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Mini rodeo kicks off 75th annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo

The 75th annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo and Parade kicked off Thursday morning with the traditional Clarence Minetti Mini Rodeo.

“It’s awesome,” said Elks Recreation president Peter Sterling. “It’s tremendous to see a big line of kids coming in. They were all waving their flags and smiling and excited about it. It was great to see.”

The mini rodeo is an Elks tradition that goes back more than 30 years. The event brings in about 6,000 third grade students from around the Central Coast.

The kids are treated to a scaled-down version of the nighttime rodeo, but the 90-minute event still packs a punch.

“My favorite part was the barrel races,” said third grader Lucero Contreras. “I liked how the horses went really fast.”

Starting with the dramatic entrance of Kent Lane, who arrived in the middle of the Elks Unocal Event Center after skydiving with a huge American flag, the rodeo featured bronc riding, mutton bustin’, barrel racing and much more.

The grand finale was a performance of the Flying Cowboys, an motorcycle aerial stunt team.

“That was awesome,” said third grader Future Mendoza. “They were doing backflips. They were holding onto their seats in the air. It was really dangerous and they said not to try it at home.”

One of the favorite aspects of the mini rodeo is that many of the competitors are kids themselves. The event features several events where young cowboys and cowgirls are competing for prizes.

“It’s fun because you get to compete against other kids that you know and all the kids get to come out and watch you and learn about the sport,” said Cade Branquinho.

Branquinho said he didn’t get too nervous competing in front of thousands of other kids. The barrel racer from Los Alamos has grown up in the sport and is no doubt a chip off the old block since his dad is five-time world steer wrestling champion Luke Branquinho.

“I get into the zone and I don’t really pay attention to what’s around me and I do the pattern,” said Cade Branquinho.

Undaunted by the crowd size, the younger Branquinho turned in a top time under five seconds during his ride.

For the Elks, the mini rodeo marked the start of a new era. It essentially began new leadership at the top of Elks Recreation.

Sterling took over the position several months ago after the death of Phil Harwick in January. Thursday’s event signaled his first live rodeo action as Elks Recreation president.

“Luckily, I’ve been involved with the rodeo for about 22 years, so it’s not as if I’m coming in without any experience,” said Sterling, who has led the Elks Rodeo Queen Competition for several years. “It’s been kind of an easy move. We have a lot of good people, volunteers have been great. They’ve been doing this for years, so it all comes together. The volunteers really put this thing together, so I just kind of direct things and let them do what their job is and what they do best.”

The mini rodeo kicked off what should be a memorable four-day run for the Santa Maria Valley showcase event.

Themed “Denim and Diamonds,” the 75th annual Elks Rodeo will feature several activities, many of which are free with paid attendance.

The rodeo begins Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m., at 6 p.m. on Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

The Elks Rodeo runs May 31-June 3.

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