What do you think of bringing the bull run to Texas?
PETERSBURG, Virginia — Thousands more than anyone expected poured into a drag strip in Petersburg, Virginia last month for what was billed as the first "Great Bull Run."
It's the idea of a Boston-based promoter who believes the mystique of running with the bulls in Spain creates a business opportunity in the States.
The event comes to the Texas Motorplex in Ennis next April, and if the response in Virginia is any indication, it will draw many thousands of runners and spectators.
And also, some controversy.
Participants in the first Great Bull Run came dressed in the traditional red-and-white colors made famous in Pamplona, Spain. Others took their bucket list bravado a little further.
One woman pinned a bull's eye to the back of her pants. "Right on target!" she yelled (after signing a waiver promising not to sue the promoter).
One man wore only a woolly loincloth and a helmet with horns.
Almost all the runners said they came because it's the closest they'll ever get to running with the bulls in Spain.
Rancher Preston Fowlkes, who provided 25 rodeo bulls for the Virginia event, said he's been chased plenty of times, and wouldn't pay $75 for the privilege.
He pointed out some of his favorites waiting in a pen — a big red bull named "Tombstone"; another known as "Hammerlane."
"He will hammer you," Fowlkes laughed. "He will run over your butt."
Fowlkes said some of his bulls weigh up to 1,700 pounds. They are not as aggressive as Spanish fighting bulls; their horns have been blunted; but they can still cause plenty of damage.
Instead of narrow Spanish streets, the bulls (and a few steers) in the American version charge down a straightaway lined by fences that offer daredevils an escape route.
Five-hundred runners fanned out along the track several times to recite a creed before the bulls were released:
"From those that run... to those that fall... we honor the bull... and salute you all."
Fresh runners filled the track for run after run.
"I almost pushed a girl in front of a bull, so that was kind of scary," said Louis Hernandez, panting but exhilarated after one close call.
The runners celebrated survival with a massive tomato fight called the "Tomato Royale," also a tradition borrowed from Spain.
Thousands of pounds of tomatoes filled the air. Thousands of participants strutted away covered in seeds and juice.
Promoters plan to bring this spectacle to Texas Motorplex in Ennis in April, one of ten bull runs scheduled across the country.
"Just look at how it goes in Spain. Everybody loves it," said organizer Rob Dickens. He couldn't have been happier with a crowd at the inaugural Virginia event estimated at 12,000.
On the other hand, animal rights protesters fumed at the edge of the property, holding up signs that were largely ignored.
More than 2,000 people have signed an on-line petition to cancel the bull run in Ennis.
Organizers point out they lay down a thick layer of dirt along the course to protect the animals' legs, and have a veterinarian on site to monitor their condition.
It's up to humans to protect themselves.
The event could look quite different by the time it gets to North Texas. The promoter says he wants to add more thrills... maybe a little more danger.
"I don't want broken bones and bloodshed, but it is part of the event,” said Rob Dickens. “It is something that we do expect to happen every now and then."
In Spain, dozens of people are hurt each year, and 15 runners have been killed since 1910, including a teenager this summer. But there, the bull horns are sharp, and sometimes there is no place to hide.
No runners were hurt in Petersburg until the last run of the day, when twice as many bulls were released into the waiting crowd. Twenty-four of them thundered down the dirt lane.
Two runners went down, including one who had to be taken to a hospital for treatment.
Everyone else walked away with bragging rights. They ran with the bulls... another one off the bucket list.