Their hobby: Raising some bucking bulls

COSTA MESA — The Orange County Fairgrounds Arena was quiet Friday morning, belying the strength and aggression of the massive 1,400- to 1,800-pound American bucking bulls complacently chomping down on a champion's breakfast: fresh hay.

The bulls — whose names include Hippy Music, 9-11 Ground Zero and the less than-friendly sounding (and looking) Pit Boss — are competing in the Professional Bull Riders Anaheim Invitational that started Friday and continues at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim.

"These bulls are not the same bulls you see at the Costa Mesa fairgrounds rodeo," said bull owner Jim Birmingham, of Newport Beach. "These bulls are on the extreme end of the scale. They are world-class athletes."

Birmingham, along with his wife, Susie, and Birmingham's vice president in the Laguna Beach-based Seacrest Developers, Scott Franklin, joined in partnership with Texas rancher Scott Accomazzo about three years ago to begin raising the bulls for international competitions.

"Our friends' and neighbors' first reaction was, 'You're doing what?" Birmingham said. "But, once they come to an event, they're hooked."

The bulls' annual food and medical costs run about $2,500. Some bulls even undergo chiropractic treatment, much like a person would when bucking throws their spine out of alignment, Accomazzo said.

An average bull's athletic career will span nine to 12 years. A bull competes at 12 to 20 events during a season.

Accomazzo said he had his start in bull-riding when he was 13, and competed in rodeos. He now owns an 800-acre spread in Stephenville, Texas, with 300 bulls and 110 cows.

But when he broke his hip while working with a bull about a decade ago, he made the transition from rider to owner.

"I would compare it to a baseball player in the World Series to a father watching his son play in the World Series," Accomazzo said. "There's no better feeling than watching a calf take its first steps."

For Susie Birmingham, her husband's interest in bulls — an interest she shared immediately after seeing her first bucking event — comes as no surprise considering that the events are a "total adrenaline rush," she said.

Jim Birmingham has a background in high school and college football and intense hobbies, such as off-road racing, which makes the bull events a perfect fit for him.

And the bulls definitely are a "rush." The naturally aggressive animals can be dangerous to even seasoned pros, said Accomazzo, who has had a number of close calls, including a run-in with Pit Boss a year ago that caused minor injuries.

"I've had calves chase me that are less than an hour old," Accomazzo said. He added that the animals are not actually hostile creatures, "They just act out of self-preservation, like any other animal."

All that aggression makes riders don't last long on the animals.

Hippy Music will buck a rider in an average of 4.7 seconds, Ground Zero, 4.04 seconds and Pit Boss, 3.10 seconds, according to the Professional Bull Riders Inc. website.

And with the bulls already showing signs of barely retained energy — their horns are blotched with red from repetitive contact with the red-painted metal stalls — the promise of a strong athletic showing this weekend is high. Accomazzo claims the awaiting riders don't stand much of a chance.

"We're going to buck them all off," he said.

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