Kats Goes Cowboy: Plowing a gala brimming with hats and love

Something you don’t often see at the rodeo: Aerialists working the silks.
Photo: John Katsilometes

Lassoing (to use something of a cowboy term) stray notes from Monday night’s National Finals Rodeo Wrangler Gold Buckle Gala honoring rodeo legend Larry Mahan:

• The highlight of the event's live auction was South Point owner Michael Gaughan parting with $3,500 to snare a painting of cattle moving alongside a train, titled “Once Upon a Texas Train,” a work by popular Western painter Buck Taylor. Gaughan gave the piece to South Point General Manager Ryan Growney, who plans to hang the work in his office. Gaughan has a Taylor painting of Benny Binion hanging in his office at the hotel.

John Growney, built for rodeo.

The vaunted Benny Binion statue ... in the holiday spirit.

A pink guitar signed by George Strait that went for $1,300 -- which includes tuning.

Buck is an actor of note, having appeared in dozens of films and TV shows over the years. He was “Detective Bussy” in four episodes of “Dallas” back in 1981, for example, and “Sheriff” in a 1993 episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Way back, he was “Newly O’Brien” in “Gunsmoke” from 1967-75. It’s difficult to find a role in Buck’s filmography that does not involve some sort of firearm.

• In the freewheeling conversation at the Las Vegas Events banquet table, Pat Christenson asked the group to guess what percentage of NFR fans were first-time attendees. The guesses ranged from “200!” to 5 to 10 percent. Christenson’s answer: 50 percent. Many longtime fans give away or sell tickets to eager rodeo virgins during the course of the event.

• For the first time in a very long time, I heard someone call, “Hey, Johnny boy!” while on assignment. It was John Growney, one of my favorite column subjects from the early and mid-1990s, when I covered sports in Redding, Calif. Growney operates Growney Brothers Rodeo Co. in Red Bluff, Calif., one of the NFR’s primary stock contractors.

In one of the great sagas in the history of the sport, Growney owned the legendary Red Rock, the bull he pitted against the late Lane Frost for a best-of-7 set of rides in 1987. Frost won the high-drama series 4-3 and was without question one of the sport’s most dynamic performers, but was killed at age 25 in 1989 at Cheyenne Frontier Days after being gored in the back. Frost’s story is immortalized in the film “8 Seconds,” which featured a cameo by Growney.

Growney still has that great smile and contagiously positive personality. One day I’d like to see him meet Mayor Oscar Goodman. They have a lot in common, mostly their love for their jobs.

• In case you’re wondering, John and Ryan Growney are not directly related but did meet through Gaughan years ago. It’s a long story, one best told at length later in the event, but Ryan worked for John for several years, chasing rodeos in California, Arizona and the northwest as a teenager and into his early 20s. “Any Growney who is old enough to drive will work for me,” was John Growney’s explanation, and it’s expected that if you follow the Growney family tree’s branches far enough, there is a relationship there. John Growney has usually referred to Ryan as his cousin.

• This was the first gala I have ever attended where at least 90 percent of the audience (in a crowd of about 400) wore cowboy hats. I’ll say this: Cowboy attire is like a tuxedo -- it is the great equalizer.

• During the event, a Diet Coke went for $3.25, but a Pendleton Whisky (which helped sponsor the event) and Diet Coke was free. This is the miracle of corporate partnership.

• One of the city’s underappreciated holiday displays is the statue of Benny Binion on a horse, which sits at the bottom of the escalators leading to the South Point convention rooms. Benny is all bedecked in Christmas ornaments and such, very fitting of the event and the season.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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