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CALISTOGA — A weekend festival drew crowds to Calistoga for the Cinco de Mayo holiday — and at the heart of its closing day Sunday was a series of battles pitting man against bull.

At a covered pavilion on the Napa County Fairgrounds, 10 men took their places atop 2,000 pounds of bucking, unpredictably thrashing muscle, armed only with boot spurs, courage and a determination to hang on. Fifteen seconds became 20, then 30 — for the most skilled, even longer — until the rider slid off the bull’s bulging hide to the cheers of several hundred spectators, or was rudely flung into the dirt.

Hector Miramontes was as prepared for the task as any of Sunday’s 10 riders could be — the grandson and great-grandson of riders in the Mexican bull sport known as jaripeo, and part of a Riverside family that owns a rodeo business. But training and preparation, the 18-year-old rider admitted, can go only so far against the whims and raw strength of the bull.

“Some bulls don’t know how they’ll come out, and other will do, say, two jumps to the right and one to the left,” he said. “But you never really know how strong they’re gonna be.”

“It’s pretty hard, trust me. If there’s a guy who says he’s not scared, he’s (expletive) you.”

Sunday’s jaripeo exhibition was a highlight to the Calistoga fairground’s Fair & Fiesta, which opened Friday and mixed a carnival midway with live music and entertainment. For the festival’s closing day, the fair featured the bull riders, along with mariachi bands and the St. Helena-based Ballet Folklorico to mark Cinco de Mayo.

The bull-riding exhibition was organized by Gonzalo Guido, who took up the sport while growing up in the Mexican state of Michoacan and now organizes the Jaripeo Profesional Ranchero, an Encino-based tour with stops in California, Arizona, Nevada and Texas.

Sunday’s rides were untimed, with each rider expected to stay atop his bull until the animal could be lassoed and led back to the pen. “A good bull, sometimes he’ll give 60 jumps and the rider still stays on,” said Guido, a jaripeo promoter for 15 years. “Over that, it’s strength — and very few stay on,” he added with a laugh.

A 32-foot trailer transports the bulls to stops on Guido’s tour. Their driver, Oscar Ramos, also serves as the animals’ caretaker, overseeing their twice-daily feedings, vitamin supplements, and the grooming of hooves necessary to prevent their flattening and impairing the bulls’ ability to run, gallop and give riders a stern challenge.

In four years helping to tend to jaripeo bulls, Ramos, who lives in the Southern California city of Ontario, has faced almost as much risk as the riders — once nearly losing a thumb to the swipe of a bull’s horn.

“It’s the adrenalin and the energy it gives you,” he said. “And because of the bulls I’ve been to a lot of places — New York, Philadelphia, North Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas.”

“For me, my worry (is if) the bulls won’t play. People don’t like that — people like bucking bulls. If the bull bucks good, it’s because I took good care of them.”

But before the muscle-on-muscle challenges came nearly an hour of pomp and ceremony. Leading the riders into the corral was a procession that included a mariachi band serenading them, and capped with a moment of prayer when the riders went to one knee before putting their bodies on the line.

Miramontes, one of the men about to pit his skills against a bull’s untamed power, planned to keep his approach simple. He had summarized it two hours before: “Good balance, don’t be afraid — and have fun.”

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.