Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Mixed Feelings

Friends, I am back, finally, to tell you a little bit about the Stanley Tools and Security Invitational presented by Cooper Tires. Yes, I’ve been remiss, but I hope, given the very important report that the Divine Pearl de Veres posted last week, that you can cut me a little slack on my tardiness. I did not want to post anything before we got that one up, and as I observed before, it took us a while to pin down the information to the point where we felt comfortable (although not happy) about talking about the issue.

Still, you can no doubt appreciate that I went to Billings with mixed feelings. We had a great time there, and weren’t there nearly long enough—over on Saturday and back Sunday after the event—but I felt like a nasty black cloud was hanging over me the entire trip, and that cloud was the idea that someone was drugging bulls. This notion is making me question my love for this sport.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed the trip a lot. Like any event, it had high and low points, and since I am occasionally accused of having nothing good to say, I think I will mix it up a little bit. So here we go:

Plus 1
The Rimrock Arena.
A little over a year ago, a tornado (tiny by Midwestern standards) tore the roof off the old arena. They actually had to delay the Billings event for a few months—it’s usually in April—so they could get the building finished, but The Stockyard Queen deems it worth the wait. (Even though it meant that the event happened during the hottest part of the year—a sweltering 90 degrees, with a whopping 15 % humidity! No, I will not be going to Thackerville, or even to an indoor event in Tulsa or San Antone in the middle of the summer. I moved 2,000 miles to get away from that kind of weather, and I won’t be going back to spend my vacation in it for anybody or anything, not even the PBR.)

To begin with, attendees now walk from the parking lot down a nice civilized ramp rather than down the Four Staircases of Death with a few thousand other fans pushing and shoving and stepping on their heels. The arena is bright and clean and cheerful, and the steps down to the seats are wider and not nearly as steep as they used to be. This is a mercy, because we always seem to arrive just as the lights go out and the praying starts. For years, I have had an abiding fear of falling headfirst down the steps in the dark and taking an entire section with me to our rewards. (“I can see it now,” Pearl opined. "‘Dear Lord, we ask you to protect our...’ ‘AAAAAAARGH!’ Half the crowd perishes, but your Adriano boots look awesome while you’re taking them out.”) Fortunately for all involved, a Queen wearing Adriano boots with Cuban heels can now get to her seat without killing anybody or spilling her beer.

The acoustics in the arena are infinitely improved, and our seats were just terrific. We sprang for the most expensive ones, and they were worth every single penny. We were one section up from floor level, about halfway down, and maybe 15 feet out in front of the chutes, so we could see everything, whether we wanted to or not.

And for once, we were not in the middle of Skank City, although on Sunday afternoon we did see a pair of prospective (prospecting?) buckle bunnies get kicked out of the seats about four rows down from us, where they apparently had sneaked in on the premise that the folks who bought the seats wouldn’t show up. Sorry, girls! Instead, we sat on Saturday between two nice couples, and on Sunday next to a rancher from Glendive. (“You came quite a ways,” I said to him. “Not really,” he said. “It’s only about 75 miles farther than you came.” For those not familiar with driving customs in Montana, that means he drove about 15 minutes longer than we did.)

Minus 1 and 2
Running late.
Honestly, folks, in our everyday lives, Montana Barn Cat and I are NEVER late, so it’s a mystery to me why we can’t seem to get out of Dodge and over to Billings in any kind of decent order once a year. First off, one of us actually had to work on Saturday morning, and the other took full advantage of the situation to sleep in later than s/he should have. Next, we had to race around getting ready for the dog sitter, since we quake in our Adriano boots at the thought that she may become so disgusted by our slovenly ways someday that she will decline to sit for these crazy mutts ever again, and just forget it. Then, about the time we got past Livingston on I-90, one of us discovered that s/he had forgotten his/her wallet, which meant we had to turn back to get it. To make a long and discouraging story short, we got into Billings about four hours later than we’d planned to, and then one of us misread the starting time on the tickets, with the result that we got there almost half an hour after the event started on Saturday.

Which wasn’t, in hindsight, all bad—we missed out on the praying and the militaristic rhapsodizing and the swearing-in ceremony, and you all know how I feel about that stuff. Speaking of which . . . .

The swearing-in ceremony on Sunday. As you know, I always grit my teeth through this, because I think it adds an unseemly carnival-like atmosphere to a very serious undertaking. I suppose that Major Whosis, who marched the recruits into the arena on Sunday, meant well, but when he prefaced administering the oath with a homily about the troops who had been killed the day before in that chopper crash in Afghanistan by saying, “I guarantee you that all of these young people—”

Folks, my heart nearly stopped. I was absolutely sure he was going to say “are going to get shot” or “will die in the service of their country” or some equally encouraging thing. Fortunately, he managed to pull back from that dire perch and get on with the show, but if I had been one of those kids standing in formation in front of him, I would have run screaming for the exit.

