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December 3, 2021

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A story of Ralph Lamb, Steve Wynn and how Las Vegas used to be

Steve Wynn-Ralph Lamb

Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau

Steve Wynn and former Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb share a laugh before the CBS premiere of “Vegas” on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012, at Green Valley Ranch Resort.

Click to enlarge photo

Former Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb is shown in a photo from the 1970s.

One of my favorite yarns about how Las Vegas used to be was unspooled most unexpectedly one afternoon at Encore Theater in Wynn Las Vegas. And the revered Sheriff Ralph Lamb, who died Friday at age 88, wound up at the center.

It was in October 2009, and it started as an offhand comment from Steve Wynn, seated onstage next to a Resistol-wearing Garth Brooks. The two were appearing side-by-side to announce Brooks’ series of solo performances at Wynn’s elegantly appointed theater. To the untrained eye it, seemed an ill-fitting match, the billionaire casino mogul known around the world for collection of fine art and the country-music superstar who warbled of friends in low places.

But, then, metaphorically, Wynn slipped into a pair of spurs.

“I’m the guy at the Golden Nugget who had Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers — you remember that?” Wynn asked the media types corralled in the theater. “Barbara Mandrell. ... I started it.”

He then added, “I’ve been a roper and a header, a team roper, even had a PRCA card for a while.”

Roper? Header? PRCA card?

Weeks later, I followed up with Wynn, asking about his history of bulldogging on Clark County acreage, and inevitably the name Ralph Lamb came up. Dubbed “the last cowboy sheriff” by longtime friend (and frequent adversary) Oscar Goodman, Lamb was a law-enforcement icon in Southern Nevada, sheriff of Clark County from 1961-1978.

Lamb’s colorful life and career were chronicled in the CBS series “Vegas,” with Dennis Quaid portraying the homespun title character, which ran from 2012-2013.

Lamb was an individual and an institution in Las Vegas, its unquestioned pillar of law enforcement for two decades. Wynn had become friends with the Lamb family in the days when Wynn took over ownership of the Golden Nugget in the early 1970s and frequently visited Lamb’s property off Smoke Ranch Road.

“I was a header in team roping out at Ralph Lamb’s house when there was nothing near Ralph Lamb’s house, and we had a whole bunch of competitions out there,” Wynn said at the time. “We had an organization here, and I do remember the PRCA being involved. I had a ball doing it, but it was really dangerous.”

Wynn kept two horses, Chicaro and Spider, on the property. Chicaro was a gift from Darwin Lamb, the former Clark County commissioner and one of 11 siblings in the iconic Lamb family. Spider was given to Wynn by Benny Binion.

The Lamb ranch rodeos were great fun, but this was not a mere recreational activity. The setup was the same as any sanctioned event, as Lamb’s spread was equipped with such amenities as stables, all the required gear and a full-sized ring for steer roping.

“I got my hand caught once, I’ve lost some skin, and I know guys who lost thumbs in competition,” Wynn recalled. “I got thrown over a steer once and was hit by a horn — pop! It was a very physical sport, and you don’t last long in it. I was in it for about five years.”

Jimmy Caan — “a great heeler” — and Willie Nelson were among Lamb’s friends who made it to the Smoke Ranch property. As a rising figure in the Las Vegas resort community, Wynn was not nearly as tightly scheduled as he is today. He spent five days a week at the ranch, fondly remembering the days you could "just saddle up and ride from the barn into nothing but sunset.”

It was a scene far removed from the fancy theater Wynn would later build. But for many who remember the last cowboy sheriff, that was the real Las Vegas.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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