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Forcados set to spend face time with fired-up animals on Sunday

Pop quiz: What's the safest way to stop and subdue a charging, ticked-off bull? Leap on its head? Grab it by the tail?

Fortunately, most of us really don't need to know. But for the answer, ask a forcado. Better yet, watch a team of them in action in a bloodless bullfight. Grupos de Forcados Amadores de Turlock will celebrate its 33rd anniversary with a six-bull event Sunday afternoon in Stevinson.

Forcados are bullfighters who perform "face catches," or "grabs," of bulls after they've been tired by cavaleiros (bullfighters on horseback) or matadors (bullfighters on foot).

The grab is the final event in a typical Portuguese bullfight. To get in position for it, eight forcados form a line facing the bull. The foremost man eggs on the animal, taking steps forward if necessary, to get it to charge. Once that's accomplished, that lead forcado times his jump onto the bull's head, wrapping his arms around the horns. Six other forcados jump upon the bull in the same fashion as the first, piling upon one another, while the final forcado grabs the bull by its tail.

Wednesday evening at Martins Brothers Dairy in Hilmar, Forcados Amadores de Turlock were practicing with what looked like the front end of a mechanical bull mounted on an oversize wheelbarrow. A few guys would run at the team with this contraption of metal, plywood and padding, and though the impact doesn't compare to the real deal charging at the forcados, it was enough to regularly knock a few of them on their backsides. Factor in a bull's unpredictability and it's easy to see how forcados can end up with anything from a concussion to a gash (even though horn tips are sheathed) to broken bones. No wonder the Turlock forcados are nicknamed the Suicide Squad.

So, why do these guys -- whose day jobs are with Clark Pest Control, the Alfred Matthews service department, various dairies and other businesses -- do it? Tradition, adrenaline rush, camaraderie and recreation, said Sarah Holden, a Foster Farms customer-service representative who also does public-relations for the forcados. "I'd prefer water polo myself," said Holden, whose fiancé, Gary Rocha, 35, has been a forcado for 19 years.

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Rocha typically serves as a tail man for Forcados Amadores de Turlock. "It's the fifth position in line," he said. "Once the first guy is on the head, I break off to the side to grab the tail. The tail man breaks the bull's momentum by pulling his tail. ... Once the group stops the bull and lets it go, the tail man stays there with him and distracts the bull so he doesn't chase the other guys. The bull actually turns and chases us, so we're spinning in a circle until the bull is calm enough, then you let go. Usually, the bull will stand there because he's a little dizzy or a little dazed.

"It's kind of a weird thing, that tail position, because people think it's a real dangerous position. ... You do get kicked sometimes. Some bulls are more ornery than others, but it doesn't happen that often. I've broke my collarbone, took out my knee, took out my ACL, ribs, all sorts of things."

As dangerous as a forcado's job is, it would be much worse without a cavaleiro or matador wearing out the bull first. "They couldn't do it without the cavaleiros," Holden said. And Rocha noted that some bulls just don't take the cavaleiros' bait and chase their horses, leaving the forcados to face a much more energized beast.

Still, "it's all very well choreographed," he said. "Everything has it's time, everyone has their positions. Everyone acts very professionally in the arena. Here, you see that we're goofing off, but once we're in there, we're very professional."

Sunday's bullfight will feature six bulls -- "the biggest we're going to see is 1,200-1,300 pounds," Rocha said -- cavaleiros and the forcados. The horsemen's performance is to get as close as they can to the bull and to plant Velcro-tipped spears into a covering on its back. They also show off the tricks their well-trained horses can do, Holden said.

Sunday's bullfight is at 5 p.m. at the Stevinson arena, 2962 N. Lander Ave. Gates open at 4. Admission is $20 general, children 12 and under free.

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