Two-time world champion barrel racer Lindsay Sears generated quite a rodeo ruckus a few weeks ago when she dared to talk about the 800-pound Brahma in the room. Sears openly criticized her sport for its failure to institute a drug-testing policy, especially for the big-money competition now under way in Las Vegas, the National Finals Rodeo.
The outspoken Ms. Sears was merely giving voice to an opinion shared by many in her intensely competitive sport. And the testing she has in mind is not so much aimed at cowboys or cowgirls, but rather at the animals. Sears alleged but did not prove that the doping of rodeo animals is common, and there have been hints from others in the sport that performance-enhancing drugs are more the rule than the exception, at least in barrel racing.
After reading Sears comments, it certainly seemed like the NFR, so important to the Las Vegas economy, might have a budding scandal to consider. The rodeo not only generates tens of millions of dollars for Las Vegas, but it is the Super Bowl for rodeo competitors, far and away the biggest paycheck of the season. Would someone use performance-enhancing drugs in order to make a huge score at the NFR? Of course some would. Just ask Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds or any number of Olympic champions, not to mention the hulking behemoths of the NFL. If there is enough money at stake, someone will try to gain an unfair advantage. We also know that other potential scandals at the NFR (including the alleged illegal use of electroshock devices on animals) have been largely covered up.
But the issue of drug testing rodeo animals is not as black-and-white as I first assumed. Lindsay Sears makes an excellent point when she states that the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, the governing body for her sport, has been promising to institute some kind of drug testing since 1992 but has yet to act. WPRA now says it will definitely adopt some kind of testing policy in 2013. Sears and a few of her colleagues are not holding their breath.
“I can remember when the entire rule book for rodeo was 31 pages long,” says lifelong rodeo rider Tom Collins, who also happens to be a Clark County commissioner and member of the NFR committee. “Now the rule book is about as thick as a Mormon bible.”
Like many in the Las Vegas business and political establishment, the old cowpoke is worried about anything that might tarnish the reputation of the NFR or endanger the millions of dollars it generates for our town. But he agrees that drug testing is an idea whose time has come.
“Back in my day, the cowboy’s gear bag had a bottle of Absorbine Jr. and another bottle of whiskey, and that’s what the cowboys used for pain. These days, there are substances that are used on the horses to allow them to compete. The drugs are not necessarily performance-enhancing. They are more like taking steroids for allergies. They make the symptoms go away.”
Collins says he’s heard rumors about other kinds of drugs being used to juice rodeo horses, but he thinks the stories are exaggerated for the simple reason that they don’t make sense in the long term.
“These horses cost thousands of dollars and take a long time to train,” he says. “No rodeo competitor would do something to their horse for a short-term advantage if it would shorten the horse’s life.”
Other prominent barrel riders who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity echoed Collins’ opinion. They say the most common drugs used on horses are painkillers, so-called “bute,” which eases the pain in horses’ joints and allows them to compete, but do not give an unfair advantage or a short-term performance boost. Stories about rodeo horses being fed the equivalent of speed or cocaine are not unknown, but proof is rarely seen (unlike in the notoriously corrupt world of thoroughbred racing).
Other rodeo competitors I spoke to (all of them off the record) say use of drugs is widespread and that those who have complained about it have been threatened. Threats have also been made against the lives of their horses, they allege. After all, there is big money at stake.
Without proof, and with few people willing to speak about these allegations on the record, it seems like a mistake to tarnish the NFR itself. Collins says there is no question that a drug policy will be initiated in 2013, but deciding which if any substances should be banned is not a simple decision. Banning painkillers, for instance, would put some rodeo competitors at a distinct disadvantage. Those with the smallest bankrolls or fewest backers would be done for the season if their only horse could no longer compete because of painful joints, giving an advantage to those with the deepest pockets.
What I do know is that, for the first time, Las Vegas oddsmakers have made it possible this year for gamblers to place bets on some NFR events. That suggests to me that Nevada regulators have their own vested interests in making sure the rodeo playing field is a level one. If someone out there has proof of widespread cheating, they need to come forward with it. Whispers alone are not going to change anything. As for the promised drug testing, let’s see what 2013 brings. If there is no drug policy by this time next year, we will ask the NFR honchos why there isn’t.
NAMES AND FACES
University Medical Center is often on the receiving end of wisecracks and harsh criticisms, mostly because it is upside-down financially. But you will hear no wisecracks from just-released heart patient Jerry Reynoldson. Reynoldson is perhaps best known as a tireless champion for Nevada’s wild mustangs. For the past few years, he has worked as a consultant to Madeleine Pickens as she plans her Mustang Monument eco-sanctuary near Elko. Reynoldson has spent years tangling with the BLM over the mismanagement of the wild horse program. After experiencing a series of temporary but scary blackouts, Reynoldson was coaxed into seeing a doctor a few weeks ago. The doctor rushed him to UMC where he underwent a triple-bypass, open-heart surgery. Three days after the operation, Jerry was allowed to go; he is still sore but says he is feeling great. He is effusive in his praise of the doctors and nurses at UMC, says the folks there are as good or better than their contemporaries at any other hospital in the state. So there. … As a side note, purported meddler-in-chief Harry Reid lived up to his nickname, but in a decidedly good way. Reid clearly has a soft spot in his flinty heart for Reynoldson, who served as Reid’s district manager years ago and is one of the few people who dares to tell Reid things he might not want to hear. Reynoldson did not tell Reid about his medical problems, however; but Reid has sources of his own and found out. Behind the scenes, the senator contacted UMC to make arrangements for Jerry, even made discreet inquiries about the surgeon assigned to perform the operation. When the operation was finished, Reid was the first person to receive a phone call from the surgeon. Yes, Harry Reid meddled. And in this case, that ain’t bad. … Noted aviator John Lear marked his 70th birthday a few days ago. Lear has flown just about every plane built by humans, including the charter airline known as Air America, a front for the CIA during the Vietnam conflict. Lear is probably best known for his outspoken opinions about UFOs and assorted government lies and coverups. At a birthday celebration at his home, an amazing group of aviators, ex-CIA operatives and a UFO researcher or two gathered to sip cognac and tell stories about John’s wild ride. Former government scientist Bob Lazar (he of Area 51 fame) joined the festivities via Skype from his home in Michigan. Also present was California filmmaker Jeremy Corbell, who has spent the past year working on a feature-length movie about Lear’s action-packed life.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at email@example.com