Big Bucks

If you want to watch some of the most highly compensated athletes in the world compete, don't waste your time trying to catch the Wizards courtside, scamming a ticket to Augusta or road-tripping it to Arlington, Texas. Compared to these gilded athletes, Mike, Tiger and A-Rod are practically indigent street-corner shoe salesmen.

The top-grossing jocks don't even need to train. They've never seen a weight room, massage table or ice pack in their lives. (They have, however, seen plenty of steak.) They lead lives of indolence and decadence, filling their off hours with more feed than Buster Douglas and enough casual sex to make Shawn Kemp wilt with shame.

They are available for viewing at the neighborhood stock show and rodeo. Top bucking rodeo bulls -- currently being referred to as "animal athletes" at a pen near you -- can earn more cash per time worked than a Manhattan plumber on a Christmas-morning house call. The cream of the crop of bulls grosses the pro-rated equivalent of up to $1 million. That's per hour, by the way.

But they're worth it. After all, talk about your essential gear: Even King of the Cowboys Ty Murray would be a mere peasant without a good bucking bull -- nothing but a short guy in chaps with a nasty chewing-tobacco habit. Take away their bulls, and riders are Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a hike, Reinhold Messner exiled to Iowa. It's not for nothing that the Professional Bull Riders Association names a bull of the year in addition to the year's best rider.

The best bulls are as coddled as Shaq's big toe, and they're viewed with a mixture of fear and awe that free-climbers reserve for El Capitan. The names Bodacious, Whitewater Skoal, Skat Kat, Yellow Jacket, Rapid Fire and Hammer are whispered with a reverence the rest of the population reserves for Sakic, Bonds and the Internal Revenue Service.

Are bulls legitimate athletes? They're stronger than Rulon Gardner, quicker than Gary Payton and have more desire than Randy Moss. They're smarter, by a long shot, than Leon Spinks. In fact, perhaps the only difference is that most of them have also been made from scratch: hatched out of a steaming pot of DNA soup, bred to buck.

Thanks to an explosion in the growth of rodeo events in general and bull riding specifically, the sport has worked its way into a corner: There are more events requiring bucking bulls than there are good bulls -- a bull deficit, if you will. The nine-year-old Professional Bull Riders tour has never been more popular. PBR shows (including the two-day National Western tour stop) are almost always sellouts. Last year, for the first time, a PBR event was broadcast on network TV.

"We're much more NASCAR than rodeo," says Randy Bernard, the PBR's executive director. "We create stars. A lot of people are drawn to the sport by the danger -- like NASCAR -- versus the 'Western lifestyle' for rodeo."

That said, the PBR's success hasn't escaped the notice of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, which itself is in the process of establishing its own bull-riding tour. Another series, called Bucking Thunder, made a go of it last year before pulling the plug on its own tour. Even then, organizer Alan Jacoby says the market for more bull riding was there; he blamed a post-9/11 slowdown in entertainment spending for Bucking Thunder's demise.

Add a sprinkling of local rodeo and riding events, and what you have is a Brahman-sized demand for bucking bulls. Figure: Your average performance bull has the workload of a lieutenant governor in a mid-sized Southwestern state; each is good for about twenty rides a year. With 27 separate rodeo shows and a two-day PBA tour stop, this year's National Western Stock Show alone is expected to play host to about 250 bulls.

In 2001, rodeos and bull-riding events across the country added up to about 640,000 rides, says Bob Tallman, a longtime rodeo announcer and founder of Buckers, Inc., a breeding and registering company. Divide that by twenty rides, and you get an annual-minimum-required roster of 32,000 bulls.

Trying to throw a cowboy off one's back is grueling work -- even at the rate of one and a half times a month, eight seconds at a time. As a result, most bucking bulls' careers are shorter than that of a Nuggets coach. The 2000-2001 PBR Bull of the Year, the 1,900-pound, single-horned Dillinger, suffered a career-ending injury last summer when he came down wrong on a leg while still in the chute. ("It's a tough lick," Robbie Herrington, Dillinger's owner, summarized for Pro BullRider magazine.)

Combine the climbing demand with the shortage of top animals, and what you have is a roaring bull market in bulls. "The success of the PBR has driven prices way, way up in the past few years," says Binion Cervi, a Roggen, Colorado, resident who organizes rodeo stock for many of the big shows across the country, including National Western. "It's crazy how high bulls can go for."

Five or ten years ago, National Western paid stock owners about $100 each time their bull got into the chute. Today, Cervi says that figure is closer to $150. But that's pocket change compared to what the big boys get. The circuit's elite bulls -- the one hundred animals selected to perform, say, in the National Rodeo Finals, recently held in Las Vegas -- can expect up to $4,000 each time they buck.

Naturally, the demand for top talent has inflated the purchase price of a good bull, too. It wasn't so long ago that top performance buckers sold for maybe $10,000. In 2002, a syndicate paid $100,000 for a retired bucking bull named Houdini, who, though long out to pasture, has proved himself an unusually prolific and successful sire.

Which leads to the place where the real bull-bucking action is these days: the wide-open world of creating the perfect animal-athlete.

In the mid-1980s, a Charbray bull -- a Charolais and Brahman hybrid -- known as J31A was culled with a couple dozen other bulls from a Tulsa herd. The group was taken to a rodeo school to be used as practice animals for cowboy wannabes looking to earn the right to say they'd actually ridden a bull. On his first rides, J31A didn't buck particularly well, so he was shuffled to a group of beginning students.

