The late Benny Binion never climbed into a rodeo chute. He never topped a bucking bronc or Brahma Bull. But he probably did more to promote the National Rodeo Association than any man in the history of rodeo.
Although Binion was well known for buying and promoting casinos in downtown Las Vegas, his involvement in rodeo was a well kept secret until after his death on Christmas Day, 1989.
Benny grew up on a small farm-ranch in Grayson County, TX. He and his father were horse traders as well as gamblers. They often slept in covered wagons or beneath a horse blanket with their saddle serving as a pillow.
Although he never received a formal education, Binion was educated through hard knocks and the university of life. He earned his fortune operating gambling casinos, but he never forgot his roots.
He fell in love with horses at a tender age and had a particular admiration for cutting horses. In 1940, he leased a ranch near Hardin, MT. and raised horses and bulls on his range. Later he bought a ranch containing 95,000 acres near Jordan, MT. He also leased several hundred thousand acres of state and federal land to graze his libestock.
Binion's black gelding was a superb cutting horse that won the first three world titles from the National Cutting Horse Competition. His granddaughter, Mindy Johnson, became a winning cutting horse rider and her husband, Clint Johnson, won the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world champion saddle bronc riding championship four times in a row.
After turning Binion's Horseshoe into one of Nevada's top casinos, Benny worked hard to bring an invitational rodeo to Las Vegas. His efforts paid off when the National Rodeo Finals moved their rodeo from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas in 1985.
Even then Benny didn't forget his roots. He generously paid the entry fees for the cowboys who competed in the rodeo and comped them with free rooms, food and drinks during their stay.
For his efforts, Binion was named to the Professional Rodeo Hall of Fame.
He also hosted the annual Bucking Horse and Bull Sale in Las Vegas, an event that continues after his death. Last year, more than $1 million worth of stock were sold. This year's event is scheduled for Dec. 1 at the South Point Arena and Resort in Las Vegas.
During the 1980s when I frequented Binion's Horseshoe, I remember seeing the place filled with cowboys during the rodeo season. You could see them at the gambling tables shooting dice, betting on roulette, playing the slots, baccarat and poker.
Some would still be wearing the numbers from their competition. They were friendly, gregarious and competetive. Benny would mix among them, pat them on the shoulder and ask if they were being taken care of. Their response was always a hearty yes.
After Benny's death from congestive heart failure, the family sold his ranch in 1997. But he is still remembered each year when the PRCA National Rodeo Finals competition is held in Las Vegas. A red stagecoach bearing his name and pulled by six horses opens the event by pulling into the rodeo arena.
After Benny's death in 1989, the Boyd gambling syndicate owned by his friend Sam Boyd paid the entry fees of the cowboys for the rodeo finals. I don't know if that tradition continues, but it would be nice if it did. And I am pretty sure it would make Benny smile.