Fort Worth easily can be billed as the world’s rodeo capital. The Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo features 36 rodeo performances, more than any sizable rodeo in the world.
Fort Worth also has a strong case for claiming to be the world’s bull riding capital. While the city’s moniker always will be Cowtown because of its history as a center for the cattle and beef-processing industry, it also has been a stronghold for pro bull riding.
For starters, the Fort Worth Stock Show added bull riding to its lineup of rodeo events in 1920 and is credited as the first significant rodeo to feature the dangerous event.
Fast forward to 2017. Bull riding has grown into a popular and lucrative stand-alone sport. The main three organizations that feature professional bull riding are the Professional Bull Riders, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Championship Bull Riding. Each of the three holds an annual bull riding contest in Tarrant County.
“No question that bull riding is the most popular event in rodeo,” said W.R. “Bob” Watt Jr., former president of the Fort Worth Stock Show. “The Stock Show has a long history with bull riding going back to the 1920s when bull riding was first held on the North Side. It started out as Brahman bull riding where they used solely Brahman bulls. But today it’s gotten so sophisticated. They’re breeding all of these famous bulls [from a variety of breeds] that are really tough to ride. For example, during our Bulls Night Out, only a few of our contestants were able to stay on their bull in the first round.”
Asked about Fort Worth as bull riding stronghold, Watt said, “I don’t think you can find any disagreement with that. It all started here in Fort Worth and what has advanced here over the years has spread all over the country. Then you’ve had a lot of famous names such as Dick Griffith, Harry Tompkins and Donnie Gay; a lot of them made their mark here in Fort Worth.”
Fort Worth is tied to bull riding by history, said Matt Brockman, the Fort Worth Stock Show’s publicity director. “A person can make a case that Fort Worth is the cradle of the event. The first time that Brahman bulls were run into a chute and had a bull rope drawn down on them and a cowboy drop down on them was right here at the Stock Show.”
The PBR event, the world’s toughest tour for the rough-and-tumble sport, was held at Arlington’s venerable AT&T Stadium on Feb. 18-19. It featured a show of solely bull riding on the first night called the Iron Cowboy, followed by the bull riding event the next day that ended at a high-profile full-fledged rodeo called RFD-TVs The American.
Since 2003, the PBR has offered its world champion a $1 million bonus in addition to the competitors’ earnings during the regular season and the World Finals. In 2016, PBR world champion Cooper Davis finished the year with $1.5 million after receiving the seven-figure bonus check.
The Iron Cowboy offers its field of competitors $2 million, a record payout for a single-performance rodeo. Most of The American’s bull riding field are PBR stars, such as defending world champion Davis and three-time world champion Silvano Alves.
The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), which is the world’s largest organization to feature all the standard events in a rodeo performance, is well-represented in Tarrant County during the Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo. That annual PRCA show runs 16 days and consists of 29 two-hour performances. Each show ends with the bull riding event.
Bull riding also is among the five events featured at the Stock Show’s Super Shootout Rodeo, a single-performance rodeo that offers each single-event winner $10,000.
Mindful that bull riding has become a popular stand-alone sport, the Stock Show features two nights of bull riding called Bulls Night Out. It is part of the PRCA’s Xtreme Bulls Tour, which also stops in other cities that feature PRCA shows. In recent years, the Bulls Night Out has been a big hit with fans at the Stock Show.
At the 2017 Stock Show, for example, three-time PRCA champion Sage Kimzey wowed the crowd on the show’s final night by clinching the title after conquering a pair of rapid-fire, spinning bulls.
“We don’t have trouble selling tickets for Bulls Night Out,” Brockman said. “This year, Sage Kimzey stepped up and thrilled the crowds. People can come to any of these events in Fort Worth and see the world’s best ride the world’s best bulls. If you’re a fan of the sport, you’re going to be able to get your fill of bull riding here in Tarrant County without a doubt.”
Both the Stock Show’s PRCA show and its Bulls Night Out help riders qualify for the December Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, the rodeo equivalent of the Super Bowl.
A smaller but well-respected pro tour called Championship Bull Riding also comes to Fort Worth each year. The CBR show, which is held at Cowtown Coliseum in the Stockyards, is organized by four-time world champion Tuff Hedeman of Morgan Mill. Many of the competitors who star on the PRCA’s bull riding circuit also regularly compete on the CBR tour. The CBR’s Fort Worth tour top helps competitors qualify for the association’s annual finale, which is held in July in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in conjunction with the famous Cheyenne Frontier Days PRCA show.
