The horse bucks so rapidly and wildly, it seems impossible that any rider could hold on. Somehow, Ryan Gray does.
For Gray, a champion bareback bronc rider currently ranked No. 1 in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, there is no special strategy once the horse leaves the gate. For him, it’s all in the training.
“You’re in a different mental state, you know?” says Gray. “Your adrenaline takes over. Your muscle memory takes over, and your reactions have to be within fractions of a second. You can’t think about what you’re going to do next because by then it’s too late.”
Gray will be one of 220 cowboys and cowgirls coming to Boardwalk Hall this weekend to compete in the third annual Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo, taking place 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, and 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6. Spectators will get the chance to see riders compete in seven PRCA show events, including bareback riding, tie-down roping, saddle bronc riding, team roping, barrel racing, steer wrestling and bull riding. More than $85,000 in prize money will be on the table.
For Gray, a Wyoming native who first got involved in rodeo at just 5-years-old, the passion to ride and compete has always been there, he says.
“Ever since I can remember I always wanted to compete,” Gray says. “My whole family has been involved in rodeo and I’ve always been around it, so I’ve always had a passion for it. I watched the NFR on TV as a kid, my uncles rodeoed, my parents rodeoed, and that’s what got me into it. I think I’ve always felt like that was the goal in my life — as a kid, that’s what you’re working toward.”
Still, riding can be dangerous. Gray nearly suffered a career-ending injury three years ago at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo when he was thrown under his 1,200-pound horse. The horse trampled Gray and lacerated his liver in front of the crowd.
“It puts in perspective that our career is a dangerous sport, a dangerous career, and it could be over at any time,” Gray says. “It’s like anything in life though. We take things for granted sometimes, and that’s why I want to enjoy it and have fun doing it. To do what I love as a career is just a blessing. I definitely enjoy what I do even more now, more than before.
Rodeo fans will also be able to enjoy some tasty fare in Atlantic City this weekend as famous barbecue pit masters and cook teams from across the country gather for the DO AC Smokin’ Hot BBQ Competition, also taking place Saturday and Sunday.
Barbecue fans will have the opportunity to sample ribs, chicken, brisket and pork butt from 81 registered cook teams, all grilling for a chance to win $50,000 in prize money — the largest cash prize for a barbecue competition on the East Coast.
“We’re the Beyonce of barbecue,” says Ron Cates, president and CEO of Smoke on the Water Productions, the producers of the competition. “The response has been overwhelming. The prize attracts the best teams in the world that come out here. And besides that, we have some world champion teams that are vending, so people can come out and eat some of that great barbecue.”
The competition takes place from noon to 7 p.m. both days in the parking lot at Pacific and Delaware avenues, near Showboat Casino-Hotel. The day will also include live entertainment, an outdoor expo, grilling demonstrations, free product sampling and world champion barbecue vendors.
All teams will be blind judged in the same four categories: ribs, chicken, brisket and pork butt. There is also a barbecue sauce category. Visitors can also vote for the People’s Choice Award 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Winners in each category and the grand champion will be announced 5 p.m. Sunday.
For Glenn Gross, the owner of Fat Jack’s barbecue restaurant in Philadelphia who recently competed on an episode of “BBQ Pitmasters,” the key to winning this weekend, he says, is consistency.
“To be honest with you, I’m one of the best pitmasters in the world,” says Gross, 60, of Sicklerville, Camden County. “I don’t know what the judges are going to like that day … but part of my secret is I don’t change things. Rookie pit masters … they change things up. Don’t do anything different. Do what you’re successful at.”
Whatever the secrets of each cook, Cates says barbecue is in the middle of a renaissance, and Atlantic City is the place to taste it all — in between watching the rodeo competitions, of course.
“It’s just universal,” Cates says. “It’s hard to find someone that doesn’t love good barbecue. You turn on the TV right now, everything is barbecue shows. And what goes together better than cowboys, rodeo and barbecue?”