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What a Hat Trick

First-time rodeo-goers may think that it's all about the bulls and the broncos. Not so. Much of the action involves various ways to subdue a steer (a young male cow that has been castrated, if you didn't know).

In steer wrestling, the rider drops from on top of a horse to a steer running alongside. The cowboy who can wrestle it to the ground in the least amount of time wins the event. In tie-down roping, a wrangler must lasso a calf from horseback, then run to the animal and tie three of its legs together with a piece of rope he carries in his teeth. Another variation of this event is team roping, where two men – a header and a heeler – attempt to catch a steer and rope its hind legs.

A merchant sells hats at the Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove, N.J. The Saturday night rodeo has been running almost continuously since 1929. (Anya Sostek For The Washington Post)

Although the steer events are surprisingly entertaining, the main attractions are the horse- and bull-riding contests. The classic rodeo test is saddle bronc riding, where cowboys start atop a horse with their feet on the animal's shoulders. The rider must stay on for eight seconds to receive a score, which is based on general style and spurring technique. In bareback riding, the cowboys ride with no saddle and with only one handhold around a piece of leather rigging. If they touch the horse with their free hand during the eight-second ride, they are disqualified.

In bull riding, the scoring system is the same. But angry bulls weighing as much as a ton provide a greater element of danger. Mounted on bulls named Terminator and Knuckle Head and the like, the riders flop back and forth like rag dolls, fewer than half staying on for the requisite eight seconds.

The bulls look even bigger during the junior bull-riding events, when members of the 18-and-under crowd take their turn. Rodeo clowns antagonize the bulls, distract them when a rider gets thrown and perform during breaks, delighting the sizable preschool contingent.

Everybody has his or her favorite event. "It depends on what you're into," says Cheryl Johnson, who lives on a farm nearby and has been coming to the rodeo every week for the past 30 years. "I like the bull riding." The bull riders are the stars of the show for many. After the rodeo ended, one kid wandered around the area where the riders hung out, asking each one if he rode the bulls and getting their autographs only if the answer was yes.

During barrel racing, the women get their turn in the arena. It is extremely rare for women to compete in an event other than barrel racing, where they circle three barrels on horseback as fast as they can, hair whipping from under their cowboy hats and the fringe on their shirts flying behind them.

Many of the male and female riders are local, but others travel from Virginia, Upstate New York and other nearby states. "It's one of the better rodeos around," says Chuck Layne, an electrician by day who drives in every week from Chester County, Pa., to compete in team roping. "There's always a great turnout, and the crowd is real supportive."

The official rodeo ends about 9:30, but die-hards can stick around to see extra riders who didn't make it in the drawing for the prime-time program. Lingering for a while isn't a bad idea: With hundreds of cars leaving a gravel parking lot through a single exit, sitting in your car is the other alternative. But even with a stop for ice cream at the roadside Olympia Dairy Bar, we were back inside the Beltway by midnight, home from the wild west of southern New Jersey.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: From downtown Washington, it's about 117 miles to the Cowtown in Pilesgrove, N.J., just west of Woodstown. Take I-95 north and cross the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Take either Exit 1 off the New Jersey Turnpike or Exit 4 off Route 295. Follow Route 40 for eight miles, and look for the three-story cowboy.

BEING THERE: The Cowtown Rodeo (856-769-3200, www.cowtownrodeo.com) runs every Saturday night at 7:30 from late May until Sept. 25 this year. Most people get there at least half an hour early. Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for children age 3 to 12 (2 and under are free).

STAYING THERE: Cowtown can be done as a day trip, with about four hours of driving round trip. But if you prefer to stay overnight, there are several chain hotels in Carneys Point, just off Exit 1 of the New Jersey Turnpike. The newest of the hotels is the Comfort Inn (634 Soders Rd., 877-424-6423, www.comfortinn.com), which opened in April 2003. Rates range from $75 to $135 (for rooms with a Jacuzzi), and continental breakfast is included. Other hotels include Holiday Inn Express (506 Pennsville-Auburn Rd., 866-655-4669, www.ichotelsgroup.com), starting at $100 a night, and also in Carneys Point, and Hampton Inn (429 N. Broadway, Pennsville, 800-HAMPTON, hamptoninn.hilton.com), starting at about $100.

EATING THERE: It's hard to walk three feet at the rodeo without seeing some type of food for sale. Stands sell hot dogs, chili dogs, french fries, cheese fries, roasted peanuts, cotton candy, funnel cakes, ice cream, candy apples and deep-fried Oreos -- all under $5. Vegetarians, dieters and health-food nuts may want to bring their own food or stop at the Subway at the truck stop off Exit 1. Alcohol cannot be purchased at the event but can be brought into the arena.

INFO: Delaware River Region Tourism Council, 856-757-9400, www.visitsouthjersey.com.

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