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Chuting The Bull

In Cave Creek, almost any yahoo can try riding a live bull behind a rowdy Western saloon. But only the baddest cowboys can make it big in the rising sport of professional bull riding.

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published by: Times Publications, May 2009


The first rider of the night climbs over the labyrinth of metal rails and lowers himself into the narrow chute, hunkering down on the back of a 1,600-pound bull. With one gloved hand gripped firmly to the handle of a flat, braided rope that belts the bull around its massive chest, he nods to the official, and the gate slides open with a loud, resonant “clank.”

The bull immediately charges out of the chute, its horned head down and hind legs kicking high into the air. In a blink, the rider is tossed face first into the dirt, helped quickly to his feet by a pair of rodeo clowns – or “bullfighters,” as they prefer to be called – and hustled out of the arena.

The fallen rider is a big man, sporting the meaty biceps and barrel chest of a hulk accustomed to demanding physical labor and the menacing eyes of a scrapper who’s no doubt seen his share of bar fights.

But tonight, as the first of some 15 amateurs and semi-seasoned riders who’ve shelled out $20 apiece for the experience of riding a real live bull behind the Buffalo Chip Saloon in Cave Creek, the roadhouse roughneck gets no respect at all.

“That was a guy in a baseball cap falling off a bull,” deadpans announcer Dave Smith, who co-runs the weekly events with his wife, Cindi. “Next up, we got a real cowboy who’s gonna see if he can git ‘er done.”

Every Wednesday night in the campground area behind the rustic 1880s-style steakhouse and saloon, nestled between Cave Creek’s most popular biker bars, the Smiths host a “practice night,” where virtually anyone can sign a waiver and climb on the back of one of the two dozen bulls the couple owns for a shot at what rodeo fans call “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports.” On Friday nights, the best riders return for a chance to win a slice of the $1,000 in prize money offered to those who show the best control during the required eight seconds atop the bucking bulls.

“I probably won’t take you if you’re drunk,” says Cindi Smith – a stipulation that weeds out a good percentage of the rowdy patrons who frequent the Cave Creek bar scene. “And I probably won’t take you if you’re 80 years old. But I have taken a man in his 60s who wanted to do it. Who am I to tell him he can’t give it a try?”

But admission into the club of serious cowboys who also round up at the Buffalo Chip on bull-riding nights is not nearly as easy. Professional riders from all over Arizona, New Mexico and California have lately taken to using the Smith’s bulls and the saloon’s mini-rodeo grounds as training for what has become one of America’s fastest-growing spectator sports.

Televised bull-riding events have become hot properties for NBC, FOX and ESPN, pulling in over 100 million viewers each year, according to the Professional Bull Riders, or PBR, an association whose annual World Finals Championship in Las Vegas awards a million-dollar paycheck to the best-judged rider. This year, six of the top riders in the Built Ford Tough Series, considered the “major league” tour of the PBR competitions, earned more than $100,000 each on the 30-city circuit.

“I just laugh when somebody says they think they’re ready to ride a bull because they’ve ridden a mechanical bull at their local nightclub,” says Jake Sporbert, 29, a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), who says he’s been riding bulls since he was 17.

“That’s like saying you think you’re ready to become a professional singer because you’ve done karaoke,” Sporbert says. “Up here, it’s like you’re stepping onstage at American Idol.”

Seasonal Cowboys

Most of the year, Jake Sporbert works as a uniformed bellman at the ritzy Fairmont Scottsdale Resort, trucking luggage and golf clubs around for vacationing snowbirds.

But during the summer, Sporbert trades in the pillbox cap for his more comfortable cowboy hat and takes off to work the First Frontier circuit with the PRCA, bringing live bull-riding action to rodeos from Virginia to Maine.

“I basically work to earn money to ride bulls,” says Sporbert, whose summer obsession conveniently coincides with the Valley resort’s sluggish season. “I leave when they’re slow and come back when they’re busy. So it works out great for everybody.” Since bull riders don’t get paid unless they win – and, unlike most pro sports, are actually required to pay entry fees to participate in each rodeo event – almost every rider has to work a day job to feed their habit. Chad Martin, another rider who often competes at the Buffalo Chip and tours annually in the PRCA’s Turquoise circuit throughout Arizona and New Mexico, works as an electrician. “I really don’t have any long-term goals, except to ride as much as I can,” he says.

John Martin, who works as a bullfighter at the events, earns money as a tree-trimmer – a profession he says scares him more than taunting angry bulls to send them charging back into the pens. “I don’t like heights,” Martin quips. “But bulls, I can handle.” Acquiring the proper equipment for bull riding is also different than, say, getting into skateboarding. While almost any young Shaun White wannabe can scrape together a few bucks for their own skateboard, few aspiring bull riders have a bucking Brahma in their own backyard to practice on.

A good bull can fetch anywhere from $800 to $5,000, and the meaner the bull, the more points the rider scores. Cindi Smith says a top-ranked PBR bull can go for as much as $400,000.

“A lot of guys will string up a barrel between some trees, to simulate the movements of a bull,” says Sporbert. “But there’s no substitute for the real thing.”

Sporbert and Chad Martin were lucky enough to make friends with Thor Smith, Cindi and Dave’s son, around the time the Hills family was getting into the business of buying and breeding bulls about seven years ago.

