SIX champion trophy buckles take pride of place among a host of awards won by West Vancouver's Whitey Dropko, 81, and his partner, Aspen, a 28 year-old quarter-horse mare.
In 1984, when Whitey and Aspen started out in the western equestrian sport of team cattle penning, the time allowed a team of three riders to ride the length of an arena, cut three steers (wearing the same number) out of a herd of 30 and return them to an opengate pen at the far end of the arena was two minutes.
Today, it's considerably less. After the red flag drops, riders have 75 seconds to get those three cows into the pen.
"It's under 40 seconds if you want to be in the money," says Beth, Whitey's wife.
Whitey says getting in the money, never mind winning the champion belt buckle, is hard.
"You've got 30 cows going this way and that, three riders going this way and that. It's a shambles all over the place. And the crowd is rooting for the cows."
This year at the Pacific National Exhibition, Whitey rode three days of the four-day event and placed in the money every time. He didn't make it to the Calgary Stampede, but a team of three women from his club (that's the B.C. Team Cattle Penning Association), won their category and came third overall in the team penning event. One of them is a grandmother.
Aspen gets all the credit for Whitey's success. They have been a team ever since he held her in his arms when she was one hour old. Once Aspen learned not to bite the cows, she developed "cow sense," the elusive ability to know which way a cow will jump before the cow does.
As a boy in Moose Jaw, Sask., Whitey started competing early. He and his pals would jump onto stockyard horses and see who got bucked off the highest. He and future wife, Beth Munro, knew each other growing up in the close-knit community. They got together at the Temple Gardens dance hall where Beth moonlighted as the ticket taker and Whitey as the bouncer.
Whitey had the size and strength for the job. He practised with the Saskatchewan Roughriders football team, and though he was asked to join the Calgary Stampeders, his father insisted he finish school. By the time the pro football offer came around again, Whitey had moved on to wrestling on the amateur circuit and refereeing on the professional circuit. By day, he managed a sporting goods store until he joined the federal grain commission in 1952. When the grain elevator closed in 1961, the Dropkos came west to look for work. Whitey walked into the grain elevator office in North Vancouver and was hired on the spot. They made their home and raised their son and daughter in West Vancouver.
Working at the grain commission was only one of Whitey's jobs. He was a union negotiator for 15 years and for another 15, refereed for B.C.'s All-Star Wrestling, hosted by well-known broadcaster, Ron Maurier. After retiring from the grain commission in 1987, Whitey traded the wrestling arena for the movies.
"There were about six of us dignified looking fellas they'd get to play lawyers and judges and police chiefs."
These days, Whitey and Beth are active at the West Vancouver Seniors' Activity Centre. She practices Qi Gong and sings with the Heritage Choir and they both accompany their grandchildren to recreation centre activities.
Time has not slowed Whitey down. He works out with Fit Fellas twice a week and trains with Aspen three times a week out in Tsawwassen where she boards. Every month Whitey hooks up his horse trailer, vintage 1972 and adorned with his own equestrian designs, loads Aspen and they head off to the Fraser Valley to compete with their fellow team cattle penners.
When asked how long he and Aspen will be making this journey, Whitey laughs.
"It's a question of which of us - me, Aspen or the trailer - will give out first."
The smart money is on the trailer.