Riding for a fall in Calgary

Australians have their place at the Calgary Stampede, writes Craig Platt.

"Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" shouts the announcer.

"Oi! Oi! Oi!" comes the reply from a small, but enthusiastic part of the crowd.

The Calgary Stampede, one of the world's biggest rodeo events, may be dominated by Canadians and Americans, but Australians also have a role to play ' in the crowd and the arena.

The ten-day event, which kicked off last weekend, will see 1.2 visitors pass through the city's Stampede Ground gates to witness such extreme sports as bronco and bull riding, steer wrestling and wagon racing.

Those invited to compete here are the best of the best in these wild west pursuits and there are a handful of Australians among them, such as 28-year-old bareback bronco rider Jake Marshall.

"Mum worries about me getting hurt, but that's just part of the life," says Marshall, who was Australia's bareback bronco champion in 2006.

Originally from Moree, Marshall started off showjumping locally before moving on the bull and bronco riding. He moved to the US after scoring a rodeo scholarship from West Texas University.

Coming from a small town to become a full time member of the rodeo circuit was a big step and took some getting used to, particularly the size of the events in North America.

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"I found it nerve wracking, especially when I was younger," Marshall says of the huge crowds (as many as 140,000 come through the gates of the stampede in a single day). "But it's a big thing to get invited here ... the atmosphere is phenomenal."

Another Australian competing here, saddle bronco rider Anthony Bello, is a veteran of the rodeo circuit. Based in Oakley, near Salt Lake City in the US, Bello, 33, has been involved in rodeos since his teens.

"I've been on a horse every day for the past two weeks, across 10 states," Bello says backstage after his ride.

Bello has competed at Calgary five times. "It's the best rodeo in the world," he says. In that time, he's seen the prize money get bigger (the winner of the saddle bronco riding on the event's final day will head home with $120,000), but it's still hard ' and dangerous ' making a living as a rodeo rider. Marshall says he was off the circuit for 18 months after shattering a leg.

Whether they're riding bareback or saddled broncos, or angry bulls, every rider's aim is the same: to stay on top of the animal for eight seconds without being thrown to the dirt. Even then, the rider's performance is rated, as is the animal's, by two judges to determine an overall score.

Bello and Marshall admit that the riders do it for the love of the sport: no one's in it for the money. That said, both Aussies have a chance at the big prizes on offer in the Stampede's final weekend. Bello finished fourth in his pool, granting him automatic entry to 'Showdown Sunday', when the biggest prizes are given out, while Marshall who finished fifth in his event, still has a shot at making Sunday's competition if he can perform well at Saturday's 'wildcard' event. 

While Calgary comes alive during Stampede to the sound of country music and the sight of cowboy hats on just about everyone, the local press is reporting that visitor numbers for city's big event are down this year. The large numbers of Americans that normally head north to the event have fallen off this year, with the economic crisis and new passport regulations being blamed.

Craig Platt travelled to the Calgary Stampede as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Travel Alberta.

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