“When we first started, it was just me, Chad and Thor and five bulls,” says Sporbert. “And we’d just get together on a Saturday afternoon and run ‘em until either we or they got tired.”

Eventually the get-togethers became a community event, with up to 300 people showing up at the Smith ranch each weekend to watch a growing coterie of cowboys chute the bulls. Sensing a scene, Cindi began selling hot dogs for $1.50, and her mom sold fresh-baked cookies.

After a community newspaper covered the events, Buffalo Chip owner Larry Wendt offered the Smiths a weekly fee to bring their bulls to his bar and built a professional-grade pen and chute facility in the wide swath of desert behind the saloon.

Now roughly a year into its successful run, the set-up has afforded budding bull riders their first regular venue since the famed West Phoenix nightclub Mr. Lucky’s closed its doors in 2004.

“A lot of guys are lucky if they get to ride one bull a week,” says Thor Smith – who’s lucky enough to have 23 at his disposal now behind his parents’ house. Besides participating in PRCA rodeos and often winning the Friday-night contests at the Buffalo Chip, Smith, 25, also teaches weekend bull-riding classes at his folks’ place, where city slickers pay $350 for three days of lessons, including meals and boarding.

“I’m fortunate to be able to make a living at it – although I guess that all depends on what you call a living,” says Smith, who definitely looks the part in his bushy Hank Williams, Jr. beard. “There’s guys in the PRCA who make $200,000 a year riding bulls,” he says. “I’m not one of those guys yet.”

Being married, Smith also misses out on the groupies – or “Buckle Bunnies” – that follow pro bull riders around. On packed Friday nights at the Chip, it’s not uncommon to spy a few sexy bull-diggers dodging puddles of tobacco spit in their $300 Lucchese boots. “I’m not getting rich doing this,” Smith says. “But I get to ride bulls all the time, and I’m doing it my way. I guess you could call that success.”

Young Bucks

Growing up on a ranch in rural Catalina, Arizona, about 20 miles north of Tucson, 16-year-old Cody Wortman says he had little interest in the popular pursuits of more city-fied teens.

“I play a little X-Box,” says Wortman, who also admits to spending some time on MySpace and YouTube – “although I probably haven’t updated my page in, like, ten months.”

Mostly, though, you can find Wortman outside, tending to his family’s horses or riding bulls, which he hopes to someday raise and breed.

“I’m hoping to become a professional bull rider,” says Wortman, who’s already well on his way. Currently the top rider in the Arizona Youth Bull Riders Association (AYBRA), a group of 4- to 19-year-old riders that stages monthly rodeos at the Central Arizona College campus in Coolidge, Wortman – who goes by the nickname “Chowdog” – finished fourth in last year’s National Junior Bull Riders Association finals in Shawnee, Oklahoma. His award-winning buckle marked his 16th top-five finish in bull-riding events around Arizona and the country and came with a $700 cash prize – which Wortman used to buy a calf that he hopes to turn into a bucking bull.

“I’d like to make my way up to the PBR,” he says, admitting he has no real fall-back career plans. “If I don’t make it there, I’ll probably just continue buying bulls and helping out at rodeos.”

Clearly it’s a different world for the young kids who get into bull riding. Most, like Cody, come from small towns, are heavily involved in the rodeo lifestyle and tend to be home-schooled.

“Schools aren’t too happy when you pull your kids out a week at a time to go to rodeo finals,” explains AYBRA president Brian McWhirt of Queen Creek, whose 8-year-old son Justin is already a two-time national qualifier in the junior league. “A lot of our kids do online schooling.”

For young riders, climbing atop bulls can reap more immediate fortunes than climbing any corporate ladder.

“The first year I hauled my son around to rodeos, he made a little over $17,000,” says McWhirt. “That’s not bad for a 7-year-old!” Parents of junior bull riders are a significant departure from the average over-protective soccer mom. Statistically, bull riding has the highest rate of injury of all rodeo sports: on the PBR tours, injuries average 1 in every 15 rides. But most rodeo ma’s and pa’s just shrug off such scary stats.

“Justin broke his left arm – broke both bones in it,” says McWhirt. “But it didn’t seem to slow him down. After he broke his arm, we went to nine rodeos – he insisted – and he won seven of them!”

“Yeah, it can be rough,” agrees Wortman’s mom, Cindy. “But no more than football or basketball. We’ve been lucky so far – just minor sprains and bruises.”

Cindy admits she cringes a little each time Cody comes up limping after a buck, but says those moments have, fortunately, been few and far between.

“Heck, if he wasn’t so good at it,” she adds, with a laugh, “I’d probably be a lot more worried!”

”–

 
 
Photos by Ross Mason, Matt Cohen

Valley bull rider Thor Smith gets tossed by Mr. Attitude at the 2008 Oakdale Rodeo, Oakdale, CA. Smith was taken out of the ring on a backboard and stretcher but was later released from the hospital with only minor injuries. Photo by Matt Cohen.

Cindi Smith (above) and her husband, Dave, run the regular amateur bull riding competition at the Buffalo Chip Saloon.

Thor Smith at the Buffalo Chip Saloon.

Another rider attempts to go "the most dangerous eight seconds in sports" at the Buffalo Chip.