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Fans describe agony, Xstasy of Xtreme bull riding

RAPID CITY (AP) -- Ardie, Corey and Rorey Maier have a little bit of a bet going on.

All three are professional bull riders, and the first of the brothers to go the distance -- a full eight seconds -- on 10 bulls in a row gets $100 from the other two.

"I should be cashing in here in about a month," said Ardie Maier, 31, with a laugh.

The Timber Lake natives grew up around rodeo and by the time Ardie, the eldest, was 4, he already had his first bull rope. His two younger brothers followed suit.

Now, they make their living in the high stakes world of professional bull riding, where months on the road and the possibility of nightmarish injuries are facts of life.

"You ride bulls, you test yourself every day," said Corey Maier, 26.

But for the bull riders in town this weekend for the Xtreme Bulls Tour stop at the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo, there is nowhere they would rather be.

"Really looking at it, it's really crazy," said D.J. Domangue, a three-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier from Houma, La. "Why do I do it? It's what I do."

A hearty crowd of Black Hills rodeo fans cheered on those bull riders like rock stars Jan. 27, the first of the two-night event.

It is that popularity that convinced the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association to create the Xtreme Bulls Tour in the first place in 2003, said David Sharp, PRCA arena director for Xtreme Bulls.

Bull riding is featured in all PRCA rodeos along with the other rough stock events, saddle bronc and bareback riding. Xtreme Bulls is bull riding only.

"When it comes to the Black Hills Stock Show or wherever else we go, it's one of the biggest nights for attendance," Sharp said of Xtreme Bulls. "It's fast. It's action packed."

Money earned in Xtreme Bulls events also counts toward qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo in December, the sport's year-end championship event, which helps attract the best of the best, Sharp said.

Rapid City's event leads off the Division 1 Xtreme Bulls calendar, one of nine televised events during the year with a purse of at least $30,000. Sharp said with a total purse of $52,000, a good ride in Rapid City can kick start a cowboy's year.

"The Super Bowl is the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo," Sharp said. "They're trying to win money to get there. It's only 15 guys that get there. Starting their season right is very important to these guys."

Last weekend, 70 riders will compete over two days, with 35 going Jan. 27 and 35 on Jan. 28. Each day, the riders with the 10 highest scores qualify for a second ride; the cumulative score of the two rides determines the night's winner. The cowboy with the highest score of both days wins.

"It's the first event every year. We've got to go to it," said Domangue, who has been on the PRCA circuit since 2004. "It's a good bull ride. The pay is good."

A city kid, Domangue, 29, was introduced to bull riding by a friend when he was 12. What keeps him coming back is the sense of accomplishment he gets when a battle is won, he said.

"If you don't make the eight seconds or you hit dirt or you lose or you're out of money, you want to do whatever it takes to get back on just to feel that excitement again, that accomplishment," he said.

Getting to the PRCA level is about "a lot of hard work and doctor's bills," he said. To date, Domangue has had 10 major surgeries and has broken a femur three times, his jaw twice, along with his wrist, his hip and his pelvis.

"We're on the road probably 250 days out of the year. It doesn't stop," Domangue said. "It starts in January and it ends in September. The new year starts in October. It's just going and going. It's what we do for a living. It's my career. It's my job."

As a bull rider, Domangue said, you can't dwell on the fact that you could get injured.

"I've known people who have been killed. I've know people who have been injured from a bull. I also know people who have career ending injuries in cars or motorbikes," Domangue said. "You only live once. Why would I live my life in what ifs? So, why not climb on a bull?"

The possibility of injury is also part of what gets fans in the seats, said Ardie Maier, who qualified for his first National Finals Rodeo in 2010.

Ardie Maier broke his neck at the Rapid City event a few years ago and had face surgery in October to fix a broken eye socket, an injury from which he said he is still not 100 percent recovered.

"Bull riding, you have to have the love of the game in your heart. In anything, a lot of guys want to do something, but wanting and having the heart to do it are two different things."

"It's not like any other sport where they can blow the whistle and say stop," he said. "You get hung out there -- it's life preservation taking over."