HEPPNER — George Gillespie IV felt like a man stranded on a ledge. He couldn’t bear to peer over to see the true extent of his peril. He was plenty busy hanging on up top.
The California-born rider was nearing the end of his eight seconds of bareback riding on a bronc named Dirt Research, but Gillespie didn’t have any extra time to ensure his score would count. He had to bail — and fast — as the horse lumbered straight toward the metal railing on the far side of the Morrow County rodeo arena in Heppner.
Only one thing to do. Jump.
“I seen my life flash before my eyes right there,” he said. “But it’s kind of like one of those things where you jump off a high cliff and you’re scared but afterward you survive and you’re like, ‘Oh man that was awesome, let’s do it again.’ ”
Gillespie’s ride on Saturday — which was followed by a crash into the bottom two rungs of the rail, likely adding a few more chips to the spotting white paint — earned him an 84 and a bareback title at the Oregon Trail Pro Rodeo. His score topped all others over the two-day event that coincided with the Morrow County Fair.
Gillespie, who rode for the Eastern Oregon University team a decade ago, returned to Eastern Oregon with the Columbia River Circuit Rodeo after initially scheduling in a longer stop in Caldwell, Idaho. The cowboy failed Friday to make the short-go in that rodeo, instead traveling the 250-plus miles to Heppner for a late entry.
He didn’t even make it in time for a listing on the Saturday day sheet.
All other timing was arbitrary as long as he had his eight seconds, though. And not a moment more lent itself to Gillespie.
Halfway through his bareback experience, confidence greased his grip and Gillespie felt himself losing the rigging. He delayed as much as he could and was already halfway out of the saddle when the buzzer sounded.
“That’s when my hand came out and I was just sitting there like this,” he said, tossing up both hands in an unbalanced sway. “It was perfect timing but then i just had to get out of there.”
Gillespie’s adventure got the crowd excited, but Saturday night’s attendees never got a chance to see the Oregon Trail saddle bronc champ, unless they had shown up on Friday as well that is. Sam MacKenzie posted an 80-point ride in the first performance Friday that no competitor could top. He doubled his winnings with the top steer wrestling time, too.
A Jordan Valley native, MacKenzie became a two-event champion with a 4.1-second takedown. That run also occurred Friday.
A champion who did go to work on Saturday, Paul Cope flew past every other roper in the tie-down. The calf nearly expunged his nine-second time by fighting its way out of the knots. The animal staggered to its feet just moments after the six-second tie period had ended, cementing Cope’s time atop the leaderboard.
“I was just lucky I guess,” the Nampa, Idaho, cowboy said. “Just got out and got him jerked down and flanked him. I guess it was my day.”
Cope said Heppner rodeos have historically treated him well. In the Oregon Trail’s 90-year history, Cope has only seen the last few but Saturday’s result marked the third or fourth time he’s come out on top in an event.
Like Cope, cowgirl Alexis Doutre is familiar with Heppner and its rodeo grounds. Nearly every member of the Pendletonian’s close family resides in the town, making the Doutre cheering section one of the loudest in the arena Saturday.
The Doutre clan had plenty to cheer for — albeit not that long to fit in the applause. The cowgirl set the breakaway roping mark with a 2.5-second catch. Her time stood as the best until Scotti Erickson of Portland put up a matching mark as the second-to-last roper of the event.
The two women shared the breakaway title.
Doutre’s success Saturday will lead into a nice break for the rodeo goer. She said she’ll spend a few days with her family before the next arena comes calling.
“It’ll be nice to have some downtime but it seems like it gets easier as you’re going along and just getting into the swing of things,” Doutre said of the weeks on the road during the summer rodeo season. “But it really is nice to be home for a couple of days.”
While Doutre rests today, the rodeo action continues in Heppner. A special final day performance begins at 1 p.m. for only residents of Morrow County.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at email@example.com or 541-966-0839.