The steroids scandals have claimed the latest and perhaps most unlikely suspect yet.
The sport of bull riding may start drug testing some of its athletes – not the riders, the bulls.
As if the four-legged beasts that weigh up to 2,200 pounds don't have enough testosterone, some bull owners allegedly are injecting the animals with anabolic steroids.
"Oh, I think damn near everybody's doing it," said Jerry Nelson, one of the sport's top bull owners. "It ain't going to slow down. It's just like baseball, football, whatever. It's not going to slow down until you legislate (against) it."
Gary Warner, a prominent veterinarian in the world of bull riding, said he recently received calls from two bull owners asking him to look into the possibility of drug testing what some in the industry refer to as "the bovine athletes." Warner intends to bring the matter up for discussion at this month's World Finals in Las Vegas.
The PBR board of directors met Sept. 20 to discuss the implementation of an anti-steroids policy, tour CEO Randy Bernard said. The board will meet with Warner and PBR's attorney before fine-tuning the language, according to Bernard, who said the policy likely will call for the testing of the top-performing bulls at each event.
Gilbert Carrillo, a former rider who now raises bulls, said he would welcome drug testing considering what he's seen on the circuit.
"When you got a 2-year-old bull or a 3-year-old bull looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger, there is some form of steroid there," he said.
The practice dates back at least to the late 1990s, when Nelson said steroid use was so rampant he decided to give it a try. He said his bulls became more aggressive and muscular but also developed side effects. For some, hair color changed. Others grew sterile, jeopardizing their value as potential breeders.
Nelson said he promptly swore off steroids, but how many other trainers followed suit is a matter of debate.
Warner, who works with some of the sport's leading trainers, said inquiries from bull owners about steroid use has dropped substantially in the past 10 years to the point where few in the industry even have discussed it since he got the recent calls about the possibility of drug testing. Though there is no anti-doping policy for livestock in the Professional Bull Riders tour – the major leagues of bull riding – or the rest of the rodeo world, the use of anabolic steroids in bulls is unapproved and illegal.
Despite what steroids might do for major-league sluggers and NFL linebackers, Warner said he sees no competitive advantage by pumping bulls full of steroids. Yes, he said, steroids promote muscle gain, but only if you work out.
"The case in point is, gee, we're not sticking a bull underneath the weight rack and doing 700-pound squats," Warner said.
But suspicions of drug use heightened in 2004 when someone found empty syringes outside the pen that housed the bulls during the Professional Bull Riders World Finals in Las Vegas. The syringes could have been used to inject vitamin B-12 shots, which are approved for bulls. But Don Kish, president of American Bucking Bull Inc., took renewed concerns to the board of directors.
"We brought it up, passed some rules and then found out we passed some rules we didn't have the ability to enforce," he said.
Apparently the group couldn't settle on a definition of an illegal drug, considering some of the medications allegedly abused are narcotics approved for therapeutic use in bulls. But Warner said the industry could set permissible thresholds for approved medications and employ the same technology that is used to test racehorses to test bulls.
The root of alleged cheating in bull riding is – what else? – money. This year ABBI will pay out more than $1.6 million in competitions for bulls between ages 2 and 4.
Carrillo, who retired from riding last year to focus on raising bulls, said owners find themselves asking the same question.
"How can I make my bull perform better than it's already performing?" Carrillo said. "The first thing that comes to mind is steroids. They think steroids will make a bull jump over the moon.
"It does make a bull gain weight quicker, get more muscle mass quicker and make their performance a little better, but not as much as people think it would."
He paused momentarily as he considered bigger, faster and meaner bulls tossing cowboys into the air.
"I think they need to give the riders some steroids to help them hang on," he said.