Plus 2
Dinner with friends at Bin 119.
I highly recommend this restaurant—they have a brief but imaginative menu, a wonderful wine list, and a beautiful, soothing dining room. It didn’t hurt that our waiter looked a lot like Ryan Dirteater, either. I tipped him accordingly.

Minus 3
You Shook Me All Night Long.
Speaking of war, I am declaring same on this hideous piece of ’80s tripe. I cannot for the life of me figure out how the PBR can bill itself as family entertainment and then let Flint dance and prance to this tacky piece of crap. If I took a kid to a PBR event, and that kid asked me what “She told me to come but I was already there” meant, you can take it to the bank that I would be dialing up Mr. Rassmussen and making him explain it to said kid. And believe me—if I had to, I could find him.

Plus 3
The Crowne Plaza.
I really cannot explain why I am so enthralled with this hotel—it’s certainly not the San Francisco Ritz Carlton. But it’s always quiet (no mean feat with a few hundred cowboys and fans running around loose in it), the rooms are beautiful, the bed linens are sumptuous, and the view from the 15th floor to the south, toward Wyoming, is one of the most spectacular city/landscapes I’ve ever seen. And I have seen several, believe me, in way bigger, more exotic places. Add to that the extraordinarily helpful staff and the cozy little lobby bar, where you can sit at the back and see all the bull riders, stock contractors, and TV types you ever wanted to see (and some you didn’t) within shouting distance, and you’ve got a pretty much perfect experience. Even if, as Montana Barn Cat observed, the drinks are so expensive that you feel like you’re buying rounds at the airport. (At one point, I texted Kris DiLorenzo, advising her that I was sitting behind her favorite commentator and asking if she wanted me to go spill a drink on him. Fortunately for both of us, she didn’t reply in time for me to take appropriate action. We’re good friends, but I doubt that she would have bailed me out.)

Plus 4
Having breakfast on Sunday with friends who drove 240 miles for that express purpose.
This is Montana, folks, where people routinely drive 300 miles to buy groceries, eat in a restaurant, and go to a dance. It’s all in a day’s work out here.

Minus 4—and possibly 5 and 6
The bulls.
Given that I was already anxious about the possibility that some of the animal athletes were being drugged, you can imagine how happy I was to discover that the bull pen, to put it mildly, sucked. I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe some bulls who otherwise would have been there had been pulled from competition because their owners couldn’t get them clean enough fast enough to get past the drug testing. And since I’m only in this for the bulls, you can doubtless tell where this may be leading.

Plus 5
Getting away for a day.
Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and get out of town to really relax. It’s tough duty, but I will not shirk it.

The Weird and the Unfortunate
Where is everybody?
We arrived late to the event on Saturday and still snagged a prime parking spot, and furthermore got out the parking lot in a record 20 minutes afterward, because—you guessed it--there were hundreds, possibly thousands, of empty seats. The lower levels were mostly occupied, but the upper ones were mostly vacant. This does not look good, folks.

Speaking of the parking lot: To the jerk who was pissing in said parking lot after the event--maybe if “The Battle of New Orleans” hadn’t been blasting out of the open doors of your jacked-up Dodge Ram, your bad behavior might have gone unnoticed. Yes, I am the woman who deliberately drove around your truck in a big circle, giving you the stink eye the whole time. If looks could kill, you’d be dead now.

To Mr. Chad Berger: Please get rid of that red pseudo bowling shirt you were wearing in the bar on Saturday night. Trust me--it was not a good look on you.

Seeing one of the riders who was in a decent position in the standings in a bar at noon on Sunday, drinking a shot and a beer.
We didn’t stay long enough to see if he had another, but he did fall off both bulls later that afternoon, so I don’t think self-medication helped him any.

Seeing a prostitute in the bar on Saturday night. The buckle bunnies were out in force, but the difference was unmistakable. I didn’t see any transactions taking place, but I did wonder whether when the PBR comes to town, all kinds of businesses benefit? (“The mind boggles,” sez Pearl.)

Plus 6
Meeting Valdiron de Oliveria in the hotel lobby.
Oh, I already talked about this, didn’t I? I guess you figured out that it was the high point of the trip. I’m going to have to hang onto that memory for a while, for my own good.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Something's Rotten in the State of Colorado?

This is a topic that is both touchy and one that has understandably not received much coverage, and I have waffled on what, if anything, to say about it; hard facts are in short supply, rumors are rampant, and the fall-out has very unpleasant possible ramifications. I am going to avoid the rumors and innuendo as much as possible, but this is a topic that is central to the continuance of our sport.

What is indisputable is that in 2007/2008, the PBR brass loudly trumpeted their new drug testing committee, and proceeded to test bulls over the season for performance enhancing drugs. This historic testing all yielded negative results. Whether this testing continued in any significant way is unclear, but there certainly was a lot less PR about it. Then came Pueblo in 2011.

I will defer to Don and Janelle Kish here, who have posted a letter on their website regarding this matter. And I quote:

As a PRCA and a PBR Stock Contractor and an ABBI Share holder and past president I am embarrassed of the recent findings from the drug testing during the PBR/ABBI Pueblo, Colorado event.

