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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Upcoming rodeo will bring "culture shock" to Atlantic City

Upcoming rodeo will bring "culture shock" to Atlantic City

Bo Casper sat on a bench in the back of the arena at the Georgia National Fairgrounds, stretching, then carefully wrapping his arms with tape.
The 29-year-old from Oakland, Ark., had driven nearly 700 miles to Georgia to ride a horse bareback for 8 seconds. His expression was serious as he went about his preparations.
Casper then went out and got flung about like a ragdoll by an enormous bucking horse as the crowd of nearly 5,000 roared in approval. After the ride, the slender Casper jumped off the horse and jokingly struck a bodybuilder pose, drawing more cheers. He headed back to the changing area, hoping his score of 80 out of 100 would hold up over the next three nights to earn him some prize money.
"We're here to make a livin' and to feed our families, but we're also here for the crowd and spectators," Casper said. "You never know what little kid's watching you. Tonight, I rode that horse that jumped around, and it wasn't 90 (points), but that kid's not going to remember the guy that was 80 (points). He's going to remember that little guy that was out there flexing his muscles. It's a show."
That show will come to Boardwalk Hall April 1 to 3 with the Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo.
The fairgrounds, with farmers displaying their prized pigs and vendors selling corndogs, will be replaced by the bright lights of the casinos. The inside of Boardwalk Hall will be converted into a place where real cowboys feel at home, and the smell of manure is omnipresent but somewhat charming.
Culture shock
"You city folks have to watch your step," John Barnes, who runs Barnes PRCA Rodeo, said as he walked onto the dirt surface on the arena floor a few hours before the rodeo in Perry.
With about 100 horses, bulls, steers and calves on the premises, manure is just a part of the business that Barnes' family has been in since 1950, holding events sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
Of the 176 events scheduled on the PRCA's website as of March 1, Atlantic City's was one of only three in the northeastern United States. The others were Glen Falls, N.Y., and Marshfield, Mass. Most rodeos are outdoors, or at least in more rural areas.
"It's going to be a culture shock for Atlantic City. ... There's going to be (cowboy) hats worn in casinos, and there are going to be hats on the streets," Barnes said.
Barnes, 48, is one of a number of stock contractors who run PRCA-sanctioned rodeos. He has been to the region before - including the Beach Rodeo in Wildwood in 2001 - but never to Atlantic City. The resort hosted the Professional Bull Riders tour in 2003, but bull riding is just one of seven events in a full rodeo.
The Boardwalk Rodeo will feature bull riding and two other roughstock events with horses: bareback riding and saddle bronc riding. There are also four timed events: Steer wrestling, women's barrel racing (on horseback), tie-down roping (calves) and team roping (steers).
The main attractions, of course, are the roughstock events. Even successful rides, such as Casper's, appear painful as the cowboys lean almost all the way back and hold on with one hand as the animal attempts to buck them off.
Then there are the rides such as the one Bobby Griswold had, when he was thrown several feet in the air by a bucking horse and landed hard in the dirt.
"It's an aggressive sport, and yeah, we do get the bumps and bruises," said Griswold, a 43-year-old saddle bronc rider from Geary, Okla.
Interestingly, Griswold's fall drew just as many cheers as Casper's solid ride.
"People want to see the action," Georgia National Fairgrounds official Michelle Treptow said. "I guess it's kind of like car racing. You know, you want to see the action and the accidents. You don't want anyone hurt, but you want to see something like that."
The paramedics on hand at the Georgia National Fairgrounds only had to deal with a few minor cuts and scrapes over the course of the three-day rodeo. But bad injuries do occur.
Casper said one time he got off a horse cleanly but then the animal kicked him in the leg so hard that he broke multiple bones. Last summer, an 18-year-old cowboy in Canada was killed after being bucked and trampled by a bull at a rodeo.
Most of the time, though, the injuries are minor. The cowboys usually don't even feel their bumps and bruises until well after the adrenaline rush subsides from their 8-second ride in the noisy arena.
"They usually don't hit you until the next day," said Wade Phelps, 22, a bull rider from Roanoke, Ill. "Not to say it don't hurt then, but you're usually all right until you wake up the next day and you're like, ‘Oh, man, I can't move.' "
‘America's original No. 1 sport.'
In addition to the action, fans come for the atmosphere.
Women in red, white and blue sequined outfits opened the Georgia event by riding into the arena on horseback with American flags while Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American" blared from the speakers.
Announcer Kelly Kenney then asked in his deep baritone, with a thick drawl, "Are there any rednecks in the crowd tonight?" He noted that they were about to see "America's original No. 1 sport."
A prayer preceded the national anthem, as the spectators bowed their heads.
Shortly after the event started, rodeo clown Robbie Hodges - basically a poor man's Larry the Cable Guy - told fans he loved performing in Georgia because there were no Yankees.
During the down time between competitors - there was a lot during the roping and steer wrestling events, in particular - Hodges told jokes and interacted with the crowd.
The announcer and clown will be different in Atlantic City, but other than the Yankee joke, don't expect much to change up north.
"We try to make it our home wherever we go," veteran Barnes employee Ronn Taylor said.
The fun factor
As much as they try to make it like home, it's anything but that for the cowboys.
After his ride in Georgia, Casper unwrapped the tape from his arms, changed into street clothes - still with a cowboy hat - and got back on the road, heading 345 miles down Interstate 75 to another rodeo in Kissimmee, Fla.
He wasn't even in Georgia two nights later when it was announced that his 80-point ride was good enough for a third-place tie and $520. And most of the spectators on that third night hadn't even seen his ride.
While there are some fans who actually follow the cowboys, and the announcer notes when some of the more accomplished competitors are up, most of the crowd is just there for the action. And that goes both ways.
"It's a lot of fun. I enjoy the fans. The more we can get, the more fun it is for us," said Phelps, the bull rider. "We don't have as much fun if we're out there and don't have a good audience. Having a good audience really makes us want to go out there and make a good show for them."

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