Along for the rodeo ride

Rodeo: Roped in by the danger and excitement of bull and bronco riding, thousands are flocking to see Western fun in Frederick County.

June 11, 2000|By Deborah Bach | Deborah Bach,SUN STAFF

The crowd cheers as a table and chairs are carried into the dusty arena.

Then they wait, rapt, as four cowboys seat themselves, take off their hats and bow their heads in prayer. The men might well pray - seconds later, a bull will be released into the ring for a suicidal game of chicken known as cowboy poker. There's just one rule: The last cowboy seated wins.

"I want to give you guys some advice right now," announcer Chip Ridgely says, safely elevated in a box well above the ground. "Don't look."

They don't. The gates are opened and the bull heads straight for the foursome, knocking one of the cowboys out of his chair with the effort it would take to toss a rag doll. A second swipe upends the table. In a few seconds, it's all over, no one's hurt and a cowboy named Scruff emerges victorious.

It's all part of the entertainment at the J Bar W Ranch in Johnsville, about an hour's drive - but worlds away - from downtown Baltimore. On most days, life plods along at a tranquil pace in this tiny Frederick County community on Route 75, between Union Bridge and Libertytown.

But on this Saturday night, trucks, cars and a multitude of cowboy hats stream through the gates of the ranch for opening night of Battle of the Beast, a summer rodeo that attracts about 2,000 people from Maryland and surrounding states.

"We get all kinds up here, but it's not just the event itself -- it's the atmosphere, the food, the noise, the people," says the 34-year-old Ridgely, a livestock breeder who lives on a 167-acre ranch in Union Bridge. "It's good people-watching at rodeos."

Ridgely, a former bull rider, says the danger of the rodeo is the real draw. Even with cowboy poker on the agenda, the rodeo's main attraction and the one most people come to see is the high-risk thrill of professional bull riding.

"Good evening, ladies and gentleman," Ridgely booms from the booth, pumping up the crowd as the show gets under way. "Y'all ready for some bull riding tonight?"

The country music turns to rock 'n' roll as one after another, 32 cowboys come flying out of the chutes, tossed wildly on the backs of bulls with names like Armageddon, Little Twister and Crazy Train. Most are disqualified for touching the bull with their free hand or letting go of the rope before the required eight seconds are up. Only 10 move to the second round, reserved for the most ornery bulls.

The excitement rises with each second a rider stays on. Arizona cowboy Kevin Henley takes his turn on a fearsome bull named Demolition Man, who looks like he wants nothing more than a piece of cowboy. The audience roars as Ridgely introduces Pennsylvania cowboy Joe Stoltzfus, who won with a polished, impressive performance on a cream and brown bull angrily trying to throw him off.

Andrea and Michael Lacasse of Jefferson have been coming to the rodeo since it started in 1997 and look forward to watching the bull riders every year.

"This rodeo's good. They really get the audience involved and there's a lot of good bull riding," says Andrea Lacasse, decked out in black boots and jeans, a fringed leather jacket and black cowboy hat. Laughing, she adds, "We secretly want to be bull riders."

Bull riding may be the highlight for Garry Kester and his 71-year-old mother, Virginia Kester, but they had another reason to travel from Martinsburg, W.Va., for the night. Glenn Kester, Garry's younger brother, is the rodeo clown.

Barrel of laughs

Perched on a brightly colored barrel in the middle of the arena, Glenn Kester cracks one-liners throughout the show, but also serves a more serious purpose - to help distract bulls from fallen riders.

The Kesters have been going to rodeos for decades. Garry Kester says Battle of the Beast has one of the most critical ingredients for a quality event: well-bred rough- stock.

A former breeder, Garry Kester says the trick is to cross-breed bulls with the desired characteristics -- longhorns for their horns and colors, Brahman for their humps, Angus and Hereford for their aggressive temperaments. The best bulls, he says, will twist from side to side and spin as if they're trying to bore a hole in the ground.

Earlier in the day, more than an hour before the event starts, the bleachers quickly fill and lines grow at the booths selling lemonade, french fries, pit beef and rib-eye sandwiches. There are funnel cakes piled with fruit and displays of toy gun sets and T-shirts bearing slogans such as "Rodeo Rug Rat" and "Cowboy Attitude." The festive atmosphere feels like a summer night on the midway, but over behind the announcer's booth, it's all business.

For the love of the sport

About 20 cowboys are gathered near the bullpens, checking gear and stretching their muscles in preparation for the rough ride ahead.

Jim Robinson, a 27-year-old from Essex, slouches in a chair, swigging from a water bottle. Robinson, who juggles his weekend rodeo schedule with a job making airplane parts, has wanted to ride bulls since his parents took him to a New Jersey rodeo when he was age 5.

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