John F. Russell: A Panda to be missed

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Panda, the big black bull with a splash of white on his face, is hard to forget.

In his prime, the 2,000-pound giant was like a dark, spinning tornado that tossed bull riders around the confines of the Brent Romick Rodeo Arena in much the same way a 16-pound bowling ball tosses pins around the backside of a lane at the Snow Bowl.

In 2000, Panda threw nearly 70 riders to the dirt at the Brent Romick Rodeo Arena and would have recorded a perfect season in Steamboat if not for Cody Custer's 94-point in that year's Professional Bull Riders event - the final rodeo of the season. Panda left the arena looking like Bobby Knight at a press conference following a loss in the NCAA Tournament.

Panda's rise to the top began in the late 1990s when Guy Urie sold the bull, which was born and raised just north of Steamboat, to rodeo stock contractor Dona Vold Larsen.

Panda is arguably the most famous product of our local rodeo series, or at least in my time. During the 1980s, a bull named Mr. T also gained national recognition, but I was a student in a high school where people thought Rodeo was a famous street in Beverly Hills. Needless to say, I never got to see that bull in action.

Panda appeared at the PBR Finals (2000, 2001) and National Finals rodeos (1999, 2000 and 2001). But a couple of years ago, after injuries had slowed Panda's career, Vold Larsen decided it was time to retire the bull.

It was on her ranch, far from a rodeo arena, that Panda's aggressive nature finally got the best of him. Vold Larsen says she will never know for sure, but she thinks Panda got in a scuffle with another bull. He suffered a broken hip and had to be euthanized.

The news crushed Vold Larsen, who one year later still forces back the tears when she talks about the bull that helped her build a successful business. It's an animal she loved so much that she had its head mounted and placed in her living room.

She says Panda was the kind of bull that every cowboy wanted to draw because they knew they could win on him. But he also was an unforgiving opponent that took pride in dumping cowboys to the ground in less than eight seconds.

She said he was a rank spinning bull that preyed on a cowboy's mistakes. But when he couldn't outsmart the cowboys, he found a way to win with his quick moves and sheer strength.

Panda is the kind of bull that would bring fans to the stands in the summer, the kind of bull every cowboy wanted to ride, and one that captured more than a few hearts.

Panda's legacy belongs with those of Mr. T, Bodacious and Little Yellow Jacket.

I'm not a cowboy, but it made me sad to hear that Panda died. It's not that I love bulls, but I have to admit that Panda left his impression on me, and for many of the bull riders who visit out town, that's not easy to forget.

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