Electric Horsemen

Is a rodeo mafia covering up evidence of animal abuse in California?

Seven years ago, at a rodeo in the Anaheim Pond, a sorrel mare named Classic Velvet ran at full gallop—an estimated 35 mph—toward a chute she must have assumed was open. The horse was wrong. The chute's heavy metal rear gate was closed, and the horse smashed her head on it, crumpling to the ground and dying as 6,000 spectators looked on in horror. Classic Velvet lay there, dead, for six or seven minutes before personnel of the Flying U Rodeo, the event's promoter, were able to remove her.

Children cried; the crowd wandered away. Horse lovers fumed. A Laguna Niguel horse owner named Judy Foster accused the Flying U of "prodding the horses and hyping them up . . . I have no problem with rodeos, but I'm upset how [the horses] were treated."

Other witnesses included a member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), who called it the worst accident he'd ever seen in a rodeo arena and demanded immediate reforms to the sport.

That was in 1996.

Last August, at a Flying U rodeo in San Juan Capistrano, a bronco stood in a chute with a rider on its back. A rodeo clown standing opposite the rear of the horse suddenly leaned over the railing and pressed something against the horse's hindquarters. As the horse suddenly jerked, the clown tucked something about the size of an electric razor under his shirt and down the front of his jeans. The horse didn't die; it burst out of the chute with a lot of spirit, giving its rider a chance to score well.

It appeared to the person who videotaped the scene that the clown had used a prod to "hype" the horse. A second video showed the same clown doing something similar to a different horse.

The tapes of the horses and the clown—secretly shot by an animal-rights activist during the second annual Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo, which was held Aug. 24-25, 2002—played on a seemingly continual loop on the evening news throughout November. The Irvine-based Orange County People for Animals (OCPA) and the Geneva, Illinois-based Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK) allege that the device the clown used on the broncos was a Hot Shot Electric Cattle Prod. The use of prods on rodeo animals in chutes is prohibited by state law and Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rules.

In an e-mail to members, the OCPA argues that Cotton Rosser, the promoter and stock contractor of the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo, should be prosecuted. But OC deputy district attorney Elizabeth Henderson informed OCPA and SHARK that there's not enough evidence to bring charges.

The animal-rights groups aren't buying it. They say the real decision maker was Henderson's boss, district attorney Tony Rackauckas, who has received campaign contributions over the years from members of a so-called "Rodeo Mafia."

"The Orange County sheriff's did their job," says SHARK founder Steve Hindi. "They took [the videotapes] to Rackauckas, who says there is not enough evidence. Someone ought to take one of those prods and stick it on his neck, and he'll find evidence real quick. The guy's disgusting. We've written him e-mails, and he won't respond. Sissy."

Hindi claims that many involved in California's $20 million rodeo industry and some members of law enforcement are part of the Rodeo Mafia. Despite being viewed as a progressive state, he says, "when it comes to California's relationship with the Rodeo Mafia, the good old boy network is as strong as in the most unenlightened backwaters."

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Seventy-five-year-old Horton Alexander "Cotton" Rosser has been called "the P.T. Barnum of rodeo." He grew up in Long Beach but picked up rodeo skills wrangling cattle in the 1940s for the Wrigley Ranch on Catalina Island. He captained the rodeo team at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he studied animal science, and turned pro on the rodeo circuit in the late 1940s, specializing in roping, bulldogging and bronc riding. Rosser befriended the late Gene Autry at rodeo arenas in the 1950s and has called the former Anaheim Angels owner "probably the best rodeo entertainer we have ever had." Rosser and "The Cowboy" are enshrined in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys' Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Rosser's pro career ended in the mid-1950s when he crushed both ankles while working on his Yuba County, California, ranch. He then bought the Flying U Rodeo Co. in nearby Marysville and became a rodeo promoter and stock contractor. His whole family is now involved in the business, which is the West Coast's leading provider of stock for rodeos.

"I've had people involved in that [animal-rights activism] out to my ranch to see how we deal with the animals," Rosser said in an October San Francisco Chronicle story. "If we injure an animal, who's the loser? We are. Our veterinary bills are awfully high, as high as a regular doctor. We need to take care of these animals, not torture them."

Indeed, some activists say Rosser is among the most sensitive stock contractors in the rodeo biz. The PRCA claims cowboys in general were "the first animal-welfare advocates."

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