At 5:13 p.m. Wednesday evening King Buck was in his pen behind the rodeo arena at the Western Montana Fair Grounds eating as much grass as he could fit into bulging stomach.
King Buck is a bucking bull on the rise in the PBR. He will likely make the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas in November, joining his penmate, Doc Mosely, as another of Jeff Robinson's bulls to compete on the grandest stage the sport can offer. Robinson supplied most of the bulls to the PBR Bullorama in Missoula.
The crowd that packed into the grandstands Wednesday did so expecting one to witness an entertaining and violent event. That's exactly what they got. Oohing and aahing every time a bull made a sudden movement. Roaring with approval every time the chute opened for another ride.
But hours before the event, one of the biggest names in the sport was leisurely munching on grass, awaiting the eight seconds of work that is expected out of him two to three times a week.
Such is the life of a bucking bull.
"Ranch bulls are just kind of out in the open fending for themselves," said Clint Haas, who spends his days taking care of Robinson's bulls. "Buckin' bulls get the best of feed, the best medicine, if something gets happened they got a vet there looking at 'em. And in the off season in they do really good, they get to go breed cattle."
Haas has been in Missoula since Tuesday night. He hauled 30 bulls up from Colorado for the first event of the fair's rodeo program. They were paired with some of the sport's rising stars and few local bull riders hoping to climb the Touring Pro Division standings and put on a show.
Stormy Wing, a rider from Texas, posted an 84, hanging on while the bull beneath him corkscrewed the two round and round just a few feet from the pen. It drew a rousing applause for the crowd and an excited and lengthy statement of approval from the public address announcer.
The bull received no praise.
More often than not the bull is seen as the cowboy's adversary, angrily spinning, and kicking and jumping and doing just about anything else it can to rid itself of the cowboy on its back. While some of that is true – some bulls really don't like humans, while other do – the two are working in unison, scoring points as they climb the PBR rankings.
Cowboys gain most of the sport's attention, but the bulls are every bit the performer.
"They're professional athletes," Robinson said Tuesday night.
Just like the professional athlete in America's major sports, bulls are similarly pampered. King Buck and dozens of other bulls spent much of their day in their pens eating grass. One received antibiotics for a horn infection and was given the night off. No need to push the poor guy when there will be another rodeo for him to give his eight-second performance.
And no need to rush him back with so much money on the line.
With each go, there is money to be earned through the night's purse, a possible sale or the future earnings a bull can draw if it rises to the sport's elite level. Most of the bulls in Missoula Wednesday were owned by Robinson, a failed bull rider, with an eye for talent who bought and sold bulls until he became one of the sport's most well-known contractors.
He bought and sold bulls until he accumulated a stable that fluctuates between 100 and 300 bulls.
"You can’t swing a dead cat without finding a guy who owns a bull," Sankey said.
Bulls are sold at events just like the Bullorama. A local PBR contractor brought two bulls with him Wednesday: one to buck and one to sell – if the price was right. No word on if that bull found a new home, but that’s a reality for these athletes just like it is for any baseball, basketball or football player.
Only the four-legged version is stuck in reality where free agency doesn’t exist; they’re baseball players before Curt Flood and Marvin Miller dismantled the reserve clause. If the bull is good and he’s with a top contractor he’s staying put. But if one side see potential and the other values the money, it’s all together possible that a bull could find himself with new penmates, a new trailer, a new schedule and a new home.
It's just like buying stock.
"You want to find them before they're superstars," Sankey said. "You find them before they're superstars and you make them superstars. Just like Chicken on a Chain."
Chicken on a Chain is a bull Robinson bought from a family "out in the sticks" in South Carolina. To best tell the story of how Robinson acquired the bull that became arguably the best – the Peyton Manning, as Sankey compared him – in the history of the PBR, it's best to let Haas, in his thick Carolina accent, narrate:
"They went down 'ner and they knocked on the door and this little boy come to the door. They was like, 'We're here to pick up that bull.' That little boy says, 'Yes, dad told me you could have him, but said on one condition: he had to leave his name the same.' And Jeff's like, 'What his name?' And he says, 'Chicken on a Chain.' Jeff's like, 'Ok, how'd he get that name?' The boy says, 'That mean mother (expletive) got out and run through' – they had them, they was into cock fighting. You know how they got all them roosters staked out with a chain on the foot to keep them in place?
"Apparently he'd run through the prized fighting chickens and got the best rooster's chain wrapped around his foot. That little boy said it took us a damn two weeks to catch the son of gun to get the chain off. He drug a dead chicken for two weeks. After that they called him Chicken on a Chain."
Chicken on a Chain became an all-time great and something of an anomaly. He was angry with humans and other bulls. He was given the best treatment and earned enough points to make it to seven PBRs. He's still alive at 13, an old age for a bucking bull, especially one weighing 2,400 pounds. But his bloodline, one of the key factors in bull sales, never produced.
There really is no specific way to determine which bulls will become a great and what one will even buck. Haas estimated that only 15 percent of bulls become bucking bulls. Though bulls look angry in the ring, many of them are just doing what they know.
About an hour before the event they start to anxious. The slamming gates and the cowboys preparing their gear give the bulls the signal that the show isn't that far from beginning. Soon after their ride, some will linger resisting the pen, but others stop and head right back to where they came from.
"They all know what they're doing," Hass said. "This is what they do every day. They know when that gate opens that it's showtime.