The Washington area's cowboys and cowgirls surfaced this weekend in Upper Marlboro to compete against riders from all over the United States at the Budweiser Stampede, a rodeo that features bronc riding, steer wrestling, calf roping and bull riding.

An estimated 12,000 people attended the Equestrian Center rodeo yesterday, and about 3,000 were there Friday night despite a storm that turned the grounds to mush and pelted spectators with rain.

"Anyone who says this isn't rodeo country, hasn't been to a rodeo in bad weather," said Jackie Alexander. "There are some real diehard rodeo fans here."

"A rodeo is like a football game -- it doesn't rain out," Alexander said. Alexander's husband, Bobby Alexander, is president of Diamond World Championship Rodeo Company, which helped organize the rodeo.

Total prize money is more than $30,000, more than most rodeos offer. The prize money is made up of entry fees paid by competitors and money contributed by sponsors, including Budweiser.

Winners in the seven main events will be announced tonight, as will the winner of the spit and chew contest, where contestants try to break the 33.5-feet record for spitting tobacco.

A total of 242 rodeo contestants of whom eight or nine are local entrants, and 350 head of livestock from as far away as Arizona, will be participating in the rodeo.

"The Maryland competitors are the best," said Jackie Alexander. "They know they have to hold their own," she said, because the East Coast entrants have to work harder to overcome inferior facilities for practicing and less open space.

Skeeter Cox, 32, of Upper Marlboro, has been barrel racing for 12 years and has won three championships. Her husband, Jimmy, is a former saddle bronc rider who now operates a horse and trailer dealership. Her son, James Douglas "J.D.," 12, helps out by working the calf chutes.

Skeeter won her first prize at age 5 and became one of the first female jockeys at 18. But at 19 a horse fell on her, breaking her ribs and injuring her back. After being out of competition for a year she started competing in barrel racing, an event where one rides in a clover-leaf pattern around three 55 gallon drums.

This is the second annual rodeo at the Equestrian Center. Last year's rodeo drew 17,000 people though it rained all three days. This year's has three times the number of events, according to Susan Keeper, vice president of Promotional Concepts, which is publicizing the rodeo.

Before the rodeo and during intermissions, the blue-jean clad rodeo fans browsed through 100 booths which were selling an assortment of things, including western wear, cowhide rugs, home insulation and wrought-iron fences.

Baltimore Orioles' catcher Rick Dempsey, and the Orioles' Bird were on hand yesterday to sign autographs. Another big attraction was Johnny Paycheck, a popular country and western singer best known for his song "Take This Job And Shove It." He is scheduled to perform tonight as well.

The Equestrian Center, owned by Prince George's County, has been open three years and hosts horse shows almost every weekend and provides space to house and train horses.

A few in attendance were there not to applaud but to protest. Debra Wasserman of Baltimore said she arrived with three friends to distribute leaflets against cruelty to animals. When she saw that some of the horses and calves were in holding pens without protection from the rain and that some horses were being kept in trailers, she filed a complaint with the Park and Planning Commission, which approves permits for use of the Equestrian Center.

Said rodeo organizer Bobby Alexander, "cows and horses live in pastures. We're not in business to hurt anyone or any animal. Those animals are my livelihood and I love them."