Money and notoriety has led some to a “new way of thinking” they have no regard for the safety, well being and future of the animal athlete. To think a person will cheat or try to win at any cost is alarming to say the least. That makes it a sad time to be a Stock Contractor...

We are very disappointed with the individuals that have enabled the drug use, with no regard for the time, money, effort and wisdom put towards the Bucking Bull Industry.

(See the full letter linked on the page here.)

I will also defer to the UBBI, which has unveiled a new rules in response to the unfolding drama:
UBBI Headquarters (June 15, 2011)–Due to recent developments within the bucking bull competition industry regarding the suspected use of drugs, substances and other agents believed to enhance the performance of bucking bulls, the United Bucking Bulls, Inc has added specific policy and enforcement guidelines to it’s 2011 Rule Book.

(See the full press release here).

To say that this is alarming is an understatement, for any number of reasons. I guess it was naive for any of us to expect that this could never happen, even if the "cowboy way" is supposed to be above cheating. As with any sport in which money is involved and one part of the equation is an animal who can't speak out, someone, somewhere will find a way to take shortcuts, no matter the potential harm to the animal or the industry at large. (This is why we have thoroughbreds who run very fast and have exceptionally poor feet, and the sad racking horses that have been "sored" to get a gross, exaggerated parody of what their natural gait should be.) I don't think that this is a model that any true fan of bull riding would like to see the sport follow. There are of course legitimate veterinarian-recommended reasons to use steroids and other drugs classified as "performance enhancing" on animals, but if any of the rumors are remotely true, the scale means this was not solely legitimate veterinarian-endorsed, health-related use.

The potential harm to the bucking bulls is obvious. To drug a bull into performing beyond its natural capabilities is a short-term strategy at best. And for all those dedicated to improving the genetics of bucking bulls, this can only be seen as a nightmare. Not only are there potential fertility issues with animals who have been doped regularly, there is also the issue that perhaps some of the bulls people chose to use in their breeding programs simply would not have made the cut if performance enhancing drugs had not been used. Now, obviously drugs can't make any bull into a top bull, but for any contractor trying to find the magic blend of genetics to get a good set of bulls, having to worry that a bull might have poor reproductive qualities and not be as great as advertised without performance enhancing drugs? Let the headaches begin.

Part of the reason this has been kept so quiet, I suspect, is of course that the "no publicity is bad publicity" creed doesn't pan out here. This is, quite simply, terribly bad from every possible angle. It is simply appalling that some stock contractors would basically hand extreme activists the ammunition that has the potential to take them, and the entire sport, down. And if that thought is frightening, just consider what could happen if the USDA/FDA became involved. As far as I am aware, these federal bodies make absolutely no distinction between "rodeo" cattle and food cattle. Non-food-grade drugs making their way into the food stream is a gigantic potential problem that could have far-ranging and unpleasant implications.

The testing apparently is continuing, so we will see what this means (will some bulls disappear, or buck/appear differently than before?). But it is just all so monumentally stupid, it blows my mind. I don't know if the PBR dropped the ball on testing, but it seems clear that some contractors decided to take shortcuts. Once one person starts cheating and winning, there is more incentive for others to start cheating to attempt to level the playing field. We have seen this play out in other sports, and it is horrifying to see it start in ours. Drugs are layered upon drugs to fool the testing, and each time the testing is updated, the drugs are updated. I hope the PBR manages to police this in a fair way that protects the stock contractors who want to do things the right way, and of course the bulls, who are half the equation of our sport and should be treated exceptionally well. If not, we, and the sport at large, are in big trouble.

Something is indeed rotten in the state of Colorado. Let us hope that sanity will prevail, for the sake of the bulls, contractors, cowboys, and fans of this sport.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Stockyard Queen at the NILE

Friends, I have much to tell you about this past weekend's festivities, but before I dive off into much longer (and doubtless occasionally tedious) posts, I just have to tell you this:

The ONLY reason Valdiron won the event was because I shook his hand at the hotel on Saturday. Of course, Montana Barn Cat insists that it's because HE shook Valdiron's hand, but I'm sure he's wrong about that. I mean, I'm magic, right? Nobody in his right mind would deny that.

And we managed it with our customary smoothness--we walked into the lobby, Montana Barn Cat looked right and saw Adriano and I looked left and saw Valdiron, I stopped dead in my tracks, and the Barn Cat plowed right into me. It wasn't quite the Keystone Kops--we didn't fall flat on our faces--but I'm sure that all witnesses were prepared to swear that we were drunk. We were not.

And Valdiron was very, very kind to us when we rushed up to congratulate him on his success thus far. I am really hoping that he continues his winning ways and takes the championship. He will make a fine ambassador for the sport.

That night, as I was drifting off to sleep, I reflected that it was worth everything I've gone through with this blog, all the hassle and expense of traveling to the events, all the anguish and yelling at the tv, all the Jack Daniels and dry martinis consumed in fear and loathing, to have seen the event that evening and to meet that man and shake his hand. I am so glad the bulls and boys are back in town.