Before the bucking begins

Tim O'Connell of Zwingle, Iowa, rode Short Fuse for 85 points during the finals of bareback riding at the Pendleton Round-Up in 2014..

Randy Bracher and Dave O’Neill think about bulls and broncs almost all the time these days.

The two Pendleton Round-Up directors together select the rough stock animals — the ones that buck, twist, gyrate and flick hapless cowboys to the ground during four days of rodeo competition. Bracher, livestock director, and O’Neill, arena director, are a bit like football scouts who study stats and video of prospective players. Their athletes, however, have hooves, cantankerous attitudes and no desire to play nice.

Last year, the Round-Up started doing their own choosing, instead of relying on an outside primary stock contractor to select the animals. The experiment was a success. One measure, said Bracher, was the number of bulls and broncs that also appeared at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

“Last year, 39.4 percent of our bucking stock made it to NFR,” he said, “higher than most premier, pure high-end rodeos out there.”

Bracher and O’Neill make frequent cell phone calls to each other to discuss stats and logistics. Recently, they jotted notes about final lineups on napkins as they ate burgers at the Ice-burg Drive-in in Walla Walla. They plan each “out,” which refers to every time the gate opens and a bull or bronc busts out.

“This is the final piece to the puzzle,” Bracher said.

On Friday, they submitted the list to the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association.

“They enter the list into their system and then all the contestants draw,” O’Neill said. “The real excitement for us is to see which animal each cowboy draws.”

The two directors are excited about the lineup. After gathering intelligence from numerous cowboys and stock contractors and doing plenty of research on their own, they said they filled each slot with a top-tier animal. The most audacious bulls and broncs will appear in the championship round on Saturday.

In selecting the bovine and equine athletes, it might be tempting to choose impossibly explosive animals, but Bracher shakes his head.

“In the past, we’ve had bulls that have been notoriously unrideable,” he said. “I wanted to find those bulls that guys have to work really hard to stick on, and if they do, they score really high.”

This year, seven stock contractors will supply the 230 bulls and broncs chosen by Bracher and O’Neill, plus 216 steers. The contractor list includes Sankey Rodeo, the Calgary Stampede, Korkow Rodeos, 4 Star Rodeo Company, Burch Rodeo Company and newcomers Outlaw Buckers and Flying Diamond Rodeo Company.

In addition, Brent Palmer of P & S Livestock in Milton-Freewater will deliver 123 calves bred especially for the Round-Up’s tie-down roping event. Because the rodeo happens so late in the season, fresh calves that meet the weight requirements (between 220 and 280 pounds) are difficult to find. Because Palmer has shifted calving to June and July, his Corriente calves fit the parameters.

“The calves hit the ground just right,” O’Neill said.

In the rough stock events, O’Neill and Bracher are pumped to see the chosen buckers interact with the cowboys who drew them. Fans will see quality stock every day, they said. Contestants compete on one of three days preceding the championships, with the 12 best qualifying for Saturday’s final round.

“This is one of the last rodeos of the season for the guys trying to make finals,” O’Neill said. “The payout is good. This rodeo is a career maker, for sure.”

While the planning effort can be headache-inducing, O’Neill called the hours spent plotting and planning, assessing and agonizing a “passion.”

After the 105th Pendleton Round-Up is in the books, the men will begin looking toward next year.

“It starts right away,” O’Neill said.

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or call 541-966-0810.

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