Bull riders hit the dust

Cowboys gather in Anchorage for a taste of glory ... and pain

Posted: Monday, September 11, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Bucking and spinning, the bull named "Smokeless Chili" first gave Rowdy Sanders the heave, hurling him horizontally through the air so that the cowboy soared above the dirt-layered cement floor at Sullivan Arena like a swimmer entering the pool from the starting block.

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For good measure, the 1,550-pound bull swung his head and used one of his horns to tag Sanders with a parting shot to the ribs that left Sanders wincing and bent at the waist, trying to collect himself and his breath.

That violent dismissal cost Sanders some pain - and $7,500, the cash he would have collected for staying on "Smokeless Chili" for eight seconds.

And you thought you had a lousy day at the office? What, the vending machine was out of M&M's? The meeting ran long? You banged your shin against the leg of your desk?

Oh, the agony!

The fellas on the Professional Bull Riders circuit, which came to Sullivan for competitions this weekend, can tell you about truly tough shifts at work.

Take Sanders, a 5-foot-7, 135-pound string of muscle from Whiteface, Texas. He's all of 22, but he already is fashioning quite a medical file. After he and "Smokeless Chili" finished their date, Sanders dispassionately rattled off his ailments, sounding more like a young man reciting his grocery list than one who puts his health at risk every day he works.

"I broke my ankle in five places, broke some ribs, been knocked out a few times," he said.

Despite the risks, there's a lot of money to be made in this burgeoning circuit, which is televised on OLN and NBC and is making rock stars out of humble, polite guys in hats who are full of "Yes, sirs" and "No, sirs."

Friday's event drew maybe 1,500 to 2,000 throaty folks to Sullivan. The weekend's event was part of the PBR's Enterprise Rent-A-Car circuit, which features newcomers to the sport, but also bonafide stars such as former world champion Mike Lee, who has earned nearly $2 million for his miseries.

The PBR bills itself as "The World's Most Extreme Sport," but it's mainstream, too - companies like Ford, Wrangler, Budweiser and the U.S. Army have hitched their wagons to it.

For all the agony the sport involves, you have to like the accounting.

"There's a lot of money on the line," Sanders said. "To go all the way from Texas to Alaska, you're not here to fall off."

Sanders was the last cowboy to ride Friday night, drawing a dynamo named "Liquid Courage." The bull spun left momentarily, then reversed field and spun wickedly fast to the right. Sanders stayed atop it for the full eight seconds, and he and "Liquid Courage" generated the highest score of the night - both the cowboy and the bull can receive up to 50 points - with an 88.5.

That earned Sanders the chance to ride "Smokeless Chili" with a $7,500 bonus in the offing.

Sanders didn't cash in, but he walked away and smiled.

And given the alternatives in this sport, where broken bones are as common as manure, sometimes that's enough to qualify as a decent day at the office.

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