Rodeo Bullish on New York

By: Steve Dollar

Jan. 16, 2015 7:48 p.m. ET    

This weekend in Madison Square Garden, thousands will gather to watch cowboys wrangle with some of the most ornery bulls alive.

And if the 2,000-pound beasts live up to their names—Gonzo, Helter Skelter and Wreck-It Ralph, among others—the riders will likely get some sense knocked out of them as the competitive tour makes its ninth annual stop in New York City.

“Eight seconds doesn’t seem that long, but I promise you, it is an eternity when you’re on the back of one of these animals,” said Jim Haworth, chairman and chief executive officer of Professional Bull Riders. The organization, founded in 1992 to promote the rodeo sport, counts the city among the most lucrative stops on its 18-state tour.

“We sell more cowboy hats in New York than almost any other market we go to,” Mr. Haworth said. “I do think there is some novelty that comes with it, but I know New York fans, and they like great athletes.”He doesn’t only mean the bulls, of course, whose careers begin around age 4 and continue for about four years before they retire to stud duty. There are 35 riders on the tour who join competitive rounds that began Friday and run through Sunday afternoon, with a special bonus event on Saturday, matching the 15 top riders and bulls from last season’s standings.

“It’s always been a dream of mine since I was a kid to ride bulls,” said Matt Triplett, a 23-year-old rider from Columbia Falls, Mont., who began competing in Professional Bull Riders events when he turned 18 and is now its third-ranked rider. He has been lucky during his short career to have sustained few injuries: a couple of concussions, internal bruising from a kick in the stomach, a broken thumb. “They’ll do whatever it takes to buck us off and then stomp all over us,” said Mr. Triplett, who, like many of his peers, wears a helmet—not a cowboy hat—when he goes into the ring. Mr. Triplett was introduced to the sport by his father, also a bull rider, and performs under his own name, unlike some fellow riders who use stage names, like Chase Outlaw or Ryan Dirteater. He practices hot yoga to stay limber and avoids drinking before competition. “When I wake up hung over, I don’t want to get on no bull,” he said.

Silvano Alves, hailing from Brazil, is the circuit’s top rider, having amassed $5.2 million in prize money in 54 months, Mr. Haworth said. But the riders’ competitive nature isn’t directed at each other. “I’m just going against the animal that’s in between my legs,” Mr. Triplett said. “You’re not going to do as well unless you focus on the key point, and that’s the bull.”