Standing in a pen outside the arena at Earl Warren Showgrounds, the bulls about to be ridden in the Professional Bull Riding (PBR) challenger tour appeared peaceful. “They know the drill,” said a young handler, noting that when it’s time to get out into the ring with a rider, it’s game time. Part of the 2009 Fiesta festivities, the bull riding competition is one of those contests that’s as American as apple pie, except for the fact that riders come from all over the world – namely the U.S., Canada, Australia, Mexico, and Brazil – to compete. The one at Earl Warren – held on Thursday – is one of the lower rung, untelevised contests that younger riders use to cut their teeth in order to qualify for the Built Ford Tough professional series – where the top contenders show their stuff. Still a fair number of big name riders showed up in Santa Barbara, including four former world champions, and the current one, a Brazilian rider named Guilherme Marchi. “The roster reads like a who’s who,” said Clayton Cullen, a PBR senior vice president, and the man behind Thursday’s event.
With a couple of pyrotechnic explosions igniting the letters PBR in the dirt of the arena, the competition officially began. Other than padded leather vests and sturdy clothes, there are no safety standards, although many of the riders opted to wear helmets with face masks. One man who didn’t was Ben Jones, 30, of Australia, who scored 88 points in an impressive ride performed wearing no helmet. “I’ll never wear one of those things,” he said, smiling to reveal that he was missing several front teeth. An 11-year veteran of professional bull riding, Jones said that he’ll continue doing it until he can no longer get on a bull.
Most rides are over so quickly that you hardly get a chance to see what sort of style the rider has, but in those few seconds, there is an opportunity for each one to display some individuality. Brendan Clark, from Morpeth, Australia, was back on a bull for the first time in more than three months, having nearly died when a bull stepped on his chest. The same nearly happened after an exciting ride on Thursday, August 6. The bull’s front hooves missed hitting him by what looked like inches. He has been dating Allison Renz, an agricultural real estate appraiser from Salinas, for a year now, but she said that, having grown up on a ranch, she’s used to the idea of dating cowboys.
Most of the riders, all of whom were men, start out at a young age, and you don’t see too many over the age of 30 competing in the rough sport. “I started out like a baseball player starts out with t-ball,” said Cord McCoy, 28, of Tupelo, Oklahoma, who began riding calves and steers when he was five years old. Some of the younger riders are pretty brazen, such as one guy who rode with no helmet, hopping off the bull’s back effortlessly when he could no longer hold on. He didn’t even lose the dip in his mouth. Aside from the bravado that comes with engaging in such dangerous sport, at the end of the day, showmanship is key. Marchi, an expert at drumming up applause with his rides and persona, was a perfect example of that.
For competition results, click here.