Marines maintain poker faces around raging bulls

COSTA MESA — They served their country in Iraq as U.S. Marines.

On Thursday, the four men were serving the crowd of hundreds, pretending to play poker as bulls charged them, seeing who could last the longest without getting up from the table and running away.

It provided some of the most intense moments at the Orange County Fair.

"Not even the bull riders volunteer for this kind of stuff," says Tim Coy, an emcee. "The bull riders know the dangers involved, but we get a lot of Marines who volunteer. They want the money, and they love the danger."

They also ended up splitting the $1,000 jackpot. Which means even though the crowd thinks there's just one winner, they all leave the ring with the same amount of cash — sort of like baristas in a café dividing up the tip jar, although these Marines-turned-cowboys aren't serving lattes.

"Your heart starts pumping, and your adrenaline starts flowing, and you don't feel anything," said Marine Cpl. Michael Peace, who was the second one to be chased out of the ring by a bull early on in the game.

Peace, of Rome, Ga., said there's not much a person can do during "Bull Poker." As in war, something bad is bound to happen, and you can either relax — or brace yourself — for it.

"If you can relax," said Peace, "then you might not get as hurt as you would if you brace yourself — kind of like what you're supposed to do when you're in a car accident."

Marine Sgt. Justin Martinez, 25, of White Bluff, Tenn., was the first Marine to be chased out of the ring, but certainly by no fault of his own.

The bulls, once they are released from their pens at different intervals, are egged on by a pair of performers whose job is to provoke the bulls and bully them into the general vicinity of the poker table.

After that, it's just all a matter of chance on which way the bull decides to charge, kind of like the winds of a tornado and the random havoc of its path.

"I've been to Iraq, where there are bombs all over the place," said Martinez. "This is scarier."

The third Marine to be shooed from the ring was Doug Brown, who plans on returning to Iraq for his fifth tour, according to Coy.

The winner was a guy by the name of Don Hues, who could not be reached for his comment.

But the show had much more than just poker. The Action Sports Arena, where it all unfolded, served true to its name.

It featured local bull riders, some of whom lasted more than 10 seconds on some of the more ornery bulls. There was Matt Price of Norco, who went down quickly but ended up OK.

There was Blake McFann of Anaheim. Traes Sherman of Riverside. Ricky Hallman of Norco. They each went for it.

There was also a father and son team who stole part of the show with their ropemanship: Tomas Garcialazo, 43, and his son, Thomas, 10, both from outside Victorville. They twirled their long lassos with no end in sight as they stood atop their horses, Silverado and Tweety Bird.

Then there was the chuck wagon race between a pair of wagons.

Todd Bender, 47, of Humphrey, Neb., won the race after his competitor lost the back wheels of his wagon.

"People don't understand how fast we travel and the centrifugal force involved," he said after the race. "There was a camera lady who went out with me from a TV station one time, and I told her to hang on to my belt because she was in for a ride.

"She ended up falling into the back of the wagon."


Friday At The Fair

Senior Hat Contest: 2 p.m. at the Fair Square, the Meadows Stage.

Wine Seminar: The Courtyard. 5 p.m. $25. Santa Lucia Highland. Seminar includes a 2010 Riedel Fair wine glass, award book, eight wines and assorted nibbles.

Craig Bennic, comedy juggler: 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m., in the Fun Zone Tent and Stage, part of Ralphs Family Fair Way.

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