08/03/2005 11:00PM

Saddle up for a different kind of ride


DEL MAR, Calif. - The running joke between jump jockeys and flat jockeys goes something like this:

Jump jockeys think flat jocks are off their collective rockers, because no one in their right mind would ever ride a horse going that fast.

Flat jockeys, on the other hand, think jump jockeys are nuts to do what they do, because too many things can happen when a horse takes flight, and in the world of flat racing, none of them are good.

It is refreshing, therefore, that professional riders of both disciplines can unite in common amazement. To a man and woman, jockeys would think more than twice before intentionally throwing a leg over a 1,600-pound Charolais/Brahma cross and shouting, with a perfectly straight face, "Let 'er buck." Or whatever it takes to kick start a bull.

The two worlds collide - or at least brush up against each other - on Saturday, when the Professional Bull Riders stages its first Del Mar event in the fairgrounds arena, not long after the 10th and final race of the Thoroughbred program wraps up right next door.

Horses coming over for the Saturday races will be getting the unmistakable whiff of angry bovine as they pass by the arena holding pens, where the PBR bulls will be in temporary residence, primed to put a serious hurt on the 25 riders scheduled to compete in the $13,000 event.

That doesn't sound like much, and it isn't, compared to the $150,000 on the line in the 6 1/2-furlong Sorrento Stakes at Del Mar on Saturday afternoon. But the top PBR riders - guys like Justin McBride and Guilherme Marchi - have earned more than $200,000 this season. And all they have to do is hang on for eight seconds.

Pat Day, who just retired with more than $297 million earned by his mounts, attributes some of his luck escaping major injuries as a jockey to his youth as a bull rider.

"You spend a lot of time falling when you ride bulls," Day said in an interview last year. "I guess I had to learn to tuck up and fall soft, and it stayed with me in racing."

Day is not the only jockey with bulls in his background. They include Casey Lambert, brother of PBR pioneer Cody Lambert; current trainer Sam Semkin; and Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who grew up going to a New Mexico rodeo school with 1987 world bull riding champion Tuff Hedeman.

"For most kids, you grow up with a choice of either baseball or football," said Smith, who rides Slick Road for trainer Tim Yakteen in the Sorrento. "I rode a lot of steers, but only one bull, and wish I could tell you I rode the hell out of it. But I didn't."

Scramble a list of names taken from the Sorrento entries - all polite 2-year-old fillies - with some of the leading bulls on the national PBR circuit, and they almost could be interchangeable. Pandora's Box, Bully Bones, Hystericalady, Final Fantasy, Tiger on the Loose, Acceleration, Coyote Ugly, and Backlash - they all sound tough to stay aboard.

"I'll tell you, riding a bull was the biggest rush I ever had," said Jeff Mullins, Del Mar's leading trainer, who will saddle Acceleration (a filly, thankfully) in the Sorrento.

Mullins ran with the Rodeo Club crowd in high school back in Idaho (your humble correspondent leaned toward chess) and got some of his pals a job galloping horses at nearby Les Bois Park racetrack.

"After awhile, they said it was my turn to try their game," Mullins said. "I thought, 'Hell, they're only cows.' Well, you would not believe how fast they come out of there. I remember how I'd sometimes draw the best, toughest bull in the lot, and everybody thought it was great. I didn't see what was so good about it."

Mullins said he was too tall to ride bulls seriously for more than a couple of years, and a similar fate befell John Shirreffs, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo.

"Those were my cowboy days up at Loma Rica," Shirreffs said, referring to the northern California ranch where he worked before turning to the racetrack. "Bareback broncs was what I really liked, but riding bulls was where the action was. But I didn't like them at all. They were mean and dirty, and you couldn't really make any connection with them, like you could with horses.

"When you ride a bull you're sitting on your hand," Shirreffs said. "That means the taller you are the harder it is to stay centered. Their skin is loose, but you wouldn't believe how hard they are underneath.

"My bull-riding career pretty much ended, though, the day I wore my brand new black Resistol," Shirreffs said. "It was a $35 hat, and you only made $100 a week. I got on this bull, and he started rocking back and forth in the pen. My hat flew off and landed under his front feet, then he reached down, blew snot all over it, and went after it. By the time he got through, that beautiful black Resistol was demolished."