Boardwalk Hall was packed with more than 17,000 people over three days last spring for the inaugural Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo.
The event was one of the biggest events of the year for both the resort and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Spectators were treated to a sport that is uncommon in this area, and competitors got a rare trip to a major northeastern city.
Since then, the only cowboys most of those spectators have watched have been from Dallas. The PRCA's best cowboys have traveled through the South and West, nowhere near Boardwalk Hall.
But for a handful of South Jersey residents, rodeo is a way of life year-round, and March 30 and April 1 are circled on their calendars.
They're all preparing in their own way, whether it's a horse farm owner who is training for hours every day, or a general contractor who doesn't have time to train but makes sure to at least wear his cowboy boots and hat as much as possible.
Guy Collins became one of the faces of the Boardwalk Rodeo when he rode a horse down the Boardwalk in January 2011 as part of the official announcement of the inaugural event. The 56-year-old Buena Vista Township resident competes in team roping.
Collins, however, has not been on a horse in two months. He's been too busy with his day job as a general contractor. The cowboy hat stays home, and the cowboy boots are traded in for work boots.
Collins calls himself a "weekend warrior." Rodeo is something he takes seriously - in the spring, he spends 20 to 30 hours per week working with his horses - but it is just a hobby.
"You don't make money on that stuff," Collins said. "It's strictly enjoyment."
Even when he's not on horses, though, Collins tries to dress the part. While he can't wear his cowboy hat and boots to work, he does put them on to go out to dinner or the movies.
"I like to consider myself a cowboy," he said. "I have one suit in my closet. That's it. It's only for funerals."
Collins looks forward to March, when he will start to prepare his 18-year-old horse, Baxter, for the Boardwalk Rodeo, and for a summer of traveling to other rodeos in the region.
"Guys like me, weekend warriors, we live for the weekend, and roping is an enjoyment," he said.
If Collins is a weekend warrior, Lynne and John Winkers are full-time rodeo people.
The Woodstown, Salem County, residents both grew up around horses. John, a former bareback competitor, now works as a horseshoer and a farrier - a specialist in equine foot care. Lynne still competes as a barrel racer and also runs their Mannington Meadows Farm, which offers boarding, training, lessons and more.
They say they're the first husband and wife ever to both make the National Circuit Finals Rodeo, which they did in 2005 by winning their respective events in the First Frontier Circuit - one of 12 circuits in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
The Winkerses even met at a rodeo - well, almost.
Both had won events at the Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove Township, Salem County, one night in 2002, and they were at a local bar.
John had recently gone through a divorce, and he was leaning up against a post, looking sad. Lynne knew who he was because of the rodeo, so her friends dared her to go over and kiss him.
"I said, ‘If I go over and kiss him, I'm never going to get rid of him,'" she said. "But I said, ‘Put some money together,' and they put in $50. And 10 years later, here we are."
John, 51, said he has "rodeo'd all over the United States." But he had to quit because he broke his neck multiple times.
Lynne, who admits only that she's older than John, still dreams of making it to the National Circuit Finals Rodeo one more time. The event, which used to be in Pocatello, Idaho, is now in Oklahoma City.
Lynne rides horses every day, weather permitting. She also swims 1.5 miles every morning, spending two and a half hours in an Olympic-sized pool near their home.
Placing at the Boardwalk Rodeo would be a good start toward her goal of getting to Oklahoma City. It's already the biggest event on the First Frontier Circuit, which includes 12 states in the Northeast, and it's the first of the circuit's season.
Living near the Cowtown Rodeo, Lynne wasn't overly excited about coming to Atlantic City last year. But when she got to Boardwalk Hall and saw how well everything was run and how the dirt arena looked inside the historic building, she was impressed. Now, she looks forward to this year's event.
"It was just a wonderful experience," she said. "The conditions, we figured, were not going to be ideal, but they were. Everything was just wonderful down there. I didn't end up winning any money (she finished four spots out of the money), but we had a blast."
Spurred by pessimism
The Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo might not have even been possible without a woman whose immediate reaction when she was asked to help was an emphatic "No way!"
Margate resident Janet Markowitz said she was "drafted" to volunteer for Mayor Lorenzo Langford's special-events committee because of her reputation for setting up special events through her Express Entertainment company. She knew the committee's plans included the rodeo, though - something about which she knew "absolutely nothing."
Markowitz, 59, reluctantly agreed to help eventually, but she remained pessimistic until she met with Boardwalk Hall officials about hosting the event.
The meeting did not go well. But looking back, it was perfect.
"They said, ‘This isn't going to happen,'" she said.
"All I need is for someone to tell me I can't do something, and I'm going to make it happen. I got in my, ‘Oh, yeah?!' (mode). I've been like that since I was a little kid."
Markowitz embraced the challenge, and a few months later, being rodeo chairwoman had become almost another full-time job.
In the days leading up to the rodeo, she worked nearly around the clock. She got to the hall around the crack of dawn to oversee the work being done, and she spent the whole day running back and forth between there and her businesses, which also include Chester's Plants & Flowers on Iowa Avenue.
"If we go in at 6 or 7 in the morning and we stay till 10 or 11 at night, or if I'm climbing up on a ladder at 2 in the morning, it all has to get done," she said. "Fortunately, I don't sleep a lot anyway."
Even now, less than two months ahead of the second Boardwalk Rodeo, Markowitz estimated she spends 15 to 20 hours per week on the phone with everyone from potential sponsors to cowboys who want to know what hotel to stay at when they're in town.
"The PRCA published my cellphone number," she said. "(Cowboys) have my name, and I'm not going to say, ‘I'm not telling.'"
Markowitz doesn't mind, even though her own businesses don't directly benefit from the tourism generated by the rodeo.
"I just want Atlantic City to be fabulous because I used to come here when I was a little girl," she said. "My grandparents would say, ‘Darling, we're going to the Atlantic City,' and we would pack up and come to Atlantic City.
"I'm really very pro-Atlantic City, and I think this is a great event for Atlantic City and the area."
Contact Jason Mazda:
Second annual Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo
When: Friday, March 30, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 31, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 1, 1 p.m.
Where: Boardwalk Hall
Tickets: $16-$102 per day, available at the Boardwalk Hall box office or at PressofAtlanticCity.com/tickets