The 23-day--yes, 23!--Livestock Show and Rodeo offers more than just a chance to don your Western duds and watch the cowboys ride.
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo: By the Numbers
• 2007 general attendance: 1,806,129
• Volunteers: 19,000
• 2008 educational commitment: more than $10.6 million
• 2007 wine auction total: $775,500
• 2007 Grand Champion Steer sale price: $300,000
• 2007 Grand Champion Wine: $125,000 for Clos du Bois, Marlstone, Alexander Valley, 2003
It starts with the clatter of horses' hooves.
Some 6,000 riders--many of whom left home days, even weeks, in advance--stream into Houston from every corner of the region. Traffic helicopters swarm overhead. Crowds gather to watch the cavalcade as it skirts the edge of the traffic-clogged streets. News of their arrival sends a current of excitement through the city.
On Saturday, when horses and riders from all 13 trail rides, along with a collection of colorful floats and marching bands, finally roll into downtown for a grand parade, everyone in the city knows. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is set to begin.
Lasso Some Fun
For more than three weeks, rodeo fever consumes the city. Nearly 2 million visitors pour in from around the world for this all-out, Texas-size celebration. It may seem over the top, but this is no two-bit show for down-on-their-luck cowboys. This is the world's largest, with only the top 50 competitors invited and a prize purse of more than $1.3 million.
What's more, the rodeo is accompanied by a huge stock show, a spectacular carnival with dizzying rides and every fried food imaginable, and a nightly concert series with a star-studded lineup. It takes a small city of volunteers--about 19,000 in all--to organize and run the event.
Big and Bright
Even if everything is bigger in Texas, as natives are quick to point out, it's still a surprise to some that the world's largest rodeo and stock show resides in Houston. This metropolis left its cow town image in the dust years ago. With an economy built on energy, aerospace, and technology, it's now the fourth largest city in the nation.
Yet deep in the heart of every Texan lies the soul of a cowboy. It's more than an occupation. It's an attitude, and that's what built this place. Even if they've never ridden the range or herded cattle, folks here see this event as a way to celebrate Houston's Western heritage.
"The rodeo brings this city together," says The Rev. James M.L. Grace of Houston's Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, who was tapped to bless the annual wine auction. "It brings people of different backgrounds together to raise money for education, to celebrate the beauty of life, and honestly, to have a real good time."
The livestock show, rodeo, and carnival all take place at Reliant Park, a 350-acre spread about 8 miles southeast of downtown just off the 610 Loop.
"Hello, Houston! Are you ready?"
Announcer Bob Tallman's booming voice shakes the rafters of the 71,500-seat Reliant Stadium. After the Grand Entry--a parade of horses and riders, dignitaries and politicians, fire engines and vintage wagons--the lights go dim, and the National Anthem begins to play. With hats off, all spectators turn their eyes to the arena floor.
Niki Moran, a daredevil blond standing atop a golden palomino, gallops around the dirt-covered oval. In her hand, she hoists an American flag with sparks shooting from the pole. As she completes her ride, fireworks explode in the top of the stadium.
This spine-tingling opening sets the stage for the seven PRCA-sanctioned events--bareback riding, bull riding, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, team roping, tie-down roping, and barrel racing. Trick ropers and rodeo clowns entertain between events.
A hilarious calf scramble, where 28 kids race to catch one of 14 wild calves that they'll exchange for a purchase certificate, wraps up the rodeo and leads to a world-class concert. This year, the lineup features stars such as Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana).
A Toast to Texas
The rodeo and concerts make up just a fraction of what there is to see and do. Rodeo Uncorked! events include an enormously popular wine competition and auction.
A huge carnival covers much of the rambling park, while horse shows occupy the 5,800-seat arena. The mammoth Reliant Center, which sits adjacent to the stadium, stretches more than a quarter of a mile and contains 1.3 million square feet of exhibition space. During the rodeo, it's part barn, part shopping mall.
In one corner, kids can see chicks hatch and calves born, as well as live beehives and milking demonstrations. There's a Rodeo University for aspiring cowboys and cowgirls. Black Heritage Day and Go Tejano Day have been added to pay tribute to both cultures.
Back in the show barns, 4-H and FFA members coddle their prize cattle, pigs, and chickens. Taking the animals into the ring is serious business, but the occasional hoot and holler signals that a winner has been chosen. During the International Brahman show, 12-year-old Haley Herzog of Robinson, Texas, and her heifer, Raven, take grand champion honors.
"I'm always excited when I show, but this is one of the best shows around," a glowing Haley reports. "It means a lot to win here. I worked hard, and when you work that hard you want it to pay off."
Eyes on the Future
Still, it is Houston's commitment to education that may ultimately yield the greatest dividends. A nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo awards millions of dollars in scholarships to young Texans each year. Officials expect the amount to top $16 million in 2008. Many youths wouldn't have gone to college without this assistance.
The chairman of the board Paul Somerville experienced the power of the scholarship program in his own life recently. As his wife, Kathy, lay dying at MD Anderson Cancer Center, a young doctor walked in and introduced himself. "Mr. Somerville, you don't remember me," the oncologist began, "but 15 years ago, you and your wife took me to dinner and gave me a rodeo scholarship. Now, I'm going to take care of you."
"People have asked me over the years why somebody pays half a million dollars for the top steer or $150,000 for the champion chicken," Paul muses. "Now I know why."
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo: March 3-22. The parade begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 1, while the pre-rodeo World Championship Bar-B-Que Contest runs February 28-March 1. Visit www.rodeohouston.com, or call  667-1080. Rodeo admission prices range $16-$300.
If you're headed to the rodeo, pick a hotel within walking distance of Houston's METRORail. A day pass costs $2, and, even if you stay downtown, you're an easy 30-minute ride from Reliant Park. Our favorites include Hotel ICON at 220 Main Street, Alden-Houston at 1117 Prairie Street, and Hotel ZaZa at 5701 Main Street.
The Rodeo Uncorked
by Cassandra M. Vanhooser/ Photography by Gary Clark
Wine lovers, take note. The Rodeo Uncorked! events, part of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s newest offerings, are quickly becoming some of the most popular in town. Panels of independent judges monitored by PricewaterhouseCoopers select the winners of the International Wine Competition in November. Those with a ticket to the Roundup and Best Bites Competition, held in the Astrodome two weeks before the rodeo starts, get to sample the winning wines before they’re sold at the Champion Wine Auction and Dinner on March 8. Five years ago when this event started, there were only 54 wineries in the Lone Star State, notes Tim Dodd, director of Texas Tech University’s Wine Marketing Research Institute. Now, that number tops 130. Last year’s competition featured 1,500 entries from 443 wineries in 16 countries. The auction raised $775,500. "In this competition, Texas wines go head-to-head with the best wines in the world," says committee vice chairperson Carol Sawyer. "They have definitely been holding their own." In 2007, six Texas wines won gold medals with Messina Hof Riesling Late Harvest Angel 2005 receiving a coveted "Double Gold" honor. "Someday we’re going to fill the Astrodome with wine lovers," says Messina Hof Winery & Resort co-owner and winemaker Paul Bonarrigo. "A little bit of wine makes you dream."
"The Biggest Party in Houston" is from the February 2008 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.