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Original Issue

Folksy, Gaudy—and First-rate

The flower-bedecked fat steer in a Kansas City store window and the glittering rider in a parade class are two parts of the colorful concoction that makes up the American Royal Livestock and Horse Show and Industrial Exposition. In K.C. the Royal is not just another sports event, as it would be at Madison Square Garden, but a celebration in which the entire city and surrounding communities participate. The streets are hung with bunting and welcome signs, merchants decorate their windows in the Royal theme, and last year one friendly burlesque house, with an eye on the 1970s, hung a banner reading, WELCOME FUTURE FARMERS OF AMERICA.

The setting for the Royal's actual events, however, is hardly as attractive as the program. It is a low area adjacent to the stockyards, and some of the buildings, after a heavy rain, tend to disappear from view. But despite the chanciness of the site, a magnificent exhibition hall for livestock has been completed recently, and plans are ready for a new and larger horse-show ring, with no pillars to obstruct the view and more comfortable seating. (The seats in the present auditorium apparently were designed for Tom Thumb.)

Meanwhile, to dress up the venerable arena, Lon Cox, the horse-show manager, has green sawdust spread over the tanbark on opening and stake nights, and the judges' stand in the ring's center, which can be raised to give exhibitors a clear field for events like barrel racing and cutting horses, is lavishly adorned with flowers. Cox, a show-biz veteran, also signs on the circus acts and TV celebrities who entertain the crowd between horse-show classes. Many of the exhibitors scorn such hoopla and flock to the handy bars for a quick drink and shoptalk while the routines are in the ring, but the audience, judging from ticket sales, loves it. Clusters of spectators arrive at the Royal by chartered bus from communities hundreds of miles away and are introduced to the rest of the crowd. The governors of Missouri and neighboring states attend regularly, and Harry Truman often shows up to inspect the Missouri mules.

Between all the vaudeville, personal appearances and cattle parades—even a drill by the stockyard secretaries—the horse-show events go on. They constitute the show's sporting quality, and a blue ribbon at the Royal is an achievement that only a handful of competitions in the country can match. Faced with a flood of entries, the Royal started demanding entry fees for open classes a few years ago but, to Cox's surprise, more horses and ponies turned up than before. Unlike most shows, which give lavish parties for their exhibitors and throw in a block of complimentary seats, the Royal does nothing. The participant's pass is for standing room only. Box seats are as hard to come by as a ham sandwich in Mecca. Each year exhibitors complain about the crowded warmup area, but in place of the few who do not return for that reason there are dozens clamoring for a spot on the program. And the caliber of horse is very high in most divisions, particularly among the saddle horses and ponies. The events for reining and cutting horses are among the best anywhere, giving the show its distinctive western flair.