Photo Courtesy PBR
Headgear is essential in a multitude of sports. It can be used to protect, like in football or hockey, to establish team cohesion like in baseball, or simply to provide comfort, like with a basketball player's headband.
As the Pro Bull Riders made their way to the Madison Square Garden locker rooms on Friday, several of them carried hard plastic cases that no doubt held an essential piece of headgear. Helmets? Yes, for some younger riders, but for those veterans of the toughest sport on dirt, their hard briefcases contained nothing but wide-brimmed felt hats, the quintessential symbol of their status as cowboys.
That symbol, while not a regular piece of attire in Manhattan, has established a sense of familiarity within MSG as the PBR "Unleash the Beast" Tour kicked off it's 16th appearance in New York, something that PBR CEO Sean Gleason could not have imagined when the organization made their first MSG appearance in 2007.
"In our 30 years [of PBR], for more than half of it, we've had an event here in Madison Square Garden," Gleason said in an event-opening press conference on Friday. "I can tell you that the first couple of years [in New York] were not that great. [Former PBR CEO] Randy Bernard and I were out on the street, right out in front of this building handing tickets to anybody that would come in and see bulls and dirt and everything soiling the wonderful Madison Square Garden."
Luckily for Gleason, the persistence of the PBR to remain in New York almost every year since (only stopping in 2021 due to the pandemic) paid off, as Friday's PBR session was conducted in front of a massive New York crowd. From the beginning of a pyrotechnic-filled opening ceremony to the moment the last rider left the chute, the Garden crowd was ready and rowdy.
The bulls had the upper hand early on Friday, bucking off the first 15 riders of the evening. Despite the early rider struggles, the crowd was behind them each time the chute gate was opened, starving for an opportunity to rally around a qualified ride of 8 seconds or more. Koltin Hevalow, on the back of Smooth Over It, gave the Garden their first taste of a qualified ride, earning a score of 88.25, but he was eventually upstaged by 19-year old Bob Mitchell, who earned the highest score of the night with a 90, conquering the beast known as Tijuana Two-Step. While Joao Ricardo Vieira would tie Mitchell's 90 with a qualified ride on Burn it Down, no rider would top it in Round 1.
There's a lot that goes into high quality rides like the ones featured above, but for riders like Dalton Kasel, the right bull is the difference maker. Kasel, who earned the highest score of Round 2 (88.5) on Homegrown, gave plenty of credit to his bovine performance partner.
"I've seen that bull a lot, and I've just been blessed to [have] never been on him [before]," Kasel said. "I was able to take each and every jump the same. It was an awesome opportunity. That bull has a lot of whip to it. He does some stuff that other bulls aren't able to do, so he just makes it that much tougher for other riders and produces high scores."
Since a successful ride combines the rider's score with the bull's, PBR athletes are encouraged to obtain qualified rides on the most aggressive bulls possible.
Despite the high score on Saturday Night, Kasel would fail to qualify in an incredibly competitive Sunday afternoon session. After each rider made one more attempt on the weekend to qualify for the Championship, in which the Top 12 riders drafted the Top 12 bulls for a shot at winning the first major Tour stop of the calendar year. Naturally, the final 12 was filled with top names of the sport over the past decade, with former World Champs like Silvano Alves and Jose Vitor Leme, and Bob Mitchell, the young gun looking to cap off the weekend with a trophy.
It would not be the story book ending that Mitchell had set up however, as his fourth ride, this time on the back of Moonlight Party, ended after just 5.83 seconds. Just two riders would make a qualified ride in the Championship round with stunning performances. Jose Vitor Leme, whose score of 92 edged out Eduardo Aparecido in the final ride by 1.5 points, was a fitting strike to earn a trophy at the World's Greatest Arena.
According to Leme, who has won two World Championships in 2020 and 2021, earning a win at the Garden checks off a high priority bucket list item.
"I have always dreamed about winning in this arena," Leme said. "I had a chance [in the past], but I didn't win. Now I have this buckle, I have this trophy, and I'm so happy."
With the win, Leme may now add his name to the ever-growing list of Champion Bull Riders to win in New York. An event that started with the CEO selling tickets out on the streets of Manhattan, the PBR Unleash the Beast Tour has cemented itself as a hallmark Garden event. Fueling the growth of this sport in the Northeast is no doubt the company's mantra of "Be Cowboy," a tenet of which Dalton Kasel describes as the ability to adapt and understand.
"Being a cowboy is being a humble and respectful guy," Kasel explained. "I'm so thankful for people that take me in and let me experience some of their life, and I'm thankful for all of the fans that came. They got to experience some of our life."