Barrel racer Cassidy Kruse, left, and 12-year-old fan Abby Henderson are all smiles during an autograph session on Saturday at Cowboy Christmas, in the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. PATRICK EVERSON/LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
There's no doubt that all the action taking place at the Thomas & Mack Center is the focal point of Wrangler National Finals Rodeo week here in Las Vegas. That's as it should be.
But it you're not availing yourself to everything else going on around town over these 10 days, you're missing out. The best case in point: the Cowboy Christmas and the Hunter and Outdoor Christmas Expo taking place over two floors of the massive South Hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
The hall was decked, and packed, on Saturday, with thousands upon thousands of rodeo fans checking out all sorts of booths loaded with Western and outdoor items. From hats to boots and everything in between, along with all sorts of toys -- from kiddie John Deere tractors up to the big-boy stuff of full-sized pick-ups, horse trailers and more -- and myriad arts and crafts and rodeo gear, it's a Western enthusiast's nirvana.
However, one of the coolest things about Cowboy Christmas is all the opportunities it gives rodeo fans to meet the sport's superstars up close and personal, in ways that would never happen in other sports. Abby Henderson, a 12-year-old from San Tan Valley, Ariz., found that out first-hand when she walked right up to one of her favorites during an autograph session: star barrel racer Cassidy Kruse.
"It's very awesome," Henderson said. "I'm a barrel racer myself, so it's cool to kind of see my dream come true. I was pretty excited, because I love to watch her run."
Kruse understands that childlike excitement, as she's not too far removed from it at just 20 years old.
"It's nice getting to meet a bunch of new people who have followed you all year long," said Kruse, who won Thursday night's first go-round at the WNFR to put herself squarely in the world championship chase.
Saturday couldn't have gone much better for a trio from Wellsville, Utah: JayDee Maughan and his wife Courtnee, and JayDee's mother Jan Hall. Hall stumbled onto an autograph line for Trevor Brazile, inarguably the most successful cowboy ever to walk the planet, and she immediately went and wrangled her son and daughter-in-law. After a short wait, they were with Brazile "having a visit," as is the lingo in cowboy culture.
This is not something you get to do with, say, Tom Brady or LeBron James.
"You don't see this in other sports like it is here, where you can just walk up and meet him," JayDee said. "He's one of my cowboy heroes, and I've watched him ever since he started coming to this rodeo, in 1998."
Courtnee noted their two sons back home will be thrilled to see how up-close mom and dad got to Brazile.
"It's awesome," Courtnee said. "These cowboys are so cordial and friendly. Everyone likes Trevor."
Proud grandma Hall made sure the cellphone cameras were at the ready, snapping photos for posterity.
"I knew my little grandsons would want a picture," she said. "It just makes you feel good inside, getting a picture with Trevor, to just have a memory of all the history he's made."
Someone else you could have just walked right up to Saturday: Miss Rodeo America. Lauren Heaton was making the rounds at Cowboy Christmas, with her yearlong reign as the 60th Miss Rodeo America wrapping up once the WNFR ends next weekend.
"It's been a phenomenal year. We're on the road about 350 days, and I've traveled about 125,000 miles," said Heaton, from Alva, Okla. "This is the big finale to the end of our rodeo year."
Still, with the sensory overload from the hundreds and hundreds of booths at Cowboy Christmas, there's no doubt the ability to shop 'til you drop remains the biggest draw. And Heaton understands that as much as anybody.
"The Western world knows that if you want the best, you come to Cowboy Christmas," she said. "Black Friday for the Western world isn't the day after Thanksgiving. It's at Cowboy Christmas. Even Miss Rodeo America does her shopping here!"