Every year in early December the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) tops off its annual programme of nearly 700 sanctioned rodeo events with the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas. Only the best of the best may compete - the top 15 money-winners in each of the seven core rodeo disciplines. These are bareback bronc (bronco riding), saddle bronc, bull riding, tie-down roping, team roping, steer wrestling and barrel racing (exclusive to women).
Winners are effectively world champions, and the traditional rodeo prize fancy belt buckles are, here, made of gold. But all the participants are stars of the rodeo genre as a whole, and within that pyramid of Razzmatazz glamorizing an almost entirely mythical 'West', their high-bottomed, sober focus and laconic joshing can make you forget that the entertainment they provide is in every case at least as dangerous as the most extreme sport.
The NFR is as close as you'll ever get to the atmosphere of a Roman circus, The clatter of the stockhouse rails, the thumping kicks of furious animals in wooden stalls, the snorting, the thick smell of caged energy and the sudden explosion into the arena of beast and rider, arcing half-twists, rolls and corkscrew gybes for the eternity of eight full seconds until one or the other gets a scraped cheekbone and a mouthful of sand - go very well with a beer and a chilli dog in the shade of the patriotic bunting.
The NFR's supreme irony is that in 'Sin City, the world capital of insincere glitz and great showmanship, the rodeo events themselves are deadly serious, and for all the rodeo clowns and sequined Western beauty queens on parade, the contest, like no other in the USA, is stripped of fancy presentation. Each ride is a fresh drama; each day racks up competitive thrills. In an ambience that intense, just a hint of the soaring pedal-steel guitar is enough to put a halo around the moon.
Ten days in early December
Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Thrills spills and going cowboy/girl
You should know
The NFR uses tons of special dirt to cover the arena floor, making softer landings. Visitors and Las Vegas residents alike are eerily fascinated by the fact that the dirt is sorted after the rodeo, and re-used again and again.