A black Stetson pulled down low over his forehead, Dugan Kelly walks with a cowboy swagger as he leads his horses to their trailer. As the animals rest under the bright lights of Las Vegas, nothing about Kelly's demeanor suggests that tonight's competition — the first night of the National Finals Rodeo — went badly; he cracks jokes in a country drawl and punctuates his sentences by spitting dip onto the ground.

But things definitely didn't go as planned. Kelly and his partner were trying to rope a calf, something Kelly has been training to do since he was 12. At the last minute, his partner made a basic mistake.

“He dropped his rope,” Kelly says.

On any other night, the mistake would be an annoyance. But beginning this evening and over the next 10 days —in events that conjure old Western legends: riding bucking bulls and horses, lassoing steers and calves, wrestling cattle to the ground — Kelly and 120 other athletes are vying for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

How they perform determines how much they win.

Kelly, 35, was born in Los Angeles and raised in Paso Robles. He still lives in the same town where he grew up, with his wife of six years, their two dogs and their horses, and he describes learning his sport the same way other athletes describe hitting a baseball for the first time.

“I seen some guys roping and wanted to do it,” he says, “so I picked up a rope and never put it down.”

Now, competing in rodeos is Kelly's only job, and he spends most of his time on the road. He travels around the country all year, jockeying for cash prizes in anywhere from 70 to 120 events. To qualify for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's annual championship — the competition that took place in December against the unlikely backdrop of Las Vegas — contestants have to rank among the top 15 men or women in their sport.

Every time they compete, rodeo cowboys and cowgirls face down unruly animals. They risk broken bones and regularly get thrown, face first, into the dirt. But in addition to its gritty nature, what sets the rodeo apart from other professional sports is financial: These athletes don't get paid unless they win.

Most, like Kelly, don't have other jobs. Some have sponsorships to offset their costs, and some win so big that they've made millions over the course of their careers. But the bulk of the salary for most comes from the money they pocket at competitions. They pay their own entrance fees and support themselves and their animals while on the road. The risk is very real that they won't make any money at all.

“We do this because we love it,” Kelly says, “not 'cause we make a lot of money. We love to compete and we love to rope, so … here we are.”

Before Vegas, Kelly estimates that he made $60,000 in 2012 — just enough to break even on what he spent competing. Whatever he wins here will be his profit — and, as is so often the case in Vegas, more money is on the line than at any other time or place in the year.

The reality of that situation seems to settle in for Kelly as the competition gets under way. By day two, he's decided he can't have a reporter hanging around.

“I'd rather have you meet me after the event,” he says over the phone in the late afternoon.

Given the stakes, it's a reasonable request.

An hour before the second night of the rodeo is scheduled to start, the area outside the arena is awash in a sea of Wranglers and cowboy hats. The fumes from cheap beer, corn on the cob and hamburgers coat the air, Toby Keith pulses over the loudspeakers and every other passing group sounds like Boomhauer on King of the Hill.

Fans are here from all over the country. Barb and Duane Green have flown down for the event from Fairmont, Mont., for the sixth time. This year, they're celebrating their ninth wedding anniversary.

“It's more exciting here than any other rodeo,” says Barb, pausing from eating a hot dog. “This one has the most life.”

A group of Texans drinks beer nearby. They flew out because of the scale of the week's proceedings.

“You can win a lot more here than you can all season,” says one, who identifies himself only as Cody. Of course, there's the potential for serious injury to the contestants: “I like watching people get tore up.”

As the clock ticks closer to 6:45 p.m., in the bowels of the stadium, cowboys are getting ready to perform. Kelly saddles his horse and, in a long hallway attached to the arena, bull riders pace.

Outside, the air smells like hay and horse shit. Ropers and wrestlers warm up their steeds by trotting them around in circles under a huge, white tent. Cotton Yancey, a PRCA public relations man with a white handlebar mustache, a cowboy hat and the kind of grin that could sell a staunch atheist a box of Bibles, cautions that there is but one governing rule for standing around the backstage area: “Don't get trampled.”

The stadium begins to fill. Tickets for the 17,000-seat arena sold out every single night, according to Jim Bainbridge, another PRCA spokesman. In fact, he says, “It's sold out every year for the past 25 years.”

Behind the arena, cowboys crack quick jokes to each other, and the rodeo announcer's voice can be heard warming up the crowd.

“Cowgirls, welcome to Las Vegas!” he bellows. Music starts to play, and the contestants begin to form a loose line at the end of a long, dirt alley that leads straight into the bright lights of the stadium. In a few minutes they will barrel in, carrying flags representing their home states, and line their horses up in a U to greet the crowd. Once they disperse, the competition will officially begin.

After this moment, the athletes can rely only on how hard they've trained and how much they've practiced. “It happens too fast to think about,” Kelly says. “It's lots of timing and lots of practice, until it's just muscle memory and second nature. Hopefully we're just reacting to what we're seeing.”

Now, the horses are pawing at the ground. The riders exchange grins and lean forward.

Finally, at 6:45 p.m. on the dot, the announcer gives the command.

“Cowboys,” he shouts over the din of the crowd, “let's ride!”

At the end of the night, Kelly has more bad news; again, he leaves the arena empty-handed. The third, fourth, fifth and sixth nights end up the same.

But in the final four nights of the competition, Kelly wins a total of $48,292, bringing his earnings for the year to $109,127. So as he leaves Las Vegas on Sunday and heads back to Paso Robles with his wife, he can load up his horses and gear and know that his annual gamble paid off.

In January, he starts it all over again.

Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

LA Weekly