HELIX - It may be a small rodeo in a small town, but competitors around the Northwest are looking forward to Saturday's Heart of the Country rodeo.

Held at the fairly new Quantum 9 Arena in Helix, the rodeo doesn't draw in the top echelon stars from the world of rodeo but attracts many up-and-comers looking to jump into the scene.

And with the prize money and field of competitors as large as ever, jumping in has never been so rewarding.

According to Ryan Raymond, one of the event's coordinators, the enlisted participants will be around the same as last year, with fewer bull riders and bronc riders but more bareback riders and barrel racers.

The barrel racing is a 12-and-under girls event and Raymond says there will be 10 cowgirls competing, which is nice because all proceeds from the rodeo go back to Helix youth in the form of scholarship money.

With no timed events other than barrel racing, the day moves quickly, which rough stock riders say is a major draw for the rodeo.

Last year's saddle bronc champion Blake West plans on making another go at it this year, and says his major reason for coming back is the atmosphere.

"The people out there know how to have a good time," he said. "It's pretty relaxed and they're enjoying themselves, so that's my kind of deal."

West graduated from Union High School in 2001 and has returned to the Helix rodeo often since then, though last year was his first win.

He said the level of competition is good considering the time of year and he feels the selection of rough stock has been improving each year out.

"Usually the top guys in the Northwest are there, and (the competition's) as good as you can get around here as far as the top names," he added.

Zac Compton won last year's bareback competition and this year sits second in the Rookie of the Year standings, and he also hopes to find a repeat performance.

The Hermiston resident said he'll keep coming back to the Heart of the Country for the good stock and payouts, and this year pulled out of the Last Stand Rodeo in Coulee City, Wash., to make the event.

"It's a good rodeo all around, and good stock is good stock," he said. "It's not just good practice, because it's almost better than some of the pro rodeos in the way it's put together."

Compton grew up in Eastern Oregon, including John Day and Pendleton, and said he especially likes it when he can compete close to home.

The rodeo will feature a few new faces as well, including Joseph High School graduate and Treasure Valley Community College bull rider Randall Eschler.

Eschler watched last year's edition from the stands with a pair of broken wrists, and says he's looking forward to his first try at the rodeo.

"It seemed like a good little rodeo and something everyone enjoys going to," he explained. "It's at the beginning of the summer so you get a chance to ride for momentum before the season starts."

As a four-year veteran to the sport who barely missed the cut for the college finals this spring, Eschler hopes to start making a name for himself on the PRCA tour this summer.

The rodeo's Calcutta will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at the Rainbow Cafe in Pendleton, where cowboys can be bet on to win with proceeds also going to the scholarship fund.

Saturday's rodeo begins at 12:30 p.m. and will conclude with live music from the Little McKay Creek Band.

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