Skip to main content
Sponsored content by

The Iconic Cow Palace: 75 Years of Rodeos, Music Legends and Expos

Published Sep. 08, 2023 • 3:32pm
A cowboy participates in a bull-riding competition at the Grand National Rodeo at the Cow Palace in 2013. | Source: Courtesy Cow Palace

How many places in America have hosted both the Republican National Convention and the Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show, speeches from JFK and MLK Jr., performances from Elvis, Nirvana and Prince, plus a roller derby, the San Jose Sharks, the Grand National Rodeo, the Dreamforce conference, the Golden State Warriors, and the largest pie fight in history? The answer is exactly one: the Cow Palace. And that's just scratching the surface of the events that the Bay Area jewel has held in its arena. 

"Evel Knievel crashed right there on that column,” Cow Palace CEO Allison Keaney says, pointing to a spot where the famous daredevil's world record indoor motorcycle jump over 15 cars came to an abrupt conclusion in 1972. As Keaney motions through the arena doors toward the column, you can almost hear the motorcycle engine revving and Knievel's triumphant shriek before the crash. These opportunities for vivid imagining are everywhere at the Cow Palace. 

When you walk up the stairs to the athletics dressing room, it's wild to think about members of the San Jose Sharks hockey team stepping up the carpeted staircase in their ice skates. But that's exactly what they did for two seasons when they called the Cow Palace home, selling out every game before moving to their new arena in San Jose.

Sponsored by

The Sharks, Elvis and Prince all—walked through the same doors into the arena that lions and elephants did for over 60 years at the Ringling Brothers circus. It's also the same doors that bulls, horses, sheep, swine, cowboys and cowgirls are led through for the yearly Grand National Rodeo, which will be celebrating its Diamond 75th anniversary across two upcoming weekends on Oct. 6 and 7, as well as Oct. 14 and 15. 

A cowboy participates in a bull-riding competition at the Grand National Rodeo at the Cow Palace in 2013. | Source: Courtesy Cow Palace

And for all of the functions that have taken place at the Cow Palace, the rodeo might just be the biggest endeavor. Consider that over 2,000 cubic yards (roughly four million pounds) of dirt get moved away from parts of the 10 giant barns and exhibition halls on the 61-acre plot of land along Geneva Avenue on the edge of Daly City, and then into the arena and its entryways. That feat alone requires two days of hauling, plus another week and a half of grooming the dirt, and that's before completely transforming the arena for the rodeo. A safety railing gets spread around the main floor, and chutes get sectioned off for bulls, horses, steers and calves. 

Sure, most folks associate rodeos with more raucous events, but the Grand National Rodeo is family-friendly. On the rodeo's opening day, the Junior Livestock Show kicks things off in the morning, as budding agriculturists showcase the livestock that they've grown up caring for and grooming. It's a tradition that has been a part of the festivities since 1946 and speaks to the ethos of not only the rodeo, but of the Cow Palace and its roots within the State of California Department of Food and Agriculture. And while some of the Junior Livestock Show's participants may very well one day end up being cowboys and cowgirls, for many, it's the start of a career in veterinary science, farming or agricultural law, and education. 

Maddison McDonald performs tricks at the Grand National Rodeo. | Source: Courtesy Cow Palace

"It's this great big arena, and there's been a lot of entertainment here, but our primary role and the reason we were formed is to play an industry supportive role in agriculture," Keaney says.  "We like to help people understand where their food comes from. People are better and healthier consumers the more knowledgeable they are about food sources and legality. Our focus has always been cattle and the horses that needed to work with them and the cowboys, so that's where the rodeo came in."

The inclusivity of the Grand National Rodeo has only grown over the years, too. The second weekend commemorates Latino rodeo traditions at the 2023 Fiesta del Charro (Oct. 15) along with the 2023 Women of Rodeo (Oct. 14) main event. Relics of the past women’s rodeos are among the permanent displays in the concourse of the Cow Palace, including an homage to this year's honoree Sheila Varian, the first woman to win the Reined Cow Horse Open Championship back in 1961. Varian's ornate saddle that she rode en route to victory is in a glass case next to her trophy, with a backdrop image of the victorious day; yet another one of those opportunities to picture yourself in the arena for a slice of history. 

Make a short trot around the concourse, and you'll come across the Cow Palace's storied Hunt Club Bar. A 40-person space with vintage equestrian wallpaper and framed fox hunting relics enveloping the large wooden bar lacquered with Naugahyde letters that spell the word "HUNT." It's commonly known as, “Everyone’s favorite little watering hole” for a cold beer or whiskey on the rocks, and the transportive effect is strong here. 

Just outside the doors of the Hunt Club Bar, there's a year-by-year list of musical acts who've graced the stage at the Cow Palace. Legacy artists booked by famed local promoter Bill Graham like Pink Floyd, Marvin Gaye and the Rolling Stones, Mexican ranchera superstar Vicente Fernández (who made multiple appearances in the arena, including the 2000 Grand National Rodeo) and contemporary titans like Nine Inch Nails and Metallica. 

"They should really put this place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," Keaney says. A co-worker chimes in: "And the Wrestling Hall of Fame!" Because of course, the Cow Palace has and still holds large-scale professional wrestling events—from World Wrestling Entertainment Smackdown to the All Elite Wrestling Rampage.

Much like the Junior Livestock Show is a formative experience for young agriculturalists, the Cow Palace represents some of the earliest cultural memories for Bay Area people from all over.

The drill team enters the Grand National rodeo at the Cow Palace in 2013. | Source: Courtesy Cow Palace

Whether you were present for Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a speech at the Republican National Convention in 1964 (while the Ku Klux Klan held a rally at the Civic Center), or you saw Prince on the Purple Rain tour in 1985. Perhaps you happened to stumble upon iconic beat poet Allen Ginsberg signing books in the concourse in between sets from the Chemical Brothers and Fiona Apple at Live 105's Green Christmas in 1996, or took a family trip to the Dickens Fair within the past 20 years? Whatever it may be, these are experiences unique to the Cow Palace, and if you were there, they shaped who you became. And there's still more in store.