‘Legendary’: Neal Gay, founder of Mesquite Championship Rodeo, dies at 96

Gay put Mesquite on the map with the opening of the Mesquite Championship Rodeo in 1958.

Neal Gay, the man who founded the Mesquite Championship Rodeo, died Thursday at his ranch in Terrell. He was 96.

The Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo shared the news on Facebook, calling Gay a “patriarch” and a “legendary rodeo leader.” The announcement was accompanied by a statement from Gay’s family, who said they are thankful for the decades of “wisdom, friendship and memories we have shared with so many.”

“Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers as we work to honor this great man,” his family wrote.

Born in Dallas in 1926, Gay went on to start his career as a rodeo contestant in Oklahoma in 1945, but his time riding “was quickly overshadowed by his stock contracting and rodeo production skills,” according to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

In 1957, Gay founded Rafter G Rodeo in Terrell, which remains open three generations later. The following year, Gay helped put Mesquite on the map with the opening of the Mesquite Championship Rodeo, which has “since grown from a small Saturday night rodeo, to a cultural icon watched by millions on TV each year,” the PRCA said.

“It was a tough racket to make it, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Gay said of his career in ProRodeo Sports News. “I have never been sorry that I got into the rodeo business. I always liked it, and my family liked it. It has been a blessing to me.”

Sixteen-time world all-around champion Jim Shoulders (on horseback) and Neal Gay at the...
Sixteen-time world all-around champion Jim Shoulders (on horseback) and Neal Gay at the Mesquite Championship Rodeo's first on-site billboard. The two cowboys, along with five-time world bull riding champion Harry Tompkins, top rodeo clown D.J. 'Kajun Kidd' Gaudin, and the late Ira Akers and Bob Grant opened the Mesquite Championship Rodeo in May 1958.(John Painter / Digital File_UPLOAD)

In a statement, Casey Harp, Rafter G Rodeo’s assistant general manager, said without Gay, “rodeo wouldn’t be what it is today.”

“With the passing of Neal, that really brings to a close the greatest generation of PRCA stock contractors,” said Harp. “They were the founders of our industry, and they kept it going all these years. They were the ones that made it all happen and every one of us owe those men a great debt for what they have done for us.”

Gay was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1993. He was also a member of the Texas Hall of Fame, and was the recipient of the Ben Johnson Memorial Award from the National Cowboy Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2009.

Gay’s wife, Kay, was described by the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo as an “icon in Texas rodeo history.” Together, their love and dedication to rodeo turned into a family business, carried on by their three sons: Pete, Don and Jim.

Pete Gay qualified for the National Finals Rodeo in 1972-73 and 1976 as a bull rider. Don Gay, also a ProRodeo Hall of Famer, is an eight-time PRCA Bull Riding World Champion. And Jim Gay runs the family’s rodeo stock producing business, according to ProRodeo.

A celebration of Gay’s life is planned for 1 p.m. Aug. 23 at Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum in Fort Worth.

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