By JAMIE FRANCIS
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000
The three Wright siblings sport belt buckles as big as coffee saucers. The gold-plated hardware sparkles in the glowing twilight that blankets their ranch near Arcadia.
The buckles are prized possessions, presented at rodeos in Okeechobee, Plant City, Williston, Jasper, Kissimmee and dozens of other small-town Florida arenas. Among them, Whitney, J.L. and Chance have won more than 200 champion buckles, but they practice as if they are going after their first.
Fourteen-year-old Whitney's hands move with lightning-quick precision as she straddles the 220-pound calf. Her short-heeled Justin roper boots are plowed into the soggy earth, and her jeans, wet from the evening's thunderstorm, grip the young cowhide. Behind her, the brothers wait their turn, one stretching out a braced-up knee, the other clenching a rope between his teeth.
"You're whipping it good, Whitney," says a calm Rabe Rabon, 34, who owns the biggest buckle at today's practice and also the club-sized kicker that helps hold the calf to the ground.
The former world champion cow roper once clocked a roping run in 6.8 seconds. He turned the feat at the 1988 Fourth of July rodeo in Red Lodge, Mont. "That's as fast as you're going to be," the Okeechobee cowboy says without a trace of boasting.
Rabon still competes, but he also hires out as a coach, especially this time of year, when high school kids like Whitney and J.L. are training for the national finals, which will be held next week in Springfield, Ill. The top four competitors in their respective categories are invited to the nationals. Whitney has qualified for pole bending, cutting and barrel racing. J.L. will compete in cutting. Chance is not yet in high school.
You get the feeling that the Wrights would be out here in the mud and cow pies without the incentive of national finals. They are fourth generation on this wild and open spread, and their daddy, Julian, has planted the seeds of ranching in their blood.
"I want 'em to know how to win, I want 'em to know how to lose, and I want 'em to know how to survive," says the hard-edged but proud father, who keeps his children in horses and saddles as long as they supply him with exceptional grades.
Rabon hollers encouragement for Chance. "You got to make it whoop son," he says as Chance takes the pigging rope out of his mouth and begins to whip it through the air.
The pigging rope is used to secure three of the calf's legs in the classic -- and literal -- three-bone cross. When the cowboy pulls three of the calf's legs together and ties them with the pigging rope, he flings his hands in the air, and his time is logged.
"You get a good taste of the competition when you got that rope between your teeth," teases Rabon, "but you got to send it through the air in a hurry when it's time to tie. You got to make it whoop."
Darkness settles over the scene, but no one says anything. They keep taking their turns with the calf and looking to perfect the three-bone cross. Whitney, J.L., Chance, goes the rotation; Whitney, J.L., Chance.
Finally, when the three are stowing gear in the barn, the raised lettering on their buckles is visible. The word "champion" is carved in each.
To contact Jamie Francis, call (727) 893-8319 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org