HIALEAH, Fla. (AP) — On a sandy stretch of land between tree farms and cattle ranches, Edgar Abreu awaits his match: A black bull behind a red metal gate.
The gate lifts and the bull runs. Abreu, a balding 57-year-old handyman, and another cowboy chase the animal on their horses. Abreu rides up alongside the bull, grips his hand around the tail and yanks the animal to the ground.
The bull rolls over and comes to a rest on its stomach.
“Un punto!” Francisco Palmero calls out on a bullhorn. One point. The crowd cheers.
The scene is reminiscent of rodeos in countless Venezuelan towns, as well as some other parts of Latin America. But this tournament is being held at a ranch in Hialeah, about 10 miles from the Miami’s towering condo and office buildings. The men on horseback are competing to represent the U.S. in a world championship in Venezuela later this year.
For most of the cowboys, the U.S. is a second home. The majority are from Venezuela where “coleo,” as the sport is called, is a tradition. When they arrived in Florida, they organized rodeos much like the ones in the countries they left behind: Four men chased after two bulls for four minutes at a time, flipping them over as many times as they could. Musicians played llanera folk songs with harps, maracas, bass and Spanish guitars. Families came with their children.
Not everyone applauded, however. At an event about 10 years ago, a bull fell and broke its leg. Animal rights activists clamored. They said the tradition wasn’t a sport. It was cruelty.
“There was quite a public uproar about it,” recalled Laura Bevan, Southern region director of the Humane Society of the United States. “And the people organizing it just said that they were not going to do it anymore.”
The rodeos didn’t entirely disappear, however. Three years ago, Palmero and a group of cowboys established the American Coleo Federation and tried to adapt the sport to meet U.S. animal welfare standards. Instead of four men, there would be two. Their time chasing the bull would be cut in half. The strip of land the bull ran through would be smaller and filled with plenty of sand to ensure a soft landing. And they’d use smaller bulls, less likely to be injured when they hit the ground, they said.
“The animal doesn’t suffer,” asserted Hector Ricardo, 43, a coleo champion.
Animal rights groups are not convinced.
“It’s quite clear these young bulls are distressed and get exhausted in the process of being tripped over and over again,” said Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA, an animal advocacy organization. “I don’t find that personally or professionally very sporting.”
But bull tripping isn’t illegal, and the men who form the American Coleo Federation are determined to keep their sport alive in their adopted homeland. They held their most recent event on Independence Day weekend. The cowboys wore long-sleeved, collared shirts emblazoned with the U.S. flag. And the event began with a recording of the U.S. national anthem.
“The United States has always been like the Cinderella of the competition,” Palermo said. “We’re small but potent. And respected.”
About 20 cowboys competed for 12 spots to represent the U.S. at the international coleo championship in Venezuela this fall.
Among them were Abreu, known to his friends as “Popeye” because of his bald head and muscular physique. Also competing was Gabriel Boracchi, 32, who came from Venezuela to the U.S. 12 years ago to study and now exports car parts and works in real estate. His girlfriend, Sandra Valencia, 27, watched nervously as he prepared for the first round. She was born in Colombia and had never been to a rodeo.
“Scary,” she said, looking for a place to watch from the sidelines.
Meanwhile, Juan Carlos Rodriguez, 56, originally from Cuba, assessed the competition.
“This is a risky sport,” he said. “I can’t do what I did when I was younger.”
At the end of the first round, Boracchi had three points, Abreu two and Rodriguez none.
Ricardo’s wife, clad in jeans and cowboy boots, pinned ribbons in the colors of the U.S. and Venezuelan flags on the backs of the cowboys each time they got a point for flipping the bull.
The large crowd watched from under tents where plates of barbecued meat and boiled yucca were being served. Rhona Rojas and Joseph Duarte, both 34, came with their two sons, ages 2 and 6 months.
Rojas, of Venezuela, said they brought them to “learn a bit about the history of our country.”
At that moment, a bull fell near the railing close by to where she stood. It flailed on its back, its neck outstretched. She winced at the sight.
“It’s like in bullfighting,” her husband said. “There are parts that we don’t want to see.”
Bevan, of the Humane Society, said any abuse of the bulls during an event might fall under Florida’s animal cruelty law. However, she didn’t know of any coleo-related prosecutions in Florida.
In the second round, Boracchi’s luck soured. The bull he’d been given fell once, then refused to get back up and run.
“It didn’t go well,” he said, a look of frustration on his face.
A gray and black Australian cattle dog chased the bull from the field.
By end of the competition, Rodriguez had one point, Boracchi three and Abreu six. The cowboys tied up their horses and waited for the team to be announced. Musicians played and pop artists like Rihanna blared on a loudspeaker during their breaks. Abreu moved his hips, the ribbons dancing off his back.
It was after midnight when a man in a white cowboy hat strode on stage and took the microphone.
“I want to honor the new team that will represent the U.S.!” he said to applause.
Rodriguez watched as the names were called. Boracchi. Abreu. The group on the stage grew larger and larger. Finally, with just two spots left, Rodriguez was called.
A look of relief settled on his face as he ran to the stage and the men patted him on the back.
Abreu took first prize, winning $1,500, a saddle and a gold trophy. The men lifted him up into the air.
“I feel honored,” he said. “It’s a great satisfaction to represent the U.S.”
Follow Christine Armario on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario