Rob Wright walks through Boardwalk Hall, cowboy hat tipped and rattling off the names of his four horses: Pistol, Copenhagen, Rain and Mo.

Front-end loaders set down more than 2,000 tons of dirt on the concrete floor of the arena Thursday for the annual American Finals Rodeo. The crew of bull riders worked for nearly 12 hours to transform an arena inside the late 1920s, Roman Renaissance building into a tiny piece of Texas.

“Just like how Beyoncé puts on a show, we’re putting on a show here,” said Wright, a tie-down roper who got into the rodeo scene 30 years ago after growing up with livestock on a farm in upstate New York.

The oceanside resort dominated by glittery casinos is an unusual venue for a rodeo, but it’s come back to Atlantic City three years in a row now.

On Thursday night, more than 100 bucking horses, bulls and cattle were steered into steel pens marked with the name of the stock contractor that owns them.

The stench of manure had not yet set in, but it would soon.

Once the makeover wrapped for the day, the group of cowboys walked down the Boardwalk donning their boots and headed into Carmine’s Italian Restaurant inside Tropicana Atlantic City, where two worlds collided.

“Rodeos are obviously not part of the culture here as opposed to Texas or Oklahoma, so everyone’s got their own story of how they got into it,” said Chris Kelley, vice president of the American Professional Rodeo Association.

Kelley got his start on a farm in New Milford, Pennsylvania, riding junior bulls at 12 years old and progressing to bigger events as a teenager.

The association’s President Chris Prange, a 20-year veteran of bull-riding, said he “just happened upon” his first rodeo while in high school driving around the rural Pennsylvania town he grew up in.

“I got hurt my first time and thought, ‘This is great. This is what I’m destined to do,’” Prange said.

Come the weekend, thousands of cheering fans will watch cowboys from as far away as California compete in eight championship events, including tie-down roping, steer wrestling and what most come to see, bull riding.

Rodeo competitions begin in the spring and end in late fall. For those competing, the Atlantic City finale is the cap to an adrenaline-filled, seven-month season.

And the medals aren’t just for people, either. Stock contractors bring in the best “animal athletes” from across the country to compete, too.

The group keeps coming back to Atlantic City for one simple reason, said Prange as he walked into the massive arena.

“We want to make this like a destination for the contestants,” he said. “You get the casinos and the lights and action here. It’s like Las Vegas on the East Coast.”

Contact: 609-272-7258 azoppo@pressofac.com Twitter @AvalonZoppo

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