81st annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo kicks off four-day run

Brian Naimen flies in the American Flag before opening night of the 81st annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo and Parade on Thursday night at the Elks Unocal Event Center. Photo by Elliott Stern.

Rodeo celebrates Golden Circle of Champions on opening night

SANTA MARIA, Calif. – The tradition continues.

The 81st annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo began its weekend Thursday night at the Elks Unocal Event Center.

A packed house was on hand for the first of four performances with a worldwide audience tuned in to catch the action on The Cowboy Channel.

The evening was dedicated to the Golden Kids – the local children and their families battling childhood cancer.

While the cowboys and cowgirls took center stage, there were others in the arena providing non-stop entertainment over the program’s three-and-a-half hours.

The show officially kicked off when Brian Naimen parachuted into the arena followed by a giant American Flag.

Then the attention went to the Xtreme Bronc Riders – probably the wildest of the Wild West competitions.

Nehemiah Jeffs, riding for the Johnny Utah Team, crosses the finish line to win the Xtreme Bronc Racing Thursday night at the 81st annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo. Jeffs teammate Trace Agin, right, cheers him on. Photo by Elliott Stern

There were six three-man teams and six young bucking broncos in the arena at the same time.

The teams had to stop, saddle, and ride the wild horse across the finish line in two minutes or less.

Six teams tired – only one succeeded, The Johnny Utah Team from Santa Ynez.

“We made it by four seconds,” said team leader Trace Agin (The team normally goes by the name teamagin.com). “We added a new rider this year, Nehemiah Jeffs. He’s originally from Utah so we decided to change the in honor of his home state. Then we decided to honor Keanu Reeves and made it the Johnny Utah Team after his character in the movie Point Break.”

“I’ve never seen the movie,” said Jeffs. “I guess I’ll have to watch it now.”

“This was his first time in the arena,” said Darci Agin, the team’s videographer, publicist, and cheerleader. “His day job is breaking colts for ranchers in the Santa Ynez Valley.”

“I met Darci and she talked me into it. It seemed like a natural fit. It’s a lot funner than breaking colts.”

Next up, steer wrestling.

They saved the best for last when Edgar Machado, 27, from Coalinga, pinned his steer in 5.3 seconds.

He was the 10th and final competitor on the night.

Q McWhorter, riding Justin Boots, competes in the saddle bronc competition Thursday night at the Elks Unocal Event Center. Photo by Elliott Stern.

The ninth, Taite Cole Sickler, 25, from Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo, briefly held the lead with a 5.9-second run.

With a 6.0 second run, Bishop, Calif.’s Austin William Van Nest, was third in the first of two rounds of steer wrestling.

Bareback riding had just two entrants Thursday night and both made successful eight-second rides.

Moe Heaton rode Misplaced Insanity for 76 points. Jacek Lane Frost won the night with an 82-point ride aboard I Am Hawk.

In saddle bronc riding, five men tried but only two completed their eight-second rides.

Cameron Messier went out first and posted the night’s top score – 79.5 – on Blue Money.

Q McWhorter, the 2023 College Saddle Bronc Champion from Cal Poly, had a 72-point ride aboard Justin Boots.

Local cowboys got in the act with the first round of Elks Team Roping.

Cheyne Torres and Tim Righetti had the low time on the night – 9.4 seconds.

Luis and Travis Ramirez were second at 13.8 seconds, with Jared Biely and Jimmy Gardner third at 17.3.

Then the pros of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) had their turn.

That didn’t end well as none of the seven teams managed a successful run.

It was a better night for the tie-down ropers that saw the return to the arena of a local star.

Casey Branquinho, 47, a former California Circuit All-Around champion, stopped, dropped, and tied his steer in 11.1 seconds. That put him in the lead, briefly, until Cody Stewart followed with a 10.8 to win the night.

Maddie Bigelow was the only Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) rider to score in the pro breakaway roping with a 13.0-second time.

Then it was time for more local action with junior breakaway roping.]

Miley Monighetti was first on the night with a 3.6-second run, followed by Jade Oliver (3.8), Braylie Grant (4.1), and Khloe Lombardo (4.2).

Cathy Cagliari rounds her third barrel during Thursday night’s barrel racing at the 81st annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo. Photo by Elliott Stern.

A local woman, San Luis Obispo’s Paloma Alvarado won the night in barrel racing with a 17.70-second time, followed by Atascadero’s Shelby Swayne (17.99) and, tied for third, Cathy Cagliari and Vicky Cook (18.13).

As always, they saved the bull riding for the last event.

The bulls won.

Bred in the Rosser family’s Born to Buck program, the bulls went 5-0 on the evening.

Rawley Johnson, trying to ride Eight Ball, came the closest, riding for 6.26 seconds before being launched like a rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base into the Event Center Arena’s award-winning dirt.

The 81st annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo continues Friday night at 7 p.m.

The winner of the annual Queen competition will be announced during Friday’s performance.

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