Bull rider Chris Casey had barely made his way out the bucking chute Saturday night when the animal beneath him, rearing and kicking wildly, made quick work of throwing the Burlington County cowboy sideways into the dirt.
And the bull wasn’t done.
Before Casey could get up from his fall, the bull lunged and head butted Casey, sending him somersaulting into the air like a rag doll. There was an audible gasp from the Boardwalk Hall crowd as he landed.
Casey, seemingly stunned, staggered to the edge of the arena, hands clutching his stomach. The announcer calmly told the crowd that an EMT was on standby to examine the rider. Suddenly, aiming for eight seconds on a wild bull seemed a lot more dangerous.
But after a few tense moments, Casey got up, and somehow walked away. The crowd cheered. The next bull rider prepared his rope to ride.
The bucking chute opened again.
It is the essence of rodeo. There is the adrenaline rush, the thrill of watching professional cowboys conquer bulls and broncos and wrestle steers to the dirt. And there is the chance all the while that one wrong move – or one particularly ornery animal – could mean serious injury to the rider.
The action drew more fans than one might expect to the third annual Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo, which brought some 220 professional cowboys and cowgirls for what is now the largest professional rodeo on the East Coast on October 5 and 6 at Boardwalk Hall arena. With 30 minutes to go before the Saturday night installment, there was a line for last-minute ticket purchases extending from the box office out onto the Boardwalk. The line easily looped around a small group of animal rights protesters who waited with signs outside.
Rodeo fans donned cowboy boots, tractor gear, leather fringe and cowboy hats of every shape and size – including a tiny, purple glitter cowboy hat one young girl proudly wore as she danced in the aisles.
The rodeo is a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association-sanctioned event, sponsored by every casino in the city. Spectators got the chance to see riders compete in seven PRCA show events, including bareback riding, tie-down roping, saddle bronc riding, team roping, barrel racing, steer wrestling and bull riding. Riders were competing for $85,000 in prize money.
In what is actually a pretty amazing feat, the inside of Boardwalk Hall was transformed from a typical concert or sports venue to a rodeo-friendly surface. About 40 truckloads of dirt – a special mixture of sand and clay – were brought in to cover the concrete surface.
The rodeo was originally the brainchild of the late casino executive Dennis Gomes, who somehow convinced a roomful of Atlantic City officials three years ago that bringing a rodeo to the resort was not only possible – it would be popular.
And it has been. Fans not only enjoy the professional events, but all the goofy antics that come with them. There was Hippie, the over-the-top rodeo clown in baggy overalls, who somehow got the entire crowd to watch four audience members play musical chairs and make it funny. There was the colorful rodeo entertainer doing silly tricks with his miniature horse.
And there were, of course, the cowboys, with names like Howdy Cloud, Freckles Clelan, Clovis Crane and Friday Wright II.
One of the more lighthearted moments came when Western entertainer Jerry Wayne Olson entered the arena with his miniature horse, Scout, and performed a routine where the horse laid down for “bedtime” on command, stole a bedtime blanket and even gave a goodnight kiss. Later, Olson brought out his Golden Palomino, named Justin Boots, performing maneuvers without a halter or bridle. In a fantastic finale, the horse, after bowing to the crowd, jumped into the back of a moving pickup truck to exit the arena.
Even when Hippie the clown wasn’t performing, there was plenty of humor – some unintended. After one rough saddle bronc ride, Luke Butterfield’s horse, Lucky, refused to exit the arena – instead wildly galloping around as fellow riders struggled to coax her back.
“I think we should call her Lindsay Lohan,” the announcer deadpanned. “She doesn’t want to go back into the pen.”
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