COWBOYS AT HOME
Numerous champion bull riders have resided in Fort Worth or nearby since the 1930s. They include four-time PRCA world bull riding champion Dick Griffith (late 1930s and early 1040s) of Fort Worth, five-time PRCA champion Harry Tompkins of Dublin (late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s), eight-time PRCA world champion Don Gay of Mesquite (1970s and 1980s), two-time PRCA world champion Ty Murray of Stephenville (1990s), and three-time PBR world champion Silvano Alves, a native of Brazil who lives in Decatur.
Other high-profile bull riders such as Larry Mahan lived in the area while they were earning world championships.
Cody Lambert, the PBR’s livestock director, who himself qualified for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in bull riding in the 1980s, said Fort Worth historically has attracted bull riding’s elite.
“All of the great bull riders passed through this town in some way during their career,” Lambert said. “There’s so much history here in the sport. There’s no end in sight to it. You can get a lot of it [bull riding] at every level in this part of the country. You can see the kids, to the amateurs, to the highest level. Every great bull rider that’s ever been has competed in Fort Worth.”
One big reason for Fort Worth’s status as a major contributor to the sport is its claim to be the first rodeo to feature bull riding in the lineup of rodeo events.
In 1918, the Fort Worth Stock Show featured multiple rodeo events such as ladies bucking bronco and men’s steer riding. But in 1920, producer Verne Elliott added Brahman bull riding to rodeo performances.
Mahan, six-time PRCA world all-around champion, is a former Stock Show bull riding champion.
Mahan is best known as rodeo’s all-around champion, which meant he earned more prize money than any other cowboy in multiple events (1966-70 and 1973). He also earned two world bull riding titles (1965 and 1967).
When Mahan won his first five all-around titles, he lived in Oregon. But when he won title No. 6, he lived in Dallas. He said the state boasts lots of legendary bull riders.
“Texas and bull riding go together hand in hand,” Mahan said. “Back in the days when I was rodeoing, before I moved here, the list [of great bull riders] went on and on with great cowboys ranging from Harry Tompkins to Dickie Cox. I know it would amaze me if I were to see a complete list of the bull riders who have made the National Finals Rodeo who were from Texas.”
Mahan, who lives on a ranch near Bowie, said one reason Fort Worth has been a hotbed for bull riding is simply because it’s in Texas.
“This is Texas,” Mahan said. “The symbol of the cowboy and the state of Texas go hand in hand. If a person has a desire to be a bull rider and get on a lot of stock, it’s in Texas.”
Mahan applauded Fort Worth for having lots of cowboy and rodeo history overall.
“I have one question. Why do they call it Cowtown?” Mahan said. “This is it. You have a lot of history that goes with this area – Fort Worth, North Side, the Stockyards, the Cowtown Coliseum. You name it. This is history. Fort Worth is history for the cowboy.”
Neal Gay, whose family began providing livestock for the Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo in 1979, said a cowboy better be prepared to face a tougher bull if he signs up to compete at a pro bull riding competition in Fort Worth. Gay taught his sons, Don, Pete and Jim, to ride as they produced the weekly Mesquite Championship Rodeo for many years and at their ranch near the rodeo.
Don Gay earned a PRCA record-breaking eighth world bull riding title in 1984. Pete Gay earned multiple National Finals Rodeos titles in the 1970s. Jim Gay was a prize-winning bull rider, but leaned more toward the stock contracting business. Today he is the Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo’s senior stock producer.
Neal Gay also rode bulls before he became a stock producer. He said Fort Worth has always been his favorite rodeo and it’s always been a tough rodeo.
“You don’t have to go to Fort Worth to learn how to ride bulls, but you sure better know it before you get there,” Gay said. “I’ve never been to a rodeo at Fort Worth where they didn’t have top quality bulls and it takes a top quality bull rider to ride them.”
One cowboy who knows he has to step up his game when he comes to Fort Worth is four-time PRCA bull riding champion J.W. Harris, from Goldthwaite. Harris also has had remarkable success in the PBR.
Harris said he has great respect for Fort Worth’s rich bull riding history.
“There’s been a lot of history here – even in the Stockyards – and people understand it and know what’s going on,” Harris said of Fort Worth. “It’s in a central location, it’s close to home for me and it’s easy to get good bulls here.”