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Rodeo clown Shorty Gorham isn't just kidding around

CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

Fan of the House: Gorham will help riders avoid being trampled by raging beasts at the Professional Bull Riders Inc. event at Anaheim's Honda Center.

January 19, 2011|Chris Erskine
  • Rodeo clown Shorty Gorham, left, helps Kasey Hayes as he rides "Eskimo Joe" during the opening round of a Pro Bull Riders event in New York City earlier this month. Gorham's expertise will be on display when the PBR visits Anaheim in February.
Rodeo clown Shorty Gorham, left, helps Kasey Hayes as he rides "Eskimo… (Andy Watson )

Today, class, we're looking at an alternative sports career, a freaky way to fake a living. Not for everyone, such jobs, just for folks who don't want to sit around some office waiting for their bones to calcify.

First up, Shorty Gorham.

At work, Shorty gets stomped on, kicked, head-butted and chewed. On his IRS form, under occupation, it should read "roadkill" or "bait."

Here's the dude's resume: Broken vertebra, shattered left shoulder, broken sternum. This one time, a co-worker — one of those snorty sorts who don't say much but seem to hide a quiet anger — tore the pectoral muscle right off the sternum. And to think you tear up a little when you ca-nockle your knee against your desk.

Shorty isn't a linebacker or a bouncer or a character in a Nicolas Cage blow-'em-up. He's a rodeo clown.

Yeah, it's kind of funny what people will do for a buck.

"The rider runs away from the storm," he says by phone from a ranch in Cotulla, Texas. "I've always been one to run into the storm."

At 30 elite events a year, including this weekend's at the Honda Center, Shorty and his fellow rodeo clowns are the answer to a rider's frantic 911 call. In bull riding, the cowboy attempts to stay on the bull for eight seconds, during which he'll often get thrown, somersaulted and tossed like a fifth of tequila.

But the mayhem doesn't stop there, not even close. To keep the bull from kicking the bejesus out of the downed rider, the rodeo clowns step in to distract the animals — 2,000 pounds of sinew and snot — basically luring the bull to chase them instead of the rider.

"It's exciting to try to take control of a situation when you have no idea what they might do," twangs Shorty, who was born in El Centro and grew up on a sprawling ranch in San Juan Capistrano.

"It sounds crazy, but the closer you are to the bull the better," he says. "With a bull, you either want to be real close or real far away."

Some people might choose real far away. Shorty? He chooses up close, leaning into the beast's shoulder when he can, the shoulder considered a relative safe zone.

Talk about true grit. Such counterintuitive behavior is a career requirement. And, at 32, Shorty's proud of the run he's had, which he hopes will last another 10 years. After each season, the riders vote on which of these saviors they'd like the association to bring back next season. Shorty is always on the list, and has also been chosen to work the national finals and a string of world championships.

What's taking place Friday and Saturday in Anaheim is a hugely successful renegade offshoot of the traditional rodeo. Bull riding has always been a marquee event of a rodeo, the last of the day. So back in 1992, 20 bull riders formed Professional Bull Riders Inc. to capitalize on their event's popularity. Their initial investment of $1,000 each turned into millions when the association was sold in 2007. It now stages 300 events a year worldwide.

"Even in a bad economy, we've done well," Shorty says. "The thing about us is we still sell a cheap ticket."

The sport is not without detractors. Critics contend that the bulls' testicles are cinched to make them buck, by something called a "flank strap." Organizers argue that the strap is about a foot away and never comes in contact with that part of the body. The bulls buck, they say, because that what the animals are bought and bred for.

Besides, animals this ornery would otherwise be sent to slaughter. This, the riders say, is the ultimate reprieve — a place where they are well fed and fussed over.

If the bulls are upset by all this, keep in mind that they can exact their revenge by flipping cowboys like hotcakes. Each ride is worth 100 points, and half are based on the bull, the other half on the rider. Judges look for bulls with speed, kick, power, direction changes and body rolls (when a bull is in the air and kicks either his back feet or all four feet to the side). The more of these jukes, the higher the degree of difficulty.

And then there is the mop-up, when Shorty Gorham races to work.

"The head and horns, they hurt when they hit you," he says. "But more people get hurt by the feet, especially if you get caught between the ground and a hoof.

"Our whole game comes down to the mental performance," he says. "You gotta be full bore, or you're better off home on the couch."

OK, I call the couch.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

Event info: 8 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Tickets start at $15, (800) 745-3000, http://www.ticketmaster.com or at the Honda Center box office.

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