By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
J.R. died about three years ago at age 20, "pretty old for a bull," Ratjen says.
There exist some common beliefs about bucking-bovine psychology at the Kowbell. One is that the more a bull beats and throws riders, the ranker he seems to grow. "Some of 'em get smarter; they learn to set a guy up. Maybe they go spinning one way, and when the rider is locked in pretty good, they'll switch gears real quick," Ratjen says.
The most posh stop on Ratjen's tour is the Hi View Ranch, owned by the Meadows Foundation. Beyond the private nine-hole golf course, the tennis court, and the skeet-shooting range, some of Ratjen's best heifers lounge on a leased, 3,800-acre hillside pasture.
Among the little herd is the cow, a black and white, that carried Skoal Diamond. Ratjen says a bull-breeding friend plans to artificially inseminate her with sperm from a retired bucking bull named Bodacious, considered the Muhammad Ali of rodeo bulls. A star on the rodeo circuit in the early '90s, the massive 1,800-pound Charolais-Brahma crossbreed has gone to stud in Addielou, Texas, where his sperm reportedly goes for $300 for a tiny straw full.
"We're not big Bodacious fans," says Ratjen, who prefers smaller bulls of around 1,600 pounds, which are more active and less likely to injure themselves while performing. But big bulls are what rodeo stock contractors favor these days, he says. "That's what they want to carry."
In bull-riding, the consummate American sport, bigger is better.
Only two weeks after beginning to practice at the Kowbell, Sammy Feagin turns in a 69 on a Saturday night in early February to beat all but one other rider among 34 competing in the 18-and-under flight.
He wins $30 and gets his name in the morning paper.
The name's misspelled, but it's a start.
Cunningham and Sammy join a couple of spectators at the arena's edge after they ride, and the former pro talks about getting Sammy into one of the top college bull-riding programs, such as Tarleton State's in Stephenville.
"A lot of the top pros are coming out of colleges now," Cunningham says. "You get a lot of riding in at them. You've got to ride a lot of bulls."
Someone asks Sammy what he thinks about bull-riding, whether he hopes to take it someplace. He nods and says, "Yeah, as far as I can go."
"I think everyone who's ever got on a bull thinks about getting that champion's buckle," Cunningham says.
Sammy nods again and turns to watch the show.
Another cowboy is heading out of the chute, clanking and waving on the back of a big one.