- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 1, 2002

LA CROSSE, Wis. (Bloomberg) Bud Polhamus has simple advice for players in his poker games: Run and don't look back.
Mr. Polhamus operates an annual rodeo in La Crosse, where one of the most popular events is "cowboy poker," a contest in which four volunteers from the audience sit at a card table as a Mexican fighting bull is released into the ring.
The last person remaining in his seat in the face of the charging bull wins a $100 prize.
"We put the fear of God in them when we put them out on the floor," Mr. Polhamus said. "For $100, there's no reason to be a hero. If that bull chooses you, get out."
Dozens of rodeos and bull-riding events in the United States and Canada feature contests that match the nerve of contestants against the horns of an ornery bull. While the competitions have become staples at some rodeos, some have been dropped because of the risk of serious injury and the threat of lawsuits.
"We've had it at our events, but with some of the injuries that have been sustained, we discourage it now," said Ronnie Williams, executive director of the International Professional Rodeo Association, which sanctions about 500 rodeos each year.
After a Missouri man was seriously injured at a similar event in August, the state Senate considered a law that would ban such contests. But cowboy poker has become one of the most popular events at the Mesquite Championship Rodeo, held near Dallas on Friday and Saturday nights from April to October.
"This is theater," said John Painter, a spokesman for the Mesquite Championship Rodeo. "It's Broadway, just on dirt. People come here and expect to be entertained."
The Mesquite rodeo is owned by Southwest Sports Group Inc., which also owns Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers and the National Hockey League's Dallas Stars.
During a recent Saturday night show, a capacity crowd of 5,500 watched as four cowboy poker players faced a 750-pound bull named Klingon. Mr. Painter said two players received bumps and bruises, while another jumped over the wall unscathed.
A fourth player remained seated at the table long enough to collect $400 in prize money.
Future contestants at the Mesquite rodeo may get a close-up view of bulls named Speedy Gonzalez, Spinal Tap, Sputnik or Juan.
"Sputnik just kind of mows through them like a bowling ball through four pins," Mr. Painter said. "Juan is a little casual he ambles up to the table, looks at them and sort of picks them off one at a time."
Mr. Painter said Mesquite's cowboy poker is unlike many other versions because he draws his contestants from the professional cowboys who compete in the other rodeo events.
Other rodeos, especially small local shows, rely on amateurs for the contests, which are held during intermissions between traditional rodeo events, such as calf-roping and bull riding.
Brock Steinman, 26, was attending his first rodeo when he signed up for an event called "cowboy hula" at a bull-riding event in Iberia, Mo., last summer.
In cowboy hula, six hula hoops are placed in a semicircle around the ring, with a hoop for each contestant. The person who stays in the hoop the longest after the bull is released is the winner.
Mr. Steinman caught the attention of one of the Mexican fighting bulls, which are commonly used in the contests because they tend to be more aggressive than the larger breeds used in bull-riding events.
"The bull started to walk by him, then turned and caught him from behind," said his mother, Debora Steinman. "He was thrown 15 feet and landed on his head."
Mr. Steinman was airlifted to a hospital with several serious injuries, including bleeding in the brain. He was in a coma for two weeks and is still undergoing rehabilitation.
After her son was injured, Mrs. Steinman started a campaign to ban the contests. She contacted her state senator, who introduced a bill in January that would outlaw competitions in which bulls are "are allowed, encouraged or taunted into attacking the contestants."
The bill was sent to a Senate committee but didn't come up for a vote before the session ended May 17, effectively killing the legislation.
"If the promoter wants to have the event and the contestants are willing to sign up, they should be able to have it," said Lisa Moore, who owns the arena where Mr. Steinman was injured. "I feel like they're messing with people's right to make a decision."
Miss Moore, who runs three rodeos a year on her 200-acre ranch in southern Missouri, said the dangers of cowboy hula are explained to players before they enter the contest.
She said contestants are also given the same type of protective vests worn by cowboys competing in the rodeo.
"They're told exactly what takes place," Miss Moore said. "I'm very blunt with them. If the bull comes near you, get out of his way. Don't risk it."
Although Miss Moore said Mr. Steinman signed a waiver releasing the ranch from liability, his injuries prompted her to drop cowboy hula from her upcoming rodeos. The decision cost her one of her top sponsors, which she declined to name.
Miss Moore, who leases equipment and bulls to rodeos in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, said cowboy poker is most popular in what she calls the "minor leagues" of the professional bull-riding circuit.
She estimated that 90 percent to 95 percent of the rodeos she deals with still feature some variation of cowboy poker.
"Every contractor we deal with knows what happened at our show," Miss Moore said. "But it hasn't stopped most of them from doing it."

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