A rider from New York (so the story goes; substitute any big city if it makes you feel better) was placed on his back. Although J31A shucked the dude off with minimal effort, the rider's hand got stuck. Having the man still attached to him seemed to spook the bull, and he suddenly leapt up and sideways -- over a six-foot fence. Thus began the career of perhaps the greatest bucking bull ever, Bodacious.

Because half of a rider's final score is based on how hellaciously his bull bucks, Bodacious was a coveted ride in big competitions. He had a tendency to throw his head back at the same moment he jumped into the air and kicked out his hind legs. The motion could cause a cowboy to lurch suddenly forward; more than one rider was knocked cold when his head slammed into Bodacious's considerably sturdier noggin. If you see a photograph advertising a bull-riding event, chances are it features Bodacious.

J31A died in 2000. What remains of him is frozen in a series of tiny tubes the size of cocktail straws. Bodacious's semen goes for about three hundred bucks a pop. (And it's fine. "You could drop this stuff on a dead dog, and he'd have a calf," says Tallman, who sells the samples. "His semen is hot as a pistol.")

Those two facts about Bodacious -- that he came out of nowhere to be a rodeo superstar, and that his genetic code sells for the price of a New Year's Eve dinner at Adega -- have combined to produce a sort of rush for bulls. The epicenter of this boom market is Weatherford, Texas, at Bob Tallman's Rodeo Ranch.

Tallman's six-year-old company, the aforementioned Buckers, Inc., is a clearinghouse for championship-bull DNA. It brings together breeders and those in the market to sell a little semen, or, in a somewhat more complicated arrangement, already formed embryos that are ready for transplant into some lucky surrogate cow.

Buckers also is the industry's first rodeo-stock registry. Prior to the company's existence, breeders were much more lax about a bull's family history. Liberties were known to have been taken. If a promising young bull happened to be yellowish in color and Bodacious was in the neighborhood, the youngster was certain to be billed as the famous bucker's offspring. Now, Buckers requires DNA testing on each bull; the company acts as a giant filing cabinet for animal family histories, like, for example, the American Quarterhorse Association.

"Breeding bulls isn't rocket science," Tallman admits. Two bucking parents ought to equal a fine-bucking offspring, at least once in a while. But, he adds, "There's a lot of luck involved and a lot of guesswork involved. Every day, we learn something about Genetics 101." Take horses, for example: "There have been amazing horses that could run a hole in the wind -- but couldn't produce a colt that could outrun his own shadow."

Still, Tallman and his member breeders have figured out some things. For starters, a good bull must be a mixture of heart -- literally big-hearted enough to process oxygen well -- and brain. The Brahman breed seems to provide the best athletic base.

"This animal has to do an extreme amount of contortion in a short time," Tallman says. Brahmans are "segmented" animals, divided into three sections -- head/shoulder, barrel and back end -- like a very meaty articulated bus with an attitude. "They can jump and twist and kick and go four ways all in the same motion," Tallman explains. "It makes 'em kind of snaky."

They're also kind of stupid. So breeders typically mix Brahmans with English cattle, such as Angus and Herefords, which, though greatly resembling rigid boxes of steak on four legs, are smart -- for cows, anyway.

The beautiful part, though, is that trying to breed bucking bulls is relatively inexpensive. Because the fledgling industry is not snooty and voyeuristic like the thoroughbred-horse industry (in which member colts can be bred only via "natural cover" -- a stallion and mare becoming amorous in each other's physical presence), anyone can get into the game for minimal cost. In short, despite the high stakes, it's a relatively inexpensive hobby.

"Everybody," says Binion Cervi, the rodeo stock organizer, "wants to get into the business of bucking bulls." Buckers, Inc. was started with a mere handful of breeders but now services more than 400 bull manufacturers across the country, in Canada and in Mexico.

Just off I-25, in an office park outside Loveland near the airport, Darrell DeGroftt helps out. A licensed veterinarian, DeGroftt manages his cow-producing outfit, Colorado Genetics, from a small suite lined with Colorado Avalanche collectibles and dotted with what appear to be giant milk jugs. They are actually nitrogen-cooled casks holding bull embryos.

As one of the country's leading experts in bovine-embryo transplants, DeGroftt takes all the romance out of being a stud. For a surprisingly small sum -- about $130 per embryo "in the can" -- he will travel to your farm and construct a bull.

First, he'll inject your prize cow with the same hormone that occasionally makes the news when a previously infertile human mother suddenly has septuplets. Next, he'll add the bull semen of your choice, by hand, through the usual channel.

A week later, about half a dozen embryos will be "flushed" into a small storage pan and slowly frozen and stored, Ted Williams-like, for future athletic use. Later, they can be implanted into a third animal -- the surrogate -- which, with the correct alignment of the stars, will give birth to a future bucking champion several months later.

It's still a crap shoot, of course. "If you did embryo transplants, Cow A to Bull B, five times and got fifteen calves, about one half would be bulls," DeGroftt explains. "Those eight would all be brothers, but they can look and act totally different. One might be a superstar. But a few may go and smell the flowers, and four or five might be mediocre."

On the other hand, he points out, "Some families have five boys who all play professional hockey." You just never know.

Besides, in some ways trying to breed the perfect bull is a risk-free proposition. Even when the son of a champion bucking bull and a smart, athletic cow turns out to be a pacifist who'd rather paint landscapes than buck, it's not like he goes to waste. "Here at Buckers," says Tallman, "we buck, breed or butcher. Burger King needs a lot of hamburger."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer