The only bull rider survivor Saturday night was Zain Fitzgerald.
One after the other, the 2,000-pound behemoths tossed their would-be, eight-second conquerors into the mild night air at Stampede Park.
But Fitzgerald, 17, a soon-to-be Cody High senior, hung on long enough for a 74 score.
When the dust settled and the snorting stopped, Fitzgerald was the winner in the showcase event in the opening performance of the June 1-Aug. 31 Cody Nite Rodeo season.
“It felt really good,” Fitzgerald said. “The bull (named Money Talks) was good. There was a lot of energy. There were a lot of people. It definitely helps.”
More than 3,000 fans turned out, one of the largest Cody Nite crowds in memory, in fact, a Cody Stampede-like crowd in size.
Circumstances conspired to make the kickoff to the 2019 season a success by all definitions. Day 1 was a Saturday. It was also Park County Night with tickets priced at $5.25. And the weather, so harsh up until a few days before, when it had been dumping inches of rain onto the grounds and turning the arena into a virtual bog, was clear and still.
“I’m feeling great,” said Stampede Board of Directors co-president Mike Darby, “There is so much excitement and energy. You can feel the buzz.”
There was a festive atmosphere on the grounds.
As spectators poured in the front gate many paused to visit Mongo, the gentle bull. Mongo’s mystique is that he is monstrous in size, looks mean, but would do well in a petting zoo. Fans can sit on his broad back for $10 and be recorded for posterity in photographs. There was a lengthy line to take a turn.
Rodeo contractor Mo Betta Rodeo, operated by Maury and Nikki Tate, began its 15th season in charge as the 81st season of Cody Nite Rodeo revved up.
If anything, Mongo looked bigger than last year, but Nikki Tate believes the 7-year-old bull has stopped growing and his appearance was an illusion.
“Maury just elevated the stand,” she said.
Mongo, surrounded by a small fence to discourage roaming, stood on a higher pile of dirt.
Clown Timber Tuckness of Meeteetse also greeted fans out front. He jokingly began counting on his fingers.
“I’ve done around 1,400 performances out here,” said Tuckness of his 39 years of clowning.
Tuckness performs an award-winning act imitating the colorful-dressing, disco-era Village People singing group. As the music from their signature song of the late 1970s “YMCA” plays, Tuckness is the middle man, a puppeteer coordinating the dance movements of the other four dummy members of the group.
As popular as that act is, Tuckness said he is tiring of it a little. He put up a Facebook post asking people if he should continue and was inundated with 625 quick yeses and about 50 lengthier comments.
Even as Tuckness stood near the front gate, a fan named Tim Lasseter approached. Lasseter and his family moved to Cody last year and attended 50 rodeos, with plans to maintain that pace this summer. Lasseter was one of those Tuckness Village People Facebook respondees.
“I hope he keeps it up for the next 20 years,” Lasseter said.
The first ride in the first event produced first-place points. Josh Green rode Slap Jack in bareback riding with a 76 score. He edged Luke Wozney’s 75.
Dusty Moore, a Cody Nite regular for several years, as well as a pick-up man and behind-the-scenes worker, won tie-down roping in 11 seconds, with Justin Seagall second in 12.1 and Jake Hamilton in 14.6
“That Dusty Moore guy is fast,” proclaimed public address announcer Zane Parker.
Hamilton, 33, who has been a regular winner, was not quite as fast as hoped-for. But he and horse Carlotta, 18, had not roped a calf in a year.
Unlike the recent past when he traveled to rodeos, Hamilton has a young family and a full-time job rooting him to Cody. However, a complete retirement didn’t suit him.
“We’re just starting to crave it a little bit more,” said Hamilton, who hopes to rope more this summer. “You think it’s like riding a bicycle, but there’s a little bit more to it. I’m getting in competitive mode. I’m glad to be back. I kind of got the first one off my chest. That was the first one in a long time.”
There were some swings and misses in breakaway roping, but Kooper Bott was the sharpest. Her winning time of 3.7 seconds was solid, but not her best.
While Bott had not been as idle as Hamilton, her only roping recently was once every couple months. She was not thrilled, but was not unhappy, either.
“I mean, I won,” Bott said. “No one knows what the calves are like on the first night.”
The horses were ahead of the cowboys in saddle bronc. Darlin’ did not appreciate Richard Penno’s attempts to ride and when Penno was thrown he came out of both cowboy boots.
Only one rider made it to the buzzer. Wes Mann, a former Northwest College rider from Sheridan who hadn’t been at Cody Nite Rodeo in two seasons, scored a 71. Now a pro, this was a weekend cameo back in town for Mann.
“I thought I’d get some practice ones,” Mann said. “I had a good horse.”
Mann watched as the last challenger was ejected from his horse short of the eight-second qualifying.
“Got it,” Mann said of clinching the victory.
Tuckness began his creative Village People presentation, but only a moment in a bull escaped from the pens and began menacingly circling the dirt.
The music played on, Tuckness and his faux crew danced on, but he warily eyed the animal, inching his way closer to the fence and a possible escape route.
The bull was safely contained before killing off the Village People, though. Afterwards, Tuckness joked, “Now they’ll want me to do it every night.”
Barrel racer Talynn Paul of Cody does plan to do it every night this summer. On surprisingly good-looking dirt that was pond-like days earlier, Paul won a competitive competition.
Her time of 17.16 was the swiftest, with Elsie Campbell second in 17.20. Paul, still only 14, made a splash in the open division last summer, and could be a season-long title contender this year.
“I could have pushed him a little more,” Paul said of her horse. “I’m excited.”
Paul shared that enthusiasm with more than 3,000 others.