Big Bucks

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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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer