Cowboys and Crow Hoppers: Scenes from the 2017 Grand National Rodeo

The Cow Palace’s mainstay classic is rowdy, dangerous, and a much-welcomed alternative to staring at your phone all weekend.

By Jason Backrak and Amar Dillon

Your Majesty: A cow awaits its turn to be judged in one of the many livestock competitions happening at the Grand National Rodeo.

It is — after all — named the Cow Palace for a reason.

Sure, there has been a half-century of epic concerts there, from Neil Diamond to Nirvana, not to mention U2, Prince, Elvis, and a little-known outfit called the Beatles. Maybe you’ve gone there to catch a gun show, a hemp show, dog show, or a boat show (whatever that is). Ringling Bros., the Dickens Fair, Disney on Ice, Exotic Erotic, Evel Knievel, JFK, MLK…..ZZ Top. Over 50 million visitors, for a widespread array of reasons, yet the original intention for the venue is and has always been (in the words of one dissenting journalist) — “a palace for cows.”

A quiet moment at the Cow Palace before rodeo festivities later in the evening.

Indeed, the Cow Palace was originally conceived over a century ago as a permanent home in the Bay Area for various kinds of livestock exhibitions.

And though it took until 1941 to actually get it realized in brick and mortar, the building has hosted herds of hogs, horses, and all manner of bovine for 76 years now.

And the true fall classic of these animal-oriented events? The one that has returned again and again throughout the long and varied history of the building? The Grand National Rodeo.

A rider drops in on his target during steer wrestling competitions (top); bronco riding goes sideways for one contestant (lower right); Emmanuel Lataste of France vaults a charging bull during the rodeo’s finale (lower left).

Yes, the rodeo has come to town, as it has for three-quarters of a century now, in all of its bronco bustin’, barrel-racing glory. Rowdy, dirty, dangerous and….well, mostly just amazingly dangerous, the event is in many ways the antithesis to all things tech in the 21st Century.

There is no app for riding a bull, just as there is no device for lassoing a calf from 20 yards out while atop a horse charging at full speed. Rather, these feats are accomplished through rugged hands-on know-how (passed through generations) and an epic salt-of-the-earth physicality (which seems like an increasingly endangered species in 2017).

More notable still, are moments of an almost symbiotic kinship with the animals that is often graceful and, at times, even hard to fathom.

And in this sense, the event is very much ripe with juxtapositions, both in the arena and out. For example, those moments of gracefulness occur ankle deep in the dirt, while the event itself — an American frontier tradition going back a couple of centuries — is recorded by cell phone-toting fans living in the technology capitol of the world. It’s simultaneously a long way apart from those original days of the Cow Palace seven decades ago, while also still being faithful to its original form.

A bronco goes full Crow Hopper on its rider during Saturday night competitions at the Grand National Rodeo (top); Jordan Todaro of Flying U Rodeo from Marysville, CA (middle); California Cowgirls perform in the Themed Division of the drill team competition (bottom).

The 71st annual Grand National Livestock Exposition, Horse Show and Rodeo continues at the Cow Palace in Daly City this weekend, October 20th & 21st.

For more information, ticket pricing, and schedule, go to:

The California Cowgirls perform during opening ceremonies (top left); Cattlemen of the Year, past and present (top right); Rodeo contestant Lukas Wilson, of Australia, checks out the arena early in the day before he competes in the Saddle Bronc competition later in the evening (bottom).
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Sometimes our work is a collaborative effort, hence the "staff" byline. The best of what to eat, see and do on the SF Peninsula.

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