Madison Square Garden is ripe with the smell of manure and smoke, and Justin Koon, a 28-year-old bull rider from Grapevine, Ark., is a long way from home.
His bull, a seriously irate beast named La Grange, is having nothing of this whole riding business, and it takes four guys -- specifically a bullfighter named Shorty, who looks like Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey and acts like a bodyguard -- to finally get him back in his pen. Shorty takes a (shaved) horn to the chest, gets up and readies himself for the next one.
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Shorty -- full name, Shorty Gorham -- is also a long way from home, harking from Cotulla, Texas (population: 3,603, or roughly one-fifth of the people at MSG on Friday night). But that's to be expected. The thing is, though Professional Bull Riding may have started small in 1992, it's most assuredly become a Big City sort of event.
For proof, look no further than the Madison Square Garden Invitational, a three-day, pyrotechnics-laden event that began Friday and attracted nearly a full house for Round 1. It's the sixth year bull riding has come to MSG.
Friday was the official kickoff to the PBR season, which has steadily been gaining popularity in places like New York, not exactly known for its cowboys. The allure comes from the showmanship and the danger, yes, but it also comes from the fact that bull riding, at its core, is a gamble. Riders can go from earning nothing to millions, all based on the ride, the bull that's picked for them, and the split second between holding on and falling off.
And, as with all gambles, it involves a serious rush. Luke Snyder, a 150-pound whip who ended up taming a bull named Alternator on his way to a lead-grabbing score of 87.25 Friday, called it "no better feeling in the world. To be able to take on an 1,800-pound animal and just kind of be in charge . . . it feels great," he said.
The rules are simple: Stay on for eight seconds, or you don't get a score. Riders hold on with one hand and are disqualified if they brace themselves with the other. Up to 50 points are awarded to the rider and another 50 for the athleticism of the bull. There are good bulls and bad bulls, and they get rated the same way as any other athlete. No one's ever gotten 100 (the highest score on record is 96.5) and the only way to get off a bull is get bucked off.
PBR 101, a cheeky informational document that clearly banks on the sport's danger, puts it clearly: "This is bull riding, and the first step is just to stay alive."
As if to prove the point early, the third rider of the night, a 20-year-old named Dakota Beck, gets turned upside down on his bull. His head nearly skims the dirt before he finally falls over and requires the bullfighting (more, "bull distracting") team to play bait. He stays down for a few minutes and gets checked out before emerging with a nasty gash that goes from the earlobe to the jaw of his baby face.
The crowd titters throughout, clearly caught between concern and excitement. They go absolutely wild when a bull has to get lassoed, and even more so when a rider named Marco Eguche stays on an animal that jumps about four feet off the ground. The ride is a do-over, however. It turns out the bull, Complete Debacle, lived up to its name (having four hooves off the dirt isn't allowed).
Snyder is fortunate in his ride. His bull is generally a high-scoring one. Alternator bucks 85.71 percent of the cowboys who ride him, but averages 43.43 points for those with thighs and hearts strong enough to hold on.
"I knew that bull before I got on him," Snyder said, doing his best Captain Ahab. "They told me that if I could hang on to him, I had a really good chance of winning the round. I love it when a plan comes together."
He smiles big underneath his cowboy hat. Allow him a minute to bask. In this sport, plans rarely do.