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Big prize money at livestock shows leads to abuses
By MAX B. BAKER
FORT WORTH, Texas - Barry Kirkpatrick remembers when all the "kiddos" showing cattle at the Fort Worth Stock Show worked for years to raise a prize-winning steer.
Kirkpatrick was one of them. He paid his dues: Mucking stalls, walking and feeding the steer, angling a tube down its throat to deworm it. He groomed his steer to a blue-ribbon shine on show day and, after years of work, finally won at a major show. "It was like I'd won the lottery," said Kirkpatrick, now a 46-year-old agricultural-science teacher in Brock, Texas, west of Fort Worth. He sold that steer for $2,900. "It wasn't the money," he said. "It was the work and the effort."
But the lure of big money - and recognition - is changing what could be considered one of the last all-American competitions: the stock show. As suburban school districts deal with young football players taking steroids, Kirkpatrick and others say no one should be surprised that a few kids down on the farm may be doing whatever it takes to gain an edge. Regulations prevent the use of many drugs in show animals, and professional management is out except in an advisory role. But some families across the nation are paying thousands to buy premium calves, then hiring handlers to help raise them. Sometimes they even pump the animals full of drugs and other substances to enhance their appearance.
"They are chasing the banner," said Glen Allan Phillips, a senior director at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. "I think competition is what drives a lot of our problems in society. But it also makes us what we are."
Questions about the fairness of livestock competitions re-emerged this month when Fort Worth's Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show and Rodeo sued the West Texas family that owned this year's grand champion steer.
Stock Show officials aren't talking about what they believe may have been wrong with the animal, a 1,314-pound black steer named Rupert, except to say, "issues have arisen" involving the rules. Rupert was shown by a 13-year-old girl from Friona in the Texas Panhandle and sold for a record $151,000. The girl's father, Roddy Berend, and other relatives have declined to answer questions about the lawsuit.
Kirkpatrick, Phillips and others stressed that few competitors are found to be cheating. But show officials say they cannot estimate how widespread the problem may be or how many animals have been disqualified because of dishonesty. Fort Worth officials have been reluctant to discuss the issue at all. Some say it's a secret that stock shows don't like to talk about.
"It is a dirty business out there," said Eldon Pyle, whose daughter, Lauren, owned Fort Worth's grand champion steer in 2002. Although his daughter received $135,000 for her steer, Pyle said he lost money on the deal.
Pyle, the owner of a Fort Worth manufacturing company, said he could afford to pay $15,000 to $20,000 for the calves his son and daughter worked. He also paid for two handlers, one of them from Oklahoma, to help them along. Handlers are allowed as long as they serve as advisers and not as the primary caregivers.
"I don't believe what I did is the true spirit of the Stock Show," Pyle said. He said only the most naive people would deny that there are problems on the show circuit. "I'm throwing rocks at my own self," Pyle acknowledged. The thousands of dollars he spent to help his children be top competitors was "stupid money," he said. "The everyday kid won't win the show. ... It's the pros that are winning it."
The ways to beat the system range from the absurd to the brutal. Exhibitors have glued hair pieces onto a steer and used hair dyes to hide faults. Metal rods have been inserted to broaden hind legs, and oil and air have been pumped beneath hides to create a brawnier look.
Sometimes competitors turn to drugs to enhance the animals. Lasix, a diuretic, is sometimes given to animals to reduce the amount of water in their bodies. With less water, the animals appear and feel firmer to the judge. The drug is also used to reduce swelling.
Clenbuterol is another popular, although banned, show drug. It can accelerate the growth of an animal's muscle mass, like the anabolic steroids used by some athletes.
Then there's the question of professional handlers, or "steer jockeys."
The handlers make a living crisscrossing the country to buy top calves. They then train the animals to wear halters and prepare them before they are bought by FFA and 4-H members who are competing in the top shows.
Parents such as Pyle will pay top dollar for the calves. Sometimes the handler will help the youth take care of the animal during the year he or she owns it - sometimes even at the handler's farm or ranch.
Handlers who provide advice and assistance are allowed. The rules disqualify an animal that has been raised almost exclusively by a handler.
"Kids used to go out and pick out a calf out of Daddy's pasture and fatten it up," said Dick Miller, a San Saba lawyer. "Now they've got specialized breeders, and they put it up someplace else."
