One day before Professional Bull Riders, Inc., was set to host an event in the Built Ford Tough Series on July 29 in Thackerville, Okla., two men stood near a chute as bulls weighing as much as 2,300 pounds made their way through a maze of metal and dirt.
PBR General Counsel Matthew A. Rivela and Dr. Gary Warner, DVM, collected more than 160 blood samples from some of the world's foremost bucking bulls that were scheduled to take part in the event.
The men were testing the animal athletes for anabolic steroids.
For years, whispered allegations of steroid use have swirled throughout the bucking bull breeding circuit, but that whisper turned into a roar in June when confirmation surfaced that a meaningful number of bulls tested prior to the US Air Force Invitational in Pueblo, Colo. were positive for steroids.
Rivela is credited with creating and implementing the world's first bucking bull testing program in 2008. He sought the help of Warner, a veterinarian who has specialized in bucking bulls for more than 30 years.
Warner said it is difficult to gauge what kind of effect anabolic steroids have on the animals, and said those who administer the drugs could be misinformed.
"People are definitely looking for that competitive edge," Warner said. "But no one really knows how it will affect the bulls' psyche or performance."
Warner said he and the PBR are committed to keeping the culture clean.
"There are two things that are important - the health of the animals and making sure there is a level playing field for everyone," he said.
In 2009, following a year of testing that failed to yield even one positive result, the PBR elected to suspend random testing and proceed with testing on a "reasonable suspicion" basis, Rivela said.
When allegations about steroid use from credible sources within the industry began circulating again earlier this year, the PBR decided to step up its testing program in Pueblo.
"We made the decision to conduct an unannounced test of a random sampling of the bulls competing in Pueblo after receiving credible information that some stock contractors were administering steroids to their animals," Rivela said. "This was the first such test we had conducted in two years."
He said the majority of stock contractors were relieved to learn the PBR would respond to the rumors and accusations swirling around the issue at the time.
"The testing was viewed as an opportunity for contractors to remove their bulls from the cloud of suspicion created by the industry buzz around steroid use, and to ensure their competitors were not gaining an unfair advantage in the arena," Rivela said.
PBR officials were disappointed when tests showed that nearly 20 percent of the 2-3 year old bulls tested had steroids in their systems.
Although representatives with the PBR acknowledge steroid use did take place, they refused to release the names of the offenders, infuriating a small but loud group of breeders who say the PBR and its affiliate organization, American Bucking Bull, Inc., are trying to protect those who use banned substances.
Representatives with both organizations deny the allegations and say they are doing everything they can to monitor the situation and punish the offenders.
"The PBR took swift and decisive action in the form of monetary fines assessed to the offenders and stepped up its random testing," Rivela said. "The PBR then went a step further and took the unprecedented action of testing each and every bull arriving to compete in Thackerville."
A Weatherford man is claiming the PBR and ABBI are covering up for a bunch of cheaters. PBR owns 50 percent of ABBI and leases bulls from the organization's members.
Glenn Osterhoudt is a member of ABBI who claims the organizations are working together to keep the names of bull breeders who give their bulls anabolic steroids under wraps.
"I don't like people who cheat in business," Osterhoudt said. "And when the people at the head of the table are covering it up, it becomes a crime."
Osterhoudt claims those at the head of the table include stockholders in the PBR and ABBI who have a lot of money to lose if the problem becomes public.
"This is a criminal act because they are cheating their investors," he said. "I do not want to pay a $1,500 entry fee to compete against people I know are cheating."
He said people in the industry who know that doping is going on are afraid to speak out because they are scared they will be blackballed from competing in future events.
"This is bad for the industry," Osterhoudt said. "All I'm looking for is the truth. These associations are expected to police themselves, but the shareholders in the ABBI and PBR are not going to do any of the policing because they are the cheaters and liars."
Responding to the allegations
Officials with the PBR and ABBI dispute those allegations and claim the opposite is true.
Brad Boyd, co-owner of Boyd and Floyd Bucking Bulls based in Stephenville and president of ABBI, responded to Osterhoudt's claims.
"We are doing the right thing," Boyd said. "The PBR and ABBI tested eight of our bulls in Pueblo and they all came up clean."
Rivela confirmed Boyd's claim that bulls owned by Boyd and Floyd did, in fact, test clean.
Rivela said the majority of contractors recognize the sensitive nature of the issue and do not want to see their fellow contractors' businesses or reputations ruined - but they do expect the guarantee of fair competition.
"For the most part, contractors recognize and appreciate the efforts we are making and respect the decision to keep the identity of the offenders confidential," Rivela said. "That said, there are a handful of very vocal contractors who seem to be obsessed with discovering and publicizing the identity of the offenders. Their muckraking clearly appears to be motivated by a personal and petty agenda that does not reflect the best interest of the bulls or the sport."
Former professional bull rider and Erath County resident Ty Murray is one of the founding members of the PBR and continues to serve on its testing committee. Murray said a lot has changed since he retired from the sport in 2002. He said there is big money at stake in the bucking bull industry and the competition is fierce. He said the organization is working to determine how extensive the problem really is - and fix it.
"We want no form of cheating or drugs in the animals," Murray said. "We want the sport to be clean and humane."
He said allegations that the PBR and ABBI are working to protect "cheaters" is simply not true. He said the PBR will take the high road and not release the names of the offenders, but they will become public soon enough when stock contractors begin getting banned from future PBR events.
"We are not on a witch hunt and we are not protecting anyone," Murray said. "Our track record proves we don't play favorites - there will be zero tolerance for cheating and those who are caught will pay heavily for it."
Next week: Find out what the PBR and ABBI learned after testing 163 bulls in Thackerville and how the organizations are dealing with the findings and ongoing controversy.