As the clock struck seven on Thursday, fireworks lit the night sky and the 88th annual Ute Mountain Roundup Rodeo opened with a bang at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds.
Sitting on his horse in the center of the arena, rodeo announcer Jody Carper adjusted his cowboy hat and prepared for an exciting night.
A mainstay at the rodeo for several years, Carper’s off-the-cuff humor and play-by-play commentary has made him an integral part of the three-night rodeo. Sometimes jabbing at team ropers and other times providing pertinent descriptions of world-class rodeo performances, Carper kept fans engaged and informed throughout the evening.
Asked what keeps him coming back to the Ute Mountain Roundup, Carper spoke of his affinity for Cortez and the special event.
The veteran announcer said that he spends 20 hours per week preparing for a schedule that includes approximately 40 rodeos each year.
“The people make this rodeo special,” said Carper, who was doing his 10th Roundup Rodeo. “The crowds, the people who run the rodeo, the sponsors, there are just quality people here. That makes it so much fun for us to come.”
While Carper engaged the audience, rodeo clown Troy “Wild Child” Lerwill provided countless highlights. The former bullfighter entered the arena wearing a yellow undershirt, oversized overalls and a sombrero and began cracking jokes that often referenced his mother-in-law.
The highlight of Lerwill’s performance came midway through opening night after a truck with a large ramp affixed to its bed entered the arena and Lerwill took a position near a dirt bike.
After a hilarious act that included Lerwill struggling to start the machine and nearly falling off when the bike roared to life, he lived up to his ‘Wild Child’ nickname by racing around the arena on his rear wheel and jumping the truck.
“I started doing the comedy part of it, and I had a background in motorcycles,” said Lerwill. “I started doing a motorcycle act, and it eventually turned into this.”
The rodeo started on Thursday with Military Appreciation Night. Montezuma County Commissioner Keenan Ertel set off pyrotechnics at 7 p.m. to herald the event.
Before the first bareback riding performance, more than 20 veterans from the American Legion, the Montezuma County VFW, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Veterans and other regional groups, led by retired Army Capt. Jack Miller and his service dog, Scout, displayed their colors at the center of the arena. Members of the Montezuma County VFW Auxiliary handed out miniature American flags to veterans in the crowd. Several veterans groups shared a booth outside the stadium, where they sold baseball caps, faux forget-me-nots and other tokens to raise money.
The Montezuma County chapter of Disabled American Veterans, which transports veterans to medical appointments and other events, was trying to raise $16,000 for a new van, Cmdr. Darla Sanders said.
Miller, who works with rodeo committee member Dina Guttridge at Hospice of Montezuma, said inviting veterans to display their colors was an honor, especially since it had been a year since he completed his service dog training and received Scout through the organization K9s for Warriors. A year later, he said, dog and man are doing well.
On Friday, the rodeo began with a tribute to first responders. Members of several local emergency services including the Cortez Fire Protection District, the Southwest Health ambulance crew and the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office were honored in a ceremony that featured a pyrotechnic cannon blast, courtesy of Ertel.
Responders were needed later in the evening when a bareback rider broke his leg. Friday was also the second night of the county debut of American Bullfighting, which announcer Carper called “the world’s most dangerous event.” The sport, which features unarmed cowboys facing angry bulls, was a hit.
Saturday, the last day of the rodeo, started with a parade on Montezuma Avenue that highlighted Western fashion and other aspects of rodeo history.
That evening, the rodeo started with a covered wagon making a lap in the stadium, to represent the Western legacy. Veterans were honored in a short ceremony, and event organizers presented a plaque to the family of Carl Armstrong, a longtime Cortez rodeo enthusiast who died in February.
The stadium stands in weren’t full Thursday, but Friday and Saturday made up for it. Rodeo committee member Chuck Forth said he expected a decrease in ticket sales this year, since prices increased, but the event drew 4,400 people, which he said was 5 percent higher than last year. He attributed the turnout to events like American Bullfighting, as well as a bigger lineup of competitors – 350 this year.
“Overall, it was a very successful rodeo,” Forth said. “Our rodeo keeps growing, we keep increasing our purse, and I think we’re being recognized as a great place to come and compete.”