Rotary Classic Rodeo is rooted in growth, tradition

A contestant rides during the Rotary Classic Rodeo on Friday night. (Photo by Logan Kirkland, SDN)
Staff Writer

The Rotary Classic Rodeo started with humble beginnings and has grown throughout the years to become a Starkville tradition with a packed arena.

Mississippi Horse Park Director Bricklee Miller said the rodeo began in 2005 and was hosted by the Horse Park, who wanted to provide a quality rodeo for Starkville and Oktibbeha County residents.

“I called the stock contractors that produce the Dixie National Rodeo in Jackson, and asked them if they were interested in partnering or could they help me find somebody, and they recommended Classic Pro Rodeo in Texas,” Miller said.

Miller said Classic Pro Rodeo was hired that summer, and that winter they won Stock Contractor of the Year in Las Vegas.

“It was like hiring a superstar before they got their first big album, and from there on it has just grown,” Miller said.

After the first two years, the rodeo outgrew what the Horse Park staff and stock contractor could handle, Miller said, so the Rotary Club took it over and it grew into the community event it is today.

Award-winning rodeo announcer Andy Stewart began announcing the The Rodeo Classic Rodeo every year when the Rotary Club took over.

“What we’ve noticed is a tremendous growth in the audience,” Stewart said. “It’s become a destination for this time of year. People expect the rodeo to come to town this time of year. They know about it and start asking about it in January. So we’ve created an event that people look forward to. Plus our numbers have been up, our sponsorships have been up and the number of cowboys continues to grow. As a matter of fact, this year we have the most cowboys we’ve ever had at this rodeo.”

Stewart says as the rodeo grows each year, his job only gets easier.

“The more people I have to work with, and the more people I have in the crowd, the more excitement is in the atmosphere,” Stewart said. “And with more cowboys and better cowboys coming each year, that makes more action on the arena floor. It’s a win-win for the crowd, the cowboys and me as well.”

Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association bullfighter and production crew member Dusty Duba said 20 bulls are ridden each night and 20 to 25 horses are ridden in the bare-back and saddle bronc riding event each night, which is double than what the rodeo began with.

Miller said in the beginning, only 20 bull riders competed in the rodeo, and now there are 40 competitors.

Ten contestants compete in each event, and the rest of the 300 contestants participate in the overflow competition, known as “slack.” Miller said the rest of the barrel racing, calf roping, tie down roping, steer roping and team roping that doesn’t occur during the main event takes place for several hours Saturday morning.

Duba said in total, two semi-truck loads of livestock are brought into the facility for the rodeo, and a crew of eight people handles the livestock, pulls the chute gates and other production needs.

“It really goes to show the work that goes into the production,” Duba said. “The cowboys want good quality animals so they can have a good run and get that good paycheck.”

Miller said, as the rodeo has grown, the Rotary Club has added more prize money to each event to continue to draw better contestants, who are trying to win enough to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas or the Southeastern Circuit Finals in Florida.

This year’s rodeo drew cowboys and cowgirls from across the United States, and even from Canada and Australia.

According to Miller, the rodeo has won the Justin Best Footing award for arena ground quality, which is voted on by the rodeo contestants.

“When the cowboys and cowgirls know there is a safe facility and good quality ground to run on, it draws a big crowd and keeps them coming back,” Miller said.

Along with improving prize money, Miller said the Rotary Club has made creating a family-friendly environment a top priority by allowing free admission for children on Friday night and a petting zoo and pony rides on Saturday, which began about six years ago.

“That has really become a big part of the rodeo, because many children these days don’t get to see animals on the farm, and they actually get to come out and ride the ponies, and last year there was a bull they could pet, along with chickens, goats, horses and rabbits,”

Miller said. “It really gives them that full experience.”

Stewart, who announces at rodeos across the country, said the Rotary Classic Rodeo is a smaller rodeo on the professional level that he has announced at, but he describes it as the quintessential Southern rodeo with a hometown flair.

“It’s special in its own right, because it not as commercialized as some of the bigger rodeos I’ve worked, so I kind of prefer this type rodeo simply because you’re closer to the crowd and it is a more intimate feel. Plus I’m from the south myself, and everyone has that southern hospitality and we get along great,” the Monroe, Louisiana native said.

Miller said she is proud to have helped create an event that has grown to be a tradition that Starkville and Oktibbeha County residents look forward to each year.

“We’ve built a home here at this rodeo, and as it continues to grow, we’re just excited about the future,” Miller said.