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Reno Rosser is bringing his team of elite athletes to town.

Rosser’s team includes some of the biggest, baddest rodeo athletes in the world.

They’ll be competing in every performance of the 74th annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo but none of them are cowboys or cowgirls.

“They are animal athletes,” said Rosser, the General Manager of the Flying U Rodeo. “We’re bringing all the bucking bulls and broncos and you need great buckers to put on a great show. Remember, our animal athletes are at least half of the performance in bull riding, bareback riding and saddle bronc riding.”

Rosser, 42, is the youngest son of Rodeo Hall of Famer Cotton Rosser, the fourth of Cotton’s five children.

But with dad turning 89-years-old in August, Reno has taken on more and more of Flying U’s management responsibilities over the last few years.

The job is much more complicated than just making sure the Flying U’s bucking bulls and broncos make it safely to Santa Maria and 45 to 50 more rodeos.

Rosser is responsible for the day to day operations of Flying U and all the logistics that go with moving his traveling team around the country.

“I have to hire the announcers, bullfighters, clowns/barrelmen, specialty acts like the Flying U Flying Cowboys and our French bull jumpers,” said Rosser. “Then there’s all the transportation for everyone and accommodations. Last year we had passport issues with our French bull jumper and he missed our first three performances in Santa Maria. We got that all straightened out and he’s already worked a couple rodeos for us so we know he’ll be here for all of this year’s performances. I tell you, he’s one of the hottest acts around but he’s just doing Flying U rodeos.”

And then there’s Juan Carlos, the bullfighting sombrero.

“Juan Carlos is the world’s smallest bullfighter. He’s so popular. He has his own Facebook page,” said Rosser. “There’s a whole group of people that have ‘We Love Juan Carlos’ T-shirts. He’s always out in the arena trying to do something funny.”

Juan Carlos is another of Reno Rosser’s ideas for keeping the rodeo fresh and lively. The motorized sombrero darts around the arena putting his well being on the line by directly challenging bucking bulls to a stare down.

But his job comes with significant risk. Juan Carlos was stepped on last year in Santa Maria.

“He likes to be part of the danger,” said Rosser. “He’s been in the hospital in Hayward all week. He had a rough week.”

It takes a good sized team for Flying U to make their magic happen.

“We bring down nine people, all experienced livestock handlers,” said Rosser. “We even bring down a guy that specializes in building rodeo ramps, chutes.”

When not on the road, Rosser now manages the daily operations of the family’s Flying U Rodeo ranch in Marysville, just north of Sacramento.

Those operations are just getting back to normal after being seriously disrupted by February’s heavy rains and the subsequent crumbling of the Oroville Dam spillway.

The Flying U ranch is about 30 miles south of the dam, directly in the path of the rushing waters that poured through the spillway.

It wasn’t just the people who had to respond to the state’s February 12 evacuation order.

The Rossers had to move nearly 1,000 animals, including more than 200 bucking bulls and 400 broncos, to higher ground.

“As I said at the time, we expected the water to reach our ranch but not flood it and that’s pretty much what happened but we still had to move all of our horses, bulls and cows just to make sure they would stay safe,” said Rosser. “We just now brought them all back.”

However, the Marysville rodeo grounds did get flooded and they are still pretty soggy which forced the cancelation of this year’s Marysville Rodeo.

While you might think that would give the Flying U crew some extra time off – it didn’t.

“Even when we’re not on the road, we’re working,” said Rosser. “Just today we were working with our younger colts, our 5-year-olds, seeing which ones will work best in the rodeo. We really don’t touch them until they are five; they are fully grown before we start testing them. It’s safer for them if we wait. We’ve found there almost zero injuries if we wait until they are five.”

And animal safety is one of the Rosser family’s major concerns.

“We treat them as though they are part of our family, which they are,” said Rosser. “Some of these bulls are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and we work hard to make sure all are animals are safe and healthy at all times.”

The Rossers spend upwards of $250,000 a year on veterinarians who are brought in on a regular basis to check on their health, especially with the grueling pace of rodeo.

Once we hit Santa Maria, it’s non-stop until the end of November,” said Rosser.

But while the Rossers and their crew are constantly on the road, the rough stock isn’t subjected to the same grueling schedule.

“Our bulls and broncos only compete in one or maybe two rodeos a month. That’s one of the reasons we have so many to choose from,” said Rosser. “We want to be able to bring the toughest buckers to each rodeo but we also want to make sure they are fresh and ready to go – we don’t overwork them.”

While Flying U travels thousands of miles each year, Rosser still manages to carve out some time for a personal life.

“I just got married about a month ago,” said Rosser. “My wife, Nicole, is an attorney. She comes from a ranching background but doesn’t travel with us very often but I think she might be coming down to SM this year.”

Santa Maria, after all, is like a second home to the Rossers.

“Cotton has been coming to Santa Maria since before I was born,” said the younger Rosser. “I actually competed here in steer wrestling and saddle bronc riding. I spent a few years as a rodeo bullfighter, too, so I’ve seen both ends of the arena from contestant, to bullfighter, to contracting personnel to livestock manager.”

Cal Poly is another reason why the family loves the Central Coast.

Cotton Rosser and each five of his children are Cal Poly grads.

Cotton received an Ag Business degree in 1952 and an honorary Doctorate of Science Degree in 2013 – the same day his youngest child, daughter Katherine got her Master’s degree.

“We didn’t have a choice,” said Rosser. “Poly is our family school.”

Katherine handles some of the Flying U’s day-to-day operations while oldest sister Cindy, a former barrel racer, is a rodeo secretary and oversees who own bull breeding program.

And Reno’s stepmother Karin is also involved in many aspects of the Flying U operations.

“Rodeo life is not for everyone,” said Rosser. “There’s not a lot of money but you make a lot of friends. But the Rossers who are still working the ranch and the rodeos were drawn to it just like Cotton was. This is really a labor of love. If you love animals, love entertaining people, it’s the best job in the world.”

And Rodeo Hall of Famer Cotton?

“Dad is doing wonderful,” said Reno. “I’m still having trouble keeping up with him.”

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Senior Sports Reporter

Elliott Stern has worked at Lee Central Coast Newspapers for the last 18 years after more than 30 years working in television and radio news and sports.