Steroid suspicions ride into the rodeo

Times Staff Writer

It takes Big Bucks an average of 3.64 seconds to throw a cowboy off his back.

And he keeps getting better. Last season, the 7-year-old, 1,350-pound bull shaved his time down to 3.48 seconds; this month, he trotted out of Madison Square Garden as the top-ranked bull in the 2008 Versus Invitational, the opening event in bull riding’s major leagues.

But these days, with steroid scandals clouding many top sports, doubts waft like sawdust in the bull arena too, and Big Bucks finds himself facing a question about what makes him a winner:


Is it the Mexican fighting bull in him, the Brahman influence, his Texas upbringing -- or something else?

Big Bucks hasn’t ducked the question -- instead submitting to a needle-wielding veterinarian and making history in the process as the first bucking bull to be tested for anabolic steroids under the Professional Bull Riders’ new plan to keep the sport clean.

Dogged by internal rumblings that bull owners seek an advantage in the arena by injecting the massive creatures with steroids, the association recently decided it was time to ferret out the truth.

A number of people in the industry speculate that steroids were used on competitive bulls in the past (at least one owner acknowledges having done so) but that the practice fell out of favor as owners realized they were trading short-term gains for long-term losses.

“Our sport has hung its hat along the lines of true competition and honor and grit,” said Matthew Rivela, general counsel for the Professional Bull Riders Inc., based in Pueblo. “We want to ensure the integrity of the sport.”

Though casual observers of rodeo might understand that riders get points for staying on a bull, they might not get that the system works in the opposite direction too: Bulls get points for how high they kick and how tough a time they give the rider -- and fame and fortune come to the animals that do it best. Bull owners can win bonuses ranging from $1,250 to $20,000 for a world champion.

Big Bucks, a past world champion, is a celebrity in his universe. His owners say he’s steroid-free and they don’t mind that he’s been the first to undergo testing -- they just don’t want him to be unfairly singled out.

Testing for steroids is becoming more common in horse racing, but it’s virtually unheard of in the rodeo world.

Neither the International Professional Rodeo Assn. nor the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. tests animals, and their officials said they hadn’t heard of anyone else taking the PBR’s approach.

It’s a decision that will prompt some internal discussions, said Cindy Schonholtz, animal welfare coordinator for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Despite their pursuit of testing, PBR officials say they don’t expect to find many, if any, problems. Steroids might not have been uncommon about a decade ago, they think, but usage probably tapered off as owners realized the downside: sterility that rendered the bulls useless as breeders.

“I just don’t think there’s a lot of abuse out there,” said Texas veterinarian Gary Warner, who works closely with PBR and helped develop a bull steroid test.

Though steroids could make a bull more aggressive -- possibly desirable in the arena -- they probably don’t make him bigger, Warner said, primarily because once the steroid is injected, the bull can’t be forced to work out to build muscle.

Even if the bull did bulk up, that’s not an advantage in the ring, Warner said. “These guys have to express athleticism more like a dancer. They’re graded on how high they kick, how tight a circle they move in.”

But good performers sometimes face accusations, he said. “That’s where rumor mills get started, and management gets caught in the middle,” Warner said. “I know those cowboys, and they’re awful good folks. But who’s to know? My hat’s off to PBR. It will solve the problem of everyone pointing the finger.”

As far as Texas bull owner Jerry Nelson is concerned, steroid use is “still an issue.”

“You can tell by looking at some of those bulls and their sizes. It’s just like human beings. You can tell who’s on it and who ain’t,” he said. A part-owner of Big Bucks, he sends hundreds of bulls to PBR competitions.

“To make the bulls bigger, faster, meaner with a needle can make you more money,” Nelson said.

A decade ago, he found himself with a couple of bulls that wouldn’t put on weight, he said.

“I could feed them like pigs and they wouldn’t muscle up. My vet suggested we could put them on steroids,” he said. So he did.

The drugs made his bulls bigger and meaner, Nelson said -- but they also rendered the animals sterile.

“We quit -- it’s not worth it,” he said.

PBR officials decided to implement the new policy this year by testing the top- performing bulls at random events in the 2008 Built Ford Tough Series, its premier tour.

In the future they may conduct the random tests on bulls regardless of their performance, Rivela said. “It’s the first year we’ve had the policy, and we want to take it slow, make sure we’re doing the right thing by the bull,” he said.

He said the organization hadn’t settled yet on the penalty for steroid users but didn’t intend to suspend violators this year. Monetary fines are possible, Rivela said.

Nelson chafes at the idea that only winners, like his Big Bucks, are scrutinized. “If they’re going to test one bull, they need to test them all,” he said.

That’s not to say he’s worried about Big Bucks’ test results, which won’t be available for another month. He’ll be clean, Nelson said. If he’s not, Nelson said, he’ll be crying foul that someone tampered with his bull.

“I’m going to be like Roger Clemens on ’60 Minutes,’ screaming like hell,” he said.