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Yee-hah! It's stampede time

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It has endured a shift in the world of professional rodeo, slogged through rains and weathered oppressive heat, and has even withstood the indignities of petty crime: vandalism, break-ins and graffiti.

And yet, the Manitoba Stampede & Exhibition -- beginning its 45th annual edition today -- remains the pride of the town that hosts it: Morris.

"Definitely, it's what Morris is known for," Cindy Todd, the Stampede's general manager, said Wednesday.

Four days of rodeo, chuckwagon races, animal exhibits, poker playing, petting zoos, a midway and musical entertainment kick off with a free pancake breakfast this morning.

Members of the RCMP Musical Ride -- an icon of Canadiana -- will perform Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and again Sunday at 2 p.m.

The ride was last a part of the stampede in 2004.

About 250 volunteers, largely from the community 50 kilometres south of Winnipeg, have readied themselves for the big weekend. Youth groups will clean the grandstand, the minor hockey team will provide security and members of a local curling club will tend bar in the beer garden, Todd said, providing examples of community-group efforts.

"Our volunteers, all their heart and a lot of their lives have been put into this show," she added.

And yet, amid the expectations, the Morris stampede has had to endure its share of difficulty.

It once had the second-largest attendance among rodeos in western Canada behind the Calgary Stampede. Though it remains part of the professional rodeo circuit, it now ranks 10th.

"Basically, rodeo out west has been growing," Todd said. "The communities out there are closer together so definitely they get a lot bigger draws as far as their cowboys and stock (are concerned). ... Us being the furthest east rodeo on the pro circuit, makes it a little bit more difficult for us to compete for that market. We don't have a lot of cowboys that live within 20 miles of our facility."

Despite its marginalization, Morris remains on the radar screen in Calgary, where the governing body of Canadian professional rodeos has its headquarters.

"Last year (the Manitoba Stampede) was the 16th biggest rodeo in Canada by total payout," said Jim Pippolo, general manager and rodeo administrator of the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association, the self-proclaimed "NHL of cowboys."

"We have 57 rodeos, so that's way up near the top."

And yet, other factors that have nothing to do with the rodeo itself have challenged Morris organizers.

Vandals have caused damage to stampede facilities recently. Ticket booths have sustained $2,700 in damage in the last two years.

Someone broke into a storage building and lit a fire. Graffiti has occasionally adorned stampede walls.

Even the weather has tested stampede staff. A soggy spring this year has delayed preparations in the rodeo arena.

Last year, on the stampede's Sunday, the humidex soared to 47 C, limiting the size of the crowd on what is seen as the greatest day to draw spectators.

"We've definitely had our challenges," Todd said.

Organizers are hoping for about 25,000 to 30,000 people this year, Todd added. Last year's count was about 23,000.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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