Fearsome bulls, fearless cowboys and a roaring crowd. Live from Westminster, Md., it's Saturday night!
Most Saturdays since Jan. 1, bull-riding fans have been filling the 1,500 seats at the Danele Shipley Memorial Arena at the Carroll County Agriculture Center. The Feb. 19 show was no exception.
In the combined country-western and carnival atmosphere, twangy tunes blared from loudspeakers. Vendors hawked rodeo gear, and volunteers sold raffle tickets for a local charity. Aromas of frying funnel cakes and grilled Brahma cheeseburgers mingled with heady scents of leather and livestock.
"It's a great date, and we will probably get dinner here, too," said Karen Good of Frederick, accompanied by Todd Kelch of Glen Burnie. "Nowhere is too far to come for this rodeo," he said.
Drew Strine tried to take in bits of the show between cooking stints at a deep fryer. His customers were all eager to return to foot-stomping and cheering in the bleachers.
"It gets pretty noisy in here," said Strine, one of several New Windsor Fire Company volunteers selling fried confections to raise money for the town's new firehouse.
The crowd cheered for bulls dubbed High Voltage, Fear.com and Grim Reaper, who spend most of the week grazing in Johnsville, Frederick County, at the J Bar W Ranch Inc., whose owners produce The Battle of the Beast show. Fans whooped it up for their favorite cowboys, who each pay $100 to pit their strength against a testy, one-ton bovine and take home a cash prize.
"I wanna see people chasing cows," said Ryan Focht, 9.
"You are going to see people riding bulls," said his father, Steven Focht of Finksburg.
The Fochts were new to the show, unlike Ron Miles of Manchester, who has not missed a competition. He arrived last Saturday on crutches with his leg in a cast.
"I guarantee this beats Saturday night TV anytime, unless they put Carol Burnett back on," Miles said. "This is good family entertainment. I am here every week. I guess I am just a good old country boy."
Folks accessorized their denim with felt or straw cowboy hats and Texas-style boots. Many of the little girls left the arena wearing pale-pink Stetsons, purchased from the Cowboy Stuff booth. A few had matching pink boots.
Before the main event, the children had the run of the ring. They could ride stick horses, lasso a plastic steer-head mounted on a hay bale or take turns on a mechanical bull.
"You just hold your one hand up to keep your balance," 8-year-old Matthew Lorber of Reisterstown said of his ersatz ride. "I would like to try it for real."
But Matthew didn't join the mutton busting, an intermission activity for kids willing to ride a sheep for a $25 prize.
At the show's opening, 32 competitors, decked out in colorful, fringed chaps, doffed their Stetsons and knelt for the Cowboy Prayer. They placed hands on hearts for "The Star-Spangled Banner" while a horseback rider carrying the American flag circled the cowboy troupe.
Johnny Constantinople, a 48-year-old, nine-time champion, was the first out of the bucking chute, a small fenced spot where rider first meets bull. The veteran, more than 20 years older than the average competitor, fell off and away from his bull immediately.
"Things don't always work out the way a cowboy wants them to," said Chip Ridgely, who announces from a usually safe corner inside the ring.
Bull riders hold tight to a flat, braided rope tied behind the animal's front legs. They must hang on for eight seconds with one arm in the air. Judges score the riders on how well they ride and how well the bulls buck.
A perfect score would be 50 for the rider, 50 for the bull, but such a feat is rare, said Lisa Williams, who co-owns the J Bar W and runs the show with her father and brother.
"We promise on-the-edge entertainment throughout the night," Williams said. "We breed our bulls for athletic ability."
Laura Pearl of Sparks knew nothing of what many call the most dangerous sport in the world, but chose the show for her 40th birthday celebration.
"I needed something different," Pearl said. "This is rodeo right in front of you, not on TV."
Many bulls start bucking before they enter the ring and toss the rider long before the eight-second buzzer. The concrete floor is covered with a thick layer of sand and dirt to ease the riders' falls. To deter goring or trampling, rodeo clowns quickly coax the bull back into the paddock.
"This show is your chance to see a bull-rider ejected 15 feet into the air and have his life saved by a rodeo clown," said Larry Collins, arena manager.
Many fallen riders had the breath knocked out of them and were escorted from the ring, probably left to tape their own wounds, Williams said.
"This is not the NFL with chiropractors on the sidelines," she said.
Whenever a suddenly riderless bull headed his way, Ridgely exercised fence-scaling skill and assured the crowd, "I am never scared."
High Voltage, who stubbornly refused to return to the paddock after throwing a rider, did stop the show for a tense 10 minutes.