Casinos plan 'running of bulls' to lure gamblers Western boom town defies animal-rights groups with high-stakes publicity stunt

July 04, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MESQUITE, Nev. -- In a state known for attracting risk-takers, in a once-sleepy town that has taken a few itself, up to 1,000 people will plunk down $50 apiece next weekend for a chance to outrun a dozen hungry 1,000-pound bulls.

Borrowing a page from Pamplona, Spain, and ignoring the protests of animal-rights activists, the Mesquite Resort Association -- made up of three of the five casinos in this, Nevada's fastest-growing city -- will sponsor America's first "running of the bulls" July 11.

Its sponsors intend it to be an annual event -- one they hope will boost tourism during the slow summer months and help the young boom town become better known.

"We need a hook. We want to put Mesquite on the map," said Kirk Lee, director of public relations for the Oasis Resort and Casino, who admits that it's all about -- or at least mostly about -- money. "We're a business. Making money is the reason we're here. Yes, we want to fill up our hotel."

The brainchild of Phoenix promoter Phil Immordino, the bull run was rejected by two cities before it was approved by the #F Mesquite City Council in May. In June, it was blocked by the Nevada Department of Transportation, which refused to issue a permit.

So promoters moved it from the city's main street -- a state road -- to a ranch owned by Mesquite's Oasis Resort and Casino. The ranch is across the border in Arizona.

A gravel road (to cut down on dust) will be laid there this week, bleachers will be assembled, and, to make it more realistic an, Old West town -- or at least the facade of one -- will be erected.

L "The most important thing is for it to look good," Lee said.

Runners -- who must be over 18, in good physical shape, and not under the influence of alcohol -- will try to avoid getting trampled or gored by the bulls while running a third of a mile that will include 6-foot-high walls, with 2-foot-wide escape routes every 100 feet.

It's a gamble, but then, historically, so is Mesquite. About 100 years ago, Mormons from Utah risked their lives trying to settle along the Virgin River. Twice, they were driven out by the harsh desert conditions. Only on the third try did they succeed in establishing a small farming community that, for the next 75 years, would remain little more than a way station for travelers.

About 25 years ago, Si Redd, the inventor of video poker, took a chance when he bought a dusty truck stop in the middle of nowhere and -- despite Mormon misgivings -- turned it into Mesquite's first casino.

Now called the Oasis, it is one of five that offers hotel rooms for as little as $18 a night in an attempt to siphon customers from Las Vegas, 80 miles to the west.

Two years ago, to boost business, the Oasis sponsored a motorcycle stunt by Sherman "Butch" Laswell, whose calculated risk -- jumping over the 38-foot-high pedestrian bridge between the casino and its garage -- ended when Laswell was caught in crosswinds and crashed on the pavement, dying in front of thousands of spectators.

"Obviously, that was a terrible tragedy," said Lee, who is Redd's grandson, "but we can't dwell on the past. We have to move forward."

In the past three years, Mesquite's population has grown from 3,800 to nearly 10,000 today. The city's boundary touches the Arizona border. (At Virgin Valley High School, home of the Bulldogs, a well-kicked field goal can cross the state line.)

Next weekend, the city of Mesquite, population 10,000, stands to get the best of both worlds: It will profit from the attention and tourist bucks but is no longer officially associated with the event -- sparing it from liability and further complaints from animal-rights groups.

"We were pretty much deluged with letters," City Manager Bill DaVee said. "People were saying it was barbaric and that they would stop coming and wouldn't spend another dime here."

Unlike in Pamplona, promoters said, the bulls will not be poked, prodded, whipped or taunted before the run. In the week before the event, the bulls will be walked down the route of the run each day and fed at the end of it.

On the day of the run, they won't be fed.

"These are pretty ornery bulls," Lee said. "They won't just come out of the gate and sit down. You've got to have an element of danger; otherwise, nobody is going to show up."

The run will conclude in the rodeo arena at the Oasis Ranch,

which also offers a petting zoo, horseback riding and a shooting range. Spectators will be admitted free. Runners will pay $50 each. If more than 1,000 show up, there will be a second run.

"A lot of the old fuddy-duddies in town are against it, but I think it will be pretty safe," said Jerry Hudson, 57, one of the first local residents to sign up. "I run every other day. I'm in pretty good shape. If they put the younger guys behind me and I stay in front, I'll be all right."

Pub Date: 7/04/98

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