Luck plays a part in all sports and lives, but it's as elemental in bull riding as the dirt in the arena. Two judges score the event, and both the cowboy and the bull are graded: zero to 25 points for the cowboy; zero to 25 for the bull. No rider has a chance to win on a bull that bucks poorly, not even a Don Gay. Every time, he has a partner. "Chicken one day, feathers the next," is the way Gay puts it.
"I'll enter 250 to 300 rodeos this year," says Gay, "and compete in maybe two-thirds of them. That's about $20,000 in entry fees just chucked out the window, but it's what you have to do to win a world championship." If Gay draws a money bull, one he can win on, he will fly up to 2,000 miles for one eight-second ride. If he gets a bad draw, he'll go elsewhere, or will take the day off, sacrificing his entry fee. Gay knows most of the bulls by name, and the ones he doesn't he can check out with a phone call. Over the course of a year, he figures, the good and bad draws even out. "What goes around, comes around," he says. "You just have to be ready."
On this day in June of this year, Gay has drawn two money bulls—one in a 4 p.m. rodeo in Dallas, another in a rodeo in Gladewater, Texas, 115 miles away, that starts at 7:30. His father is the producer of the rodeo in Dallas, which is being put on for some 6,000 conventioneers of the Rotary International, and Gay's wife, Terri, has been up since 6:30 a.m. to help time "the slack." The slack is another example of the luck of the draw: If too many competitors enter an event, the overflow is put in the slack, the competition held in the morning before the paying customers arrive. That prevents rodeo fans from having to sit through, say, four straight hours of barrel racing. Who competes in the slack and who competes in the actual performance is determined by the draw. It's possible to win an event from the slack, but stock contractors generally hold back their best bucking stock for the paying customers. Being the reigning world champion gives Don Gay no more rights than the other 8,500 card-carrying members of the PRCA. It's roughly the equivalent of giving club pros and journeymen the same rights on the golf tour as a Jack Nicklaus, and Gay estimates that in the first 60 rodeos in which he's participated this year he has drawn the slack 40 times.
The system is fair to the riders in that it inconveniences all of them equally, but it's a little unfair to the spectators, who might come to see Donnie Gay compete, only to discover he has ridden that morning in the slack. Of these 8,500 PRCA members—probably the largest group of professional athletes anywhere—Gay estimates that only 300 rodeo for a living full time. Those 300 would like to see rodeo run more like the pro golf tour: exemptions for the top money-winners, qualifying for the others; one major rodeo a week with big money at stake, instead of 643 PRCA-sanctioned rodeos a year; a commissioner; a television contract; and prize money more nearly equivalent to what other sports stars bring home. "I've made more money net in 15 minutes doing a television commercial than I did rodeoing a whole year," says Gay. "The problem is, if you put it to a vote, 3,700 guys are going to say to keep it the way it is, and 300 are going to vote to change it. The only way it'll change is if somebody organized the real true professionals into their own tour, and nobody wants to be the bad guy if that fails. Rodeo has held together for as long as it has because it's such a good product—man versus animal, which is about as basic as you can get—and it's been run by a bunch of cowboys with nothing more than common sense. They've done a good job. But the only truly professional rodeo we have each year is the National Finals in Oklahoma City."
Last year Gay put on a two-day rodeo of his own (non-PRCA-sanctioned), which was called Don Gay's Bronc and Bull Classic. It was held in the Reunion Arena in Dallas, and the top 20 money-winners from the previous year's saddle-bronc and bull-riding standings were invited to compete for $35,000 per event in prize money. As far as the riding went, the event was a success for Gay—he won the bull riding—but the promoters lost about $200,000 when attendance averaged only 5,000 in the 19,000-seat arena. Still, Gay is convinced a similar concept could work in the future, especially if television got behind it. "We made some mistakes with that first one," he says, "but now I know how to do it. Once I win that eighth world championship, I'm going to sit down and think long and hard about retiring. And once I do, I want to get into rodeo production. I'm excited about it, but I want to be damn sure I'm through riding first."
It's 20 miles from Mesquite to Dallas, and Gay leaves his house an hour before the rodeo is to begin. One of his father's best bulls, Joe Kool, part Brahma, part Charolais, is in the backyard. Joe Kool once killed another bull in a pasture and is considered too ornery to be around others of his kind. Yet he is so gentle with people that Terri Gay can feed him by hand. Gentle, that is, away from the chutes. In nine tries Don Gay has ridden Joe Kool once.
"Bull riding is a reaction event," Gay says. "I try to watch the bull's head to find out where he's going. You pick a spot, maybe right behind his horns, and fix your eyes on that. Or if he really throws his head around, maybe you watch the hump, like in football they say for a defensive back to watch the receiver's belly. The one thing you can't let the bull do is throw your head back, because you get vertigo. You tuck your chin in and pick a spot.
"There are four types of bulls. Spinners are the ones you want to draw, your basic money bulls. Then there are the ones that buck hard but just go straight ahead; you have to ask the clowns to turn them back for you, and that's where a good clown can win you some money. Eliminators are the toughest to ride. They don't show very well, but they'll somehow or other get you on the ground. The fourth kind are canners, the ones that should be sent to Wendy's.
"I love the bulls. They've been part of my life for my whole life, and they're a part of my financial lifeblood, too. We relate to one another. When I'm talking to someone who thinks that rodeo's cruel, it floors me. I'm not physically capable of abusing a bull unless I use a .44 Magnum. They're incredibly tough animals. You could hit one with a lead pipe and it wouldn't feel it.