Safety Zone

Bull riding is dangerous business. Just ask Troy Dunn, last year's Professional Bull Riders Bud Light Cup World Champion, whose title cost him a dislocated hip. Or ask Jerome Davis, the 27-year-old rider who was paralyzed from the chest down in last March's Fort Worth PBR event. Or ask Lane Frost, the great cowboy who died ten years ago at the age of 25 when a bull called Taking Care of Business charged his back and caused massive internal bleeding. You could even ask Luke Perry, who played the legendary Frost in the 1994 movie 8 Seconds.

But whatever you do, don't ask Cody Hart. The 21-year-old from Walnut Bend, Texas, is more than two-thirds of the way through an incredibly rare injury-free season. And he does not want to talk about it. This fear of jinxing it seems to be Hart's only superstition — other than something about not putting your hat on the bed, a rule that doesn't seem to have much to do with bull riding. He says simply, with all the country wisdom of a mixed colloquial metaphor, "We're not gonna count any chickens yet because you never know whose henhouse they're gonna be in when they hatch."

Hart has no interest in maintaining his safety streak with easy rides in the upcoming Justin Bull Riding Championship in Houston. Like all the riders on the PBR circuit, he wants to draw really rank (cowboy slang for "ornery") bulls. Scoring is based 50-50 on the rider's control and the bull's bucks: If a bull comes out of the chute fast with powerful lurches, kicks and spins and the cowboy manages to stay on for eight seconds and not touch anything with his free hand, he's likely to get the majority of 100 possible points. The bulls, you see, are just as much athletes as the riders — they even drink Gatorade.

Still, it's nice to stay healthy, if not to avoid pain and calm his new wife, then to keep racking up points and prize money. Hart stole the lead from 29-year-old veteran bull rider and PBR original shareholder Ty Murray when he won his third Bud Light Cup of the season in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The sport's up-and-coming golden boy has since distanced himself from the pack by about 1,900 points and taken home nearly $200,000. In October he'll go for Troy Dunn's World Champion title and $1.5 million at the Super Bowl of bull riding in Las Vegas — if he doesn't get hurt. And in a world where one-ton bulls rule the ring, it's usually not if a rider gets hurt, but when and how bad.

Hart knows that's why professional bull riding has been so successful as a sport outside the traditional multievent rodeo — why after only seven years it has so many fans, national sponsors such as U.S. Tobacco, Jack Daniels and Wrangler and a broadcast deal with TNN. "It's just like boxing," he says. "People go to watch somebody get their head knocked off."

Does it bother Hart to realize that it's his head they want? Nope. You just don't think about it. Otherwise, he says, "you'll be picking dirt out of your ear."

Front-runner Cody Hart rides in the first round of the Justin Bull Riding Championship on Saturday, August 21, at 7:30 p.m. and the second round on Sunday, August 22, at 2 p.m. Compaq Center. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (713)629-3700 or visit its Web site at $15-$35.

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Lauren Kern
Contact: Lauren Kern