Caldwell Night Rodeo: Can the bull riders still win?

Breeders are creating better stock, which makes it nearly twice as hard for cowboys to hold on for eight seconds.

dsouthorn@idahostatesman.comAugust 15, 2013 

— CALDWELL - As if trying to stay on top of a 1,500-pound tornado of muscle wasn't tough enough, professional bull riders are finding their opponents have steadily been getting better.

Bucking bull breeders have stepped up their game through selective breeding and technology to earn big paychecks and leave bruised cowboys in their wake.

Only one of 11 finalists at last month's Snake River Stampede lasted 8 seconds, and none of the nine in last year's Caldwell Night Rodeo finals did so. After the first two nights of the CNR this year, riders are 4-for-27.

"The bull breeders are outdoing the bull riders," said J.W. Harris, the current world standings leader and a three-time world champion, who scored 87 points to lead Tuesday's riders.

According to ProBullStats.com, only 26 percent of riders (out of nearly 17,000 tracked rides) have gone all 8 seconds this year. The website started tracking rides in 1995, when 46 percent of riders were successful.

"We started out trying to breed small, fast ones - now, you're trying to breed big, fast ones," said Dillon Page, who has bred bulls for 30 years and owns Oklahoma-based D&H Cattle Company.

The development of bulls is more akin to how race horses are bred than just simply being pulled off the farm and having a cowboy placed on their backs. A national registry allows breeders to follow a bull's lineage, and DNA testing is standard. Cloning is no longer science fiction, as some of the best have replicas kicking up dirt and bucking off cowboys.

"We've made the bulls a lot better," said Page, whose bull, Shepherd Hills Tested, is 49-1 after tossing a rider Wednesday. "Everything's different than when we started. We have some of the same philosophies, looking for the right traits, but breeding is a different business now."

Considering a rider's score is dependent on how tough the bull is, the challenge has to be embraced by the guys trying to get tossed off.

"I don't think it's necessarily more difficult, it's just that the quality across the board is better," Harris said. "There aren't really easy rides anymore."

Page said that, like race horses, strong bulls can still sell for a decent price, but it's the top-of-the-line bulls that can command a pretty penny, which is no doubt a driving force in the improvement of the quality of the bulls.

In April, the owner of Bushwacker, who has bucked off all 55 who have tried since 2010, told the Wall Street Journal he turned down a $750,000 offer for his prized bull. Page says he's sold and bought bulls into the six-figure range. Some of his top earners, when including breeding rights, have brought in up to $500,000 over their careers.

There are internet auctions for bulls, and futurity events where young bulls ride with a dummy on their backs - owners can make money for strong performances, and buyers can purchase the next potential Bushwacker.

"I think the money has kind of made it worse for the breeder," Page said. "The great ones, they're worth almost whatever you're brave enough to ask for. The ones right below are still great, but they're almost a dime a dozen now."

On Wednesday, only Corey Granger earned a score, out of 14 riders. With successful rides more rare, the cheers tend to get louder as the seconds turn over toward eight.

"That definitely pushes you, because they get really excited when you stay on the whole way," said Granger, who posted an 88. "The bulls are so good, that's hopefully going to make us better."

As the bulls are getting better, there are still plenty of cowboys willing to try and get the upper hand. The crowds no doubt want them to be successful, but the breeders have no qualms claiming the biggest and baddest, most "rank" bulls.

While a medium would seemingly be best for all parties, the way it currently stands, it's the riders who need to try and outdo the breeders.

"I don't think the riders are as tough as they used to be," Harris said. "We've got to catch up. You can't turn away the ones that win you money. It's definitely a different era."

Dave Southorn: 377-6420, Twitter: @IDS_southorn

Dave Southorn: 377-6420, Twitter: @IDS_southorn

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