he keeps bucking guys off and he’s doing well … You don’t see a whole lot of bulls like him. He’s pretty unique.”
A cowboy’s score is a composite of his performance and that of his animal. Horses and bulls, like Bring It, with superior bucking abilities are both desired and feared because a higher difficulty level equates to a better score at the expense of a more perilous ride.
“[Cowboys] are tickled to death when they draw him,” Rosser said.
Celebrated rodeo figures—the human sort—will also abound this weekend, many of them hall of famers.
Cotton Rosser, Cindy Rosser’s father and the patriarch of the Flying U Rodeo Company, has been inducted into several rodeo and cowboy hall of fames. He’s known Moiso and Aguirre, who are also hall of famers, for more than 50 years and has worked with the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo since its inception.
“I’ve been around a lot, and Tony and Gilbert are the finest, most gracious fellas. What they’ve done in the area just amazes me,” Cotton Rosser said. “If you were to give me a million dollars and told me to put on the best rodeo I could, it would be just like this one. It’s first class.”
The rodeo will offer plush seating arrangements for guests, high-quality facilities and equipment and meals for the cowboys—such amenities are uncommon, according to the elder Rosser. Hall of fame rodeo announcers Bob Tallman and Bob Feist will also be back to call all the action.
“It’s a special rodeo. It’s the fanciest rodeo I’ve ever seen,” Cotton Rosser said. “The people of San Juan Capistrano appreciate the best cowboys in the world. This is just as good as the finals, if not, better.”
Over the years, the rodeo has drawn plenty of praise from city officials and civic leaders. This year, the rodeo took a major step in further cementing its place in the community by working with the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce to create the inaugural Rodeo Week.
The weeklong festivities began with a country-style barbecue at Historic Town Center Park last Saturday and will conclude with a family celebration at Zoomars Petting Zoo on Friday, August 24. Although it was Rancho Mission Viejo that first approached them to discuss a Rodeo Week, the chamber recognized the rodeo’s economic value to the city and the potential for mutual growth.
“I see these Western traditions and equestrian culture as being our competitive edge in the market of Southern California,” Chamber CEO Mark Bodenhamer said. “The one thing that really sets us apart are the old, throwback type of events and real, authentic, genuine culture. That’s San Juan and that’s the rodeo.”
The ranch and the rodeo continue to benefit the community in more ways than one. Moiso and Aguirre point out that the ranch “doesn’t make a dime out of” the rodeo. In fact, over the years, the rodeo has raised more than $1.1 million for local charitable causes, specifically the Shea Therapeutic Riding Center and Camino Health Center. The ranch will continue to support local organizations this year, including CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital.
“As time goes on, this rodeo and the community will benefit from each other,” Moiso said. “This is a very unique rodeo. There are no other rodeos like this one.”