The competition goes something like this: A clown takes his position 30 feet in front of the bullpen. Pen flies open and bull charges out. Clown runs. Bull hooks clown. Bull stomps on clown. Other clowns run out to distract bull from their buddy. Clown gets up, clutching his belly, shoulder, groin. Clown taunts bull from behind barrel. Then, while standing in front of the barrel, he turns his back on bull. Bull charges. Clown leaps on top of the barrel an instant before he would be pulverized (this is called the barrel hop), doesn't quite get high enough to avoid being flipped by the bull and runs for his life. This goes on for 70 seconds, or until the clown cries uncle.
Last week three-time world bullfighting champion Rob Smets, a.k.a. the Kamikaze Kid, whose only protective piece of equipment was a pair of football hip pads, sprinted head-on toward his bull and tried to dive over its head. Incredulous, the bull stood its ground and hooked Smets in the thigh as he soared by and then, after Smets hit the ground, stomped him once or twice before he could scramble away. "I hit a deep pocket of dirt and couldn't get enough height," said Smets, 29, of his leap. He wasn't severely injured by the mishap and ended up sharing his fourth championship with Miles Hare, with winnings of $45,250.
The day of decision for the all-around title was Sunday. Appleton, 28, a part-time model and actor, was bidding to become the first world champion from Australia. He was born in Clermont, Queensland, grew up on a ranch and became enchanted with American rodeo, reading about it in a magazine called Hoof & Horns. When he was 20, he moved to Texas, and in eight years, he has picked up a convincing Texas drawl, which he whimsically mixes with his Australian accent to create what he calls Texalian. Appleton made use of his drawl playing a Texas cowboy in a recently filmed episode of
. "It's easy as hell to talk with a Texas accent," he says. "All you have to do is get lazy."
But Appleton isn't putting on an act when he says, "The tremendous thing about America is, if you're willing to try something, people are willing to help you. Anybody who says this isn't the land of opportunity, isn't looking."
Seeing opportunity is one thing; seizing it is another. And that's what Appleton did on Sunday when he drew a big bay named Kingsway Skoal, a wild, exotic bucker who was the 1988 bareback horse of the year. As Appleton dug his spurs into the bronco's shoulders it leaped high out of the chute, snaking first right, then back to the left, straightening Appleton out like a silk scarf in the wind. After the eight-second horn sounded, Appleton lunged into the dirt and signaled "safe" with his hands, like an umpire. Then his score was announced—81 points, the best of the day—and he flung his black hat into the stands, silver kangaroo pin and all. The win gave him $9,180 for the go-round, which, added to his bonus money for winning the bareback average, pushed him past Feild for the all-around lead.
To catch Appleton, Feild needed a third-place or better in the saddle bronc event. He scored 78 points to move into a tie for second, but the third-to-last rider, Clint Johnson, who won his second straight saddle bronc world championship, nudged Feild back to a third-place tie by scoring a 79. Feild's paycheck of $3,442.50 for the event left him an agonizing $643.64 short of Appleton's season winnings of $121,546.
"You're the best, Lewie," Appleton said when Feild congratulated him. Then he launched into some vintage Texalian: "If nobody ever believed in dreams, there's an Australian right here that'll tell you differently. I'm the happiest Jos� alive. Shoot, I might just call Qantas and fly home for Christmas."
About that time the bull competition was beginning, and Sharp was readying his rigging. All the hoopla about the 10 bulls in 10 rides, which the arena announcers had been building up since the fifth go-round, hadn't fazed him in the least. Out of some 120 bulls he had drawn in 1988 before the NFR, Sharp estimated that he had been bucked off only 15, which meant he had ridden an average of almost nine out of 10. Sharp slept like a baby all week, mainly because he had been hitting the sack at dawn after staying up all night in the casinos, taking in the shows and dropping $50-$100 at the gaming tables. "I've been riding bulls a lot better than I've been gambling," he said.
For the historic attempt, Sharp, who was the last contestant of the night, drew a big circling bull called Skoal Cyclone. When the gate swung open, Skoal Cyclone spun to the right, humped its back high and then, jerking its head down to within inches of the dirt, nearly pitched Sharp over its shoulder. But Sharp straightened himself, and the crowd roared as he regained control. When the horn blew to signal the end of the ride, Sharp leaped off and pitched his hat high into the air. His score of 79 gave him a record 771 points for 10 bulls.
As for history-well, Sharp is the kind of taciturn cowboy who would just as soon leave history to others. He seemed like the least surprised person in Las Vegas. "You don't really come here expecting to fall off," he said.