Miller successfully sued the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on behalf of three exhibitors at the 1991 show who had their titles stripped. Their animals - two lambs and a steer - failed drug tests. Miller said the tests were botched.
Miller said rumors also swirl around show barns about exhibitors who buy animals that did well at smaller county fairs and take them to bigger shows where the payout and prestige are bigger. There also are stories about sabotage, he said, in which an envious participant persuades someone to inject a prohibited drug into a competitor's animal.
And although most children don't cheat, Miller said, the problems are a lot more common than many people want to admit. "I'm not sure if Johnny 4-H can't win, but I think Johnny 4-H is at a disadvantage to those who spend more money and to those that cheat," he said.
Stock shows were forced to deal aggressively with cheating in the 1980s and early 1990s as prize money began to escalate. In 1997, the Fort Worth Stock Show's grand champion steer sold for $55,000. This year's sold for nearly three times that much. In Houston, this year's grand champion steer sold for $340,000. The record price was set in 2002 at $600,001. In San Antonio, this year's grand champion steer sold for a record-setting $109,000. Prices like those could tempt parents to do things they normally wouldn't do, including enhancing their animals with drugs, Kirkpatrick and others said.
Illicit drugs were a serious problem in the 1980s, said Dr. Lelve Gayle, executive director of the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory at Texas A&M University. The lab tests carcasses for the Fort Worth Stock Show.
"One show sent us samples (in the 1980s) and 50 percent had illegal drugs in them," he said. "It took time for shows to see that you can do this and do it ethically and develop programs with guidelines." Drug scandals in the nation's stock shows peaked in the mid-1990s. In 1995, a boy from Crockett, Texas, and a girl from Fort Worth were disqualified at the National Western Stock Show, Rodeo and Horse Show in Denver after tests indicated that the grand champion and reserve champion steers had traces of clenbuterol, according to news reports. Both were also exhibitors at the Fort Worth Stock Show. About the same time, several exhibitors at the Ohio State Fair were caught drugging their animals with clenbuterol or injecting oil under the skin to give the animals a better appearance.
And in a Kentucky show, an Oklahoma boy picked to be the top future farmer by the FFA had his reputation stained when his grand champion lamb tested positive for clenbuterol at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville.) The youth denied drugging the animal.
Stock shows responded with more stringent testing after the nation's meatpackers demanded that shows follow food-safety rules. The Fort Worth Stock Show began testing in 1996. Urine, blood and other body samples are taken from the top winners of the meat-animal contests, and other entries also are subject to random selection for testing.
In 2002, prompted by rising concerns about unethical behavior, the Texas Cooperative Extension 4-H agents created a special program to focus on following the rules. The course teaches students about rule violations and helps exhibitors of slaughter-bound show animals to understand ethical standards, including those involved in food safety.
Johnny Hook, an agricultural science teacher in Millsap west of Fort Worth, said the Fort Worth Stock Show and other big shows are trying to stomp out cheating. But no system is perfect, he said. Hook and many others said a cap on earnings for exhibitors at the big shows would discourage cheating. That cap would make it tougher to pay for handlers and high-priced animals.
The Houston stock show imposed a cap years ago. Although the grand champion steer this year sold for $340,000, the winner will take home only $85,000. The rest of the money goes into a scholarship fund. "It's the ones who see the dollar signs and they want the money," said Hook. "It's opened the door to win-at-all-costs."
Phillips and Kirkpatrick emphasized repeatedly that they believe most competitors do not cheat. Phillips told the story of a boy who went to a feed store and bumped into the owner of an orphaned Brahman calf. The boy paid $500, took the calf home in his pickup and raised a prize-winning animal.
"So Johnny 4-H still does compete, and quite a bit," Phillips said. "It is a shame when we have these rule violators and they get all the attention."
Caleb Maynard, 18, of Peaster, west of Fort Worth, said he has been showing animals - mostly pigs and sheep - since he was in the first grade. During a livestock-judging contest held recently by Kirkpatrick, Hook and several other Parker County agriculture science teachers, Maynard spoke sharply about dirty tricks. He particularly hates the hiring of jockeys, or handlers, something he said "takes everything out of it."
Denise Jones, 17, of Brock said it's discouraging to see parents go so far to guarantee their child a blue ribbon. "I think it's ridiculous. It's for the kids, not for the parents," said Jones, who competes at county fairs. "They may be winning, but it's cheating."