By Pat Graham
DENVER — L.J. Jenkins settled onto Big Bucks, wiggled his hand under the rope to get a firm grip, took a deep breath and motioned he was ready to ride the 1,350-pound bull.
Jenkins was soon brushing dirt from his chaps after the brute of a bull sent him sailing off last June. No one’s really ready for Big Bucks — only two riders since 2004 have stayed on his back for an entire eight seconds.
Big Bucks is one of the baddest bucking bulls around — making him the prime bovine athlete to undergo the Professional Bull Riders’ inaugural test for anabolic steroids. The PBR recently started screening its bulls to ensure their meanness comes through good genetics, not by beefing up with performance enhancers.
Jerry Nelson, co-owner of Big Bucks, gladly allowed blood to be taken from his prized bull’s tail and analyzed for steroids after an event at Madison Square Garden in January. Nelson wants to make sure all the bulls are competing on a level field.
“If Big Bucks shows up with anything in his blood stream that ain’t supposed to be there, I’m suing my vet,” said Nelson, the CEO of Frontier Rodeo in Winnie, Texas. “My bulls buck because the good lord gave them the ability to buck.”
The PBR comes to Anaheim for its annual tour stop this coming weekend at the Honda Center … Read on …
After hearing persistent rumors of possible doping, the PBR decided to head off any potential problems — think baseball and the congressional hearings. The organization contacted Dr. Walter Hyde of Iowa State University’s college of veterinary medicine, who helped formulate a test for the PBR to detect the use of anabolic steroids.
“We’re not sure if there’s a problem, but if there is, we want to get out in front of it,” said Matthew Rivela, general counsel for the PBR. “We want our culture clean.”
The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association — which also has bull-riding competitions — hasn’t had any of its members raise concerns about doping in bucking bulls, but the issue is now on its radar.
“We’re keeping our eyes and ears to the ground to see if we need to take steps,” said Cindy Schonholtz, the animal welfare coordinator for PRCA. “But I think a good breeding program, feeding and nutrition would be a lot better than artificially doing anything.”
Although the four-legged competitors are subjected to testing, their counterparts — the cowboys — currently don’t have to submit samples.
“There’s not one shred of evidence that cowboys are using,” Rivela said. “But if that did present itself, we’d act accordingly.”
The PBR is still working out the penalties should a bull test positive. A stock contractor — owners who lease bulls to the PBR — could be fined up to $5,000 this season for an offense. In 2009, suspensions will be added to the punishment.
So far, only Big Bucks has been tested, and his results aren’t expected back for another few weeks. The eventual hope is to draw blood from the top three bulls after each competition.
“We’re very committed to this,” said Rivela, whose organization has spent close to $100,000 to set up testing. “The bulls are the stars of the show, too. We’re looking after them.”
The PBR isn’t expecting a BALCO-like scandal. In fact, the organization would be surprised if anabolic steroids were even a slight problem.
“I don’t see the benefits,” said Dr. Gary Warner, a veterinarian who specializes in bucking bulls and works closely with the PBR. “You’ve got to do things to take advantage of being on it. It’s kind of hard to stick the bulls on a weight machine and pump them up.”
Warner said that if stock contractors are beefing up their bulls, it’s because they’ve been severely misinformed.
“They think the drug is going to make the bull buck harder and faster,” Warner said. “But when you know the physiology, you realize that administering it isn’t going to give them a competitive edge.”
Plus, steroid use can lead to sterility, ending the possibility of a lucrative breeding career after a bull’s rodeo
run. An owner can sell a straw of a top bull’s semen for around $2,000.
“With the amount of money available after a bull’s career, why would you take that chance?” saidScott Pickens, manager of Diamond S Bucking Bulls. “I don’t think steroid use in bulls is widespread.”
Nelson isn’t convinced. While he doesn’t know for certain if anabolic steroids are being used by fellow stock contractors, he’s seen warning signs.
“Bulls with their eyes bugged out, and things like that,” said Nelson, who owns nearly 600 bulls. “This is no different than baseball — you can ignore it or do something. The fact is it’s happening and we don’t know who’s doing it.”
Nelson tried anabolic steroids on three of his bulls in 1997. The injections were under the supervision of his veterinarian and the purpose was to fatten them up.
“They gained 300 pounds and it made them mean as a chain saw,” Nelson said. “I bucked them and they were outstanding.”
But success in the arena came at a costly price out of it. One became sterile because of steroids, another couldn’t produce offspring for two years and the third just wasn’t suitable for breeding.
“It’s not worth it,” Nelson said.
Former bull rider Cody Lambert doesn’t know if he ever rode a bull injected with steroids in his standout rodeo career. From his experience, though, rage doesn’t make a bull more ferocious, good breeding does. It’s either bred into the bull or it’s not.
“The great misconception is these bulls have to be mean,” said Lambert, who’s on a four-person PBR bull-testing committee set up to investigate the use anabolic steroids. “These bulls are competitors. When the game is on, they’re doing everything they can to win.”
Lambert, the PBR’s director of livestock, likes the idea of testing bulls for steroids. After all, the bovines aren’t able to just say no.
However, Lambert doesn’t think it’s necessary to screen bull riders. He said it’s a huge disadvantage bulking up to ride a bucking bull.
“The more mass, the easier it is to get off balance,” Lambert said. “It’s like gymnastics — you don’t see too many 230-pound gymnasts. I’m sure it (steroids use) is not there. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I just don’t know why anyone would.”
Jenkins couldn’t agree more.
“Look at me,” said the 5-foot-10, 140-pound Jenkins. “I do one sit-up each morning — getting up out of bed.”
The life of bucking bulls is pretty plush. Pickens said his bulls eat about 12 to 15 pounds of grain a day, and have the run of the farm.
“They’re pampered,” Pickens said. “But you don’t want them to get too soft. Just like a football player, you’ve got to keep them worked out and tough.”
Bulls begin to work out with a mechanical dummy when they’re around 2 years old, and the ones who show potential start taking actual riders a year later. By the time a bull turns 5, it should be hitting its prime, which lasts five or more years.
Then, it’s off to a stud life, where a bull can make an owner a fortune if it had a successful rodeo career. Big
Bucks, who’s only 7, was a world champion Bull in 2005, earning an additional $20,000 for the honor.
“You don’t win a lot of money in the arena,” Nelson said. “The thought is the offspring from those champion animals will be worth a lot of money.
“But if you take so-and-so bull and hop him up on dope, it negates the value of my breeding. I have the right genetics to raise bulls to perform at a top level. Guys who give them shots to perform at that level makes the value of what I do less.”
That’s why he’s pushing for the testing of all bucking bulls.
“They can bring down their labs to Winnie, Texas, and test all my bulls,” Nelson said. “My bulls
are clean. My bulls are treated very well. Hell, my bulls get fed better than my kids.”