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Bull riders risk life and limb to compete

for the coveted world championship

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in the trainers’ room warming up. He’s a study in
concentration as he squats down on his bended
right leg and extends his left leg, loosening up
like he does before every ride. In a few minutes Harris will climb on
top of 1500 pounds of one of rodeo’s “rankest” (that’s cowboy for
“mean as hell”) bulls and try to hang on for dear life for eight
seconds. The bull, a snorting, bucking Black Angus, has thrown off
almost every professional bull rider who’s tried to stay on top of him.

It’s the last night of the National Finals foot during a bad dismount during the
Rodeo, what some call “The Greatest Las Vegas finals. Doctors fabricated a
Show on Dirt,” in Las Vegas’s Thomas special protective boot and he rode a
& Mack Center. For nine nights Har- bull the next day. “It’s just my foot,” he
ris and 14 other best bull riders have explained. “I don’t use my foot to ride
been competing for the title of 2013 bulls.” Bull riders have a special term
World Champion. Some have been for this sort of raw courage, it’s “cow-
stomped on, had their bones broken boying up.”
and even been knocked unconscious What keeps bull riders picking Harris prepares his bull rope with a sticky rosin before the first night of the West of the
by these “buckingest” bulls in the na- themselves up off the dirt and getting Pecos Rodeo in June 2014. He’ll loop it around the bull’s midsection before his ride.
tion. back on these four-legged monsters
J.W., for James William, is no ex- of mayhem? You have to be passion- world champion in 2008, 2009 and Over the last decade he had often
ception. Battered and bruised by the ate about bull riding to be any good 2010, he failed to capture the title in said that he wanted to win the world
nightly beatings he’s taken, he limps at it, says Harris. “If you don’t love the 2011 and 2012. More and more, inter- championship eight times, like his
out of the trainers’ room after being sport you won’t be able to stick with viewers were asking if he was think- idol, eight-time champion bull rider
heavily taped up before tonight’s ride. it long enough to be successful.” Be- ing of retiring. “Nope,” he’d invariably Donnie Gay. A win tonight would put


Bull riders sum up the dangers they cause of the beating they take over answer curtly. “I’ve got a lot of riding him back on that path.
face with the saying, “Mess with the their careers, most bull riders retire left in me.”

bull and you get the horns.” In 2008 in their early thirties. And he doesn’t want to disappoint HE MUSKY, MOIST, pungent
an especially nasty bull named “Cow- Harris, 27, who has ridden over his biggest supporters; his family. All aroma of horses, bulls and live-
boy” bucked off Harris and “stomped a thousand bulls, is one of the most week long his wife Jackie, daughter stock fills the air. It’s a familiar
on my face, crushing it pretty bad,” he successful bull riders ever. He has Aubrey Lee, 2, and one-year-old son smell to Harris; if he closed his eyes

recalls. Gesturing toward his face, he won the title of “World Champion Bull Dillon have been in the Las Vegas au- he could be home on his Texas ranch,
says, “The surgeons used plates, pins, Rider” three times and hopes to claim dience, urging him on. J.W.’s father tending his 30-odd head of cattle; his
screws and lots of good stuff to put me his fourth title here at the National Mark had been a professional bull second-favorite job after bull riding.
back together.” Finals. Winning tonight would be ex- rider, and no doubt Dillon would con- Harris walks through a tunnel-like
Four years ago he broke his right tra special to Harris. After becoming tinue the tradition. passageway to the arena, normally a

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basketball court that’s been replaced silent prayer. Then, just before he sociation awards more than
with 12,000 tons of dirt for the week. climbs onto the Black Angus’s back, $10 million in prize money
He can hear tonight’s capacity crowd he enters “the zone,” a place of deep annually to riders. Top rid-
of 17,600 fans cheering, blaring rock concentration in which he can no ers in the Professional Rodeo
music and a rodeo announcer urging longer hear the cheering crowd, the Cowboys Association, such
the audience to “Give our cowboys wise-cracking rodeo announcer or as J.W. Harris and perhaps a
a BIG, BIG HAND!” The cheering the booming music. All he hears is the dozen others, regularly earn
grows louder as Harris approaches steady, rapid beating of his own heart. over $100,000 a year, with
the arena. the top two bringing in over

Climbing onto a platform behind HILE MANY of today’s ro- $200,000. But nothing is guar-
the six-foot-high steel bucking chutes deos across the United anteed. “Rodeo is a gamble,”
that hold the bulls, he spots the one States may be glitzy affairs says Harris. “If you don’t fin-
he’s drawn to ride tonight : Leon, like the National Finals Rodeo in Las ish in the top five or six places
about three-quarters of Vegas, they have their or so at an event, you won’t
a ton and most of that roots in a much simpler earn a cent. It’s a very hard
muscle, is as long as a time. The competitions, life.”
small pickup truck and “If you don’t consisting of bull riding, It’s been a good year for
a third as wide. And finish in the top tie-down roping, saddle Harris and he’s finished in
he’s angry. After being five or six bronc riding and more, the money at most of the ro-
crammed into the cof- grew out of the 19th deos he’s ridden in. If he can
fin-size gated chute, this
places at an century working world stay on top of Leon for the re-
bred-to-buck wild-eyed event, you won’t of American cowboys. quired eight seconds, a team
monster is banging his earn a cent,” Eventually they evolved of two judges will award him Harris on Leon at the National Finals Rodeo in
massive head against its says Harris. from casual, fun affairs points, based on his control 2013, going for his fourth world champion title.
steel rails and is shoot-
ing rivers of snot out his
“It’s a very hard into organized compe-
titions, ranging from
of the bull, his balance and
overall style of riding. They will also bull stockmen are producing more so-
enlarged nostrils. life.” small amateur weekend judge the bull, awarding points for its called “monster” bulls. “We’re trying
Harris, 5’10”, and 145 rodeos to today’s profes- power, speed, and kicking ability. to breed bulls that are tough, love to
pounds soaking wet, sional events. The harder the bull is to ride, the buck and spin and don’t do the same


says little as he climbs up onto the While rodeo events like tie-down more points the judges will award. A moves twice,” says bull breeder Julio
chute. Unlike other riders who study roping and barrel racing have their perfect score is 100; most pros score Moreno.
a bull’s past performance, Harris re- fans, it’s bull riding’s man-versus- between the mid 70s to the high 80s— According to a Wall Street Journal
lies on his intuition, experience and beast leitmotif that really gets these if they stay on for the required eight report, a decade ago the best profes-
skill to keep him atop a bull. “Anyway, diehard rodeo fans’ hearts pumping. seconds. Harris’ career best is an in- sional bull riders used to ride a full
there’s no way to predict what a bull is Once an obscure, extreme sport, bull credible 96, which he earned at a ro- eight seconds 85 percent of the time;
going to do,” he has said. “I just get on riding has become more and more deo in 2006. today’s average is less than half that.
him, a leg on each side, a hand on the popular and prize money has in- But meanwhile the bulls have got- A “superbull” like Moreno’s famous
rope, and just ride.” creased dramatically over the last 20 ten tougher. Using in vitro fertiliza- 1,650-pound Bushwacker, threw more
As he watches Leon, he says a short, years. The Professional Bull Riders As- tion, cloning and bloodline registries, than 40 cowboys in a row before he

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was ridden—once. Explains Donnie woven into the rope, loops the remain- pertly, intuitively countering Leon’s more seconds he’d have been $18,000
Gay, “The rank bulls 20 years ago were der of the heavily rosined rope around kicks by leaning forward, then leaning richer. Later he will admit, “I should
just as good as the rank bulls today. his hand one more time and grips it back as the snorting bull dips his huge have concentrated harder before the
The difference is that there are many tightly. head almost to the dirt. Two seconds. ride. I shouldn’t have let him get me
more of them today.” There’s another rope, the flank strap, Leon twists violently to the right, off center.”
which has been wrapped around Le- bucks high into the air and comes Harris hates to lose but is quick to

NCE LEON STOPS thrash- on’s belly by his handler just in front of crashing down to earth with a thud repeat the old rodeo saying: “Some-
ing against the chute, Har- his hind legs, not around his testicles, that is hard enough to rupture Harris’s times you get the bull, sometimes the
ris climbs over the rail and as many mistakenly believe. This is the kidneys. But Harris hangs on, rolling bull gets you.”
slowly, gingerly, lowers himself, knees one that annoys him and will cause his knees into Leon and keeping his
first, onto Leon’s back. “It’s my way of him to kick like, well, like an angry left, free hand high in the air for bal- Harris’s bid for a fifth world champion
introducing myself to wild bull, once the chute ance. Three seconds. title in December 2014 fell short, and
the bull,” Harris once opens. Harris counters the bull’s twists and he concluded the season ninth in the
explained. “If he bucks Harris scoots up Le- bucks and hangs on until Leon circles Professional Rodeo Cowboy Associa-
or thrashes, I’ll ease off.” “It’s my way to on’s back, almost sit- violently to the left. He tries to react tion standings.
Leon snorts loudly but introducing ting on his own fist. to the bull’s movement by shifting
doesn’t thrash about. So myself to Anticipating that Leon his center of gravity to try to stay cen-
far, so good. might begin bucking, he tered on Leon’s back. But the sudden
Next, Harris settles
the bull,” Harris steadies himself by grab- whipsawing is too much for Harris. He
in atop Leon, some five once explained. bing one of the chute’s loses his balance and is bucked off.
feet off the ground, not “If he bucks rails. But Leon cooper- He goes flying through ten feet of air
sitting directly on him or thrashes, I’ll ates. Harris takes a deep and lands with a thud on the hard dirt
but supporting his body breath, tightens his legs floor. Four seconds.
by placing his weight on
ease off.” around the bull’s mas- Worried that Leon might want to
the inside of his thighs. sive flanks and signals head butt, gore or stomp him, Har-
Suddenly Leon bucks with a nod to the chute ris scrambles to his feet and limps to
against the chute and Harris eases boss that’s he’s ready. safety, out of the bull’s line of sight.
off. He’s seen too many riders suffer Harris may have lost his battle

broken legs or busted ankles from HE CROWD BEGINS scream- with Leon but he’s won the war. Even
bulls that have smashed them into the ing loudly as Leon explodes out though he’s failed to score on tonight’s
chute’s side rails. of the chute like a freight train. ride, Harris has amassed more points
He waits a bit and then tugs and He immediately goes airborne, kick- than any of the NFR’s other top 15 bull
tightens the “bull rope” that he and a ing up clumps of dirt that rain down riders in Las Vegas and during the year
chuteman have already looped around on Harris. The massive bull twists his to earn him what he’s been working so
the bull’s midsection a few minutes body and kicks his back legs up and hard for: his fourth “World Champion
earlier. Leon is snorting, raising his out, trying his best to send Harris fly- Bull Rider” title in six years.
head but he’s not bucking. “So far, so ing. One second. Still, he beats himself up as he hur-
good,” thinks Harris. Then he slips his The crowd goes wild, cheering as ries out of the ring, limping. If he
leather-gloved right hand into a handle they watch Harris hanging on and ex- had stayed atop Leon for just four

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