Modesto's Ted Bert and bulls share a somewhat complex relationship.
He raises bulls, breeds them and then rides them at rodeos. These are beasts, mind you, that don't mind maiming cowboys.
One might say there's a lot of drama between Bert and the bulls.
"Everyone says it's an arrogant sport. I don't think I'm arrogant at all," Bert said this week. "I think you have to be confident in yourself. You're getting on something that's trying to kill you. If you let him, he will. It's life. You gotta deal with it. We're not riding sheep."
Bert, 25, has gained the upper hand with his four-legged rivals. He's won nearly $98,000 this year and sits in fifth place in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association money list. Which means he's a lock to become the area's first bull rider since Ted Nuce in 1995 to qualify for the 49th Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sport's Super Bowl, Dec. 6-15 in Las Vegas.
The last local cowboy to reach the NFR in a roughstock event was Knights Ferry-raised saddle bronc rider Jeff Shearer in 1996. Bert broke through this year to the surprise of more than a few in the rodeo business.
For starters, he graduated last June from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, which he attended on a rodeo scholarship. Collegiate cowboys can earn prize money on the PRCA trail but Bert -- who entered only about 10 rodeos before graduation -- had given his peers a head start.
"I told myself I had to win about $12,000 over the Cowboy Christmas weekend (in July) just to be close to making it to the finals. I won $15,000 with a first at Prescott (Ariz.) and a second in Greeley (Colo)," he said. "I just kept cracking and making big check after big check. We didn't take more than two days per week off after that. We were going hard."
The salient point here is that about 98 percent of the cowboys, or those not named Ty Murray, Fred Whitfield or Trevor Brazile, aren't exactly getting rich. Bert believes he's spent at least half of his winnings on entry fees, gas and other expenses. The ultimate destination is the NFR, the potential windfall at year's end. They can pay for the hamburgers in Tupelo but they shoot for the 200-acre spread in Sin City and its $5.5 million purse.
To that end, Bert drew rank bulls -- important because half your score depends on the bull's performance -- and took full advantage. He won at Clovis and Dodge City (Kan.) and scored a season-high 88 points at both Bremerton, Wash., and El Paso. He's logged 64 rodeos so far, six below the maximum, and won far more battles than he lost. Equally important, he has stayed healthy though his right hip sometimes disagrees. It is instructional to know that one of Bert's sponsors is his chiropractor Rick Justice of Ceres.
"I got stepped on two years ago in Pocatello. My left leg swelled up like a watermelon," Bert said. "That was the worst one so far. I lost six or seven weeks. But overall I've been lucky."
Simply, Bert admires bulls that buck. He hates bulls that injure, or worse. This seems odd at first thought. The most dangerous bulls, even beasts that have killed in the arena, are celebrated. The best broncs, steers and bulls are called "animal athletes" because, without them, there is no rodeo.
One of the most famous bulls was Bodacious, the 1,800-pound "Yellow Whale" who was retired in 1995 for the cowboys' safety. He was a freak, a vicious type who threw his opponent forward and then KO'd him with his back-flinging head. You can still buy Bodacious CDs.
Bert didn't buy into the Bodacious legend.
"An overrated piece of crap. I hated that bull," he sniffed. "It was like he was Evander Holyfield going into the ring against a lightweight. Bodacious obviously had it figured out how to hurt people. This is how I make my living, and I just don't like to see my friends get hurt. Don't get me wrong, I would have loved to got on him. But if I owned a bull like him, I never would have put him out there. You breed bulls to buck, not to hurt people. I thought he was unprofessional."
We told you this was a complex relationship, right?
Bert believes his year avenges his older brother Thomas, who missed a trip to the NFR by only $7,000 in 2004. But this time, Ted will take his ongoing fight to rodeo's glitziest stage. Nothing changes, really, except the venue.
"I'll be darned to work my whole life to get there and fall off everything," he said. "I just don't think they should buck me off."
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.