At five in the afternoon on the Monday before the 90th California Rodeo in Salinas, Dan Russell turns his purple-and-white 18-wheel Peterbilt stock trailer into the back gate of the rodeo grounds and heads straight for the holding pens. He eases the truck onto the grass, lines it up with the chute and switches it off. With the help of a sunburned man in a cowboy hat, he opens the trailer and lowers the livestock ramp.

For a few minutes in the warmth of the afternoon there is nothing but the sunlight on the field, the smell of freshly cut grass, and the irregular muffled thump of hooves in the truck. Behind the slats of the trailer appear glimpses of cow: a slice of horn, a red-rimmed eye, a curly swirl of hair on a neck, a square wet nose. As the first steers clatter down the ramp, one of the trailer''s occupants sounds a basso note of disapproval, and the others chorus their gloomy assent.

The steers trot obediently into a pen and start milling around, an eddy of brown, black and buff. Two dozen floppy-eared calves follow. In a few days the steers will be wrestled to the ground one by one and the calves roped, flipped and tied in their unenviable supporting role in the timed events. Russell watches from the platform chewing his gum, a big man in a green cap with a sandy mustache. He got a late start from the ranch in Folsom today. The livestock had to be bled to get certified to go to Idaho in a couple of weeks, the steers were on the range and had to be rounded up first, and there''s still another load of livestock to be run down here tomorrow. He and his wife Linda just finished a stock contracting job in Chino over the weekend. They''ll do 40 rodeos this year.

"Nice calves," remarks Alan Wallace, the rodeo''s arena director. Russell nods and responds but his yellowish-green eyes don''t leave the stock. Then from inside the trailer comes a loud crashing noise and a massive head appears in the doorway. It''s a spotted bull. By this time the ramp is slick with muck, and the animal must pick his way down carefully, bracing his entire bulk against each step, his massive neck rippling and swaying. Ten more bulls follow him into a pen overgrown with vegetation where they immediately lower their heads and begin grazing.

"You can see how mean they are," Russell says wryly, watching his bucking bulls crop the grass. "They''re just like a prize fighter. He''d be nice as can be standing here talking to you or me, but put him in the ring and something happens."

A few minutes later Dan Jr. drives up in Western Rodeos'' second stock trailer. More steers spill out along with a single young chestnut horse. The horse, Baby Boy, trots out, head up and tail streaming, a wild child with great promise as a bucker. Then comes Playmate.

He''s bigger than the rest of the bulls, 1,800 pounds by Dan Jr.''s estimate, a dark brindle Brahma bull cross with a white face and ugly horns that splay out from his head the wrong way. He makes his stately progress down the ramp, shakes his horns once and jogs through the center aisle to an open pen, the meaty hump of his neck and shoulders swinging heavily.

Playmate is one of Western''s stars. Over the Fourth of July weekend in St. Paul, Ore., he got a 92 on a ride. A ride has to last eight seconds to count, and lots of times Playmate tosses the cowboys off before the buzzer sounds.

"He just bucks hard," says Russell. "For as big as he is, he jumps this high in the air and spins back. He''s real athletic."

Dan Jr. leans against the rail watching Playmate. "When we first got him he''d run you over," he says. "The older he gets, the more docile he gets. Here, Playmate. Come on over." The bull ignores him for a few minutes, then walks to him, head down, and turns sideways so Dan Jr. can scratch his back.

In the other pen, Baby Boy whinnies and wheels away from something invisible. Playmate lifts his head from the thick patch of weeds he''s working on, looking like a bacchanalian reveler with a garland of greenery wrapped around his horns and hanging in his eyes. He watches a moment, then blinks his white-lashed eyes and drops his head again to tear at the grass.

"He''s just a big old pet," Dan Jr. says. "Just don''t try to get on his back."

In a sport where the four-legged contestants are given names like Tombstone, Undertaker and Skunk Breath, nastiness is a virtue.

The Rank and Vile

The highest compliment you can pay a rodeo bull is to call him "rank." In a sport where the four-legged contestants are given names like Tombstone, Undertaker and Skunk Breath, nastiness is a virtue. When the pale and mighty bull Bodacious died in May, he''d been ridden for the full eight seconds only eight times in a 135-ride career and had sent innumerable cowboys to the emergency room. One of them was Tuff Hedeman, a top-ranked rider whose face was totally smashed in on a 1995 Bodacious ride. It took 13 hours of reconstructive surgery and five titanium plates to put Tuff together again.

"I''ll always respect Bodacious for what he did and for being one of the rankest bulls of all time," wrote Hedeman in a tribute to Bodacious, "even though in the end he was basically a cheap-shot artist that would Sunday punch you."

Bodacious became a celebrity, appearing at Harrah''s in Las Vegas and inspiring a line of clothing, belt buckles and even a commemorative rifle by Winchester. The ProRodeo Hall of Fame inducted Bodacious into its fold last summer, and straws of his semen are available from his Texas owners.

Good bulls make good riders. In competition, two judges each have 50 points to play with, 25 for the bull and 25 for the rider. A dud bull, even ridden expertly, won''t give a cowboy the points he needs to win a rodeo. But a bull that comes out of the chute bucking sideways, spinning, rolling his shoulders and fading back out of a high hop while snapping his head straight up can rocket a rider into first place or launch him face-first into the arena dust. The best ones are called "eliminators."

For the power they hold over their human competitors and for the partnership inherent in the arrangement, bucking bulls have a hallowed place in the rodeo world. Notoriety is the grail among stock contractors.

"I always retire them a little younger than I should," says Russell. "They''re a little bit like my kids. I want them to retire while they''re still on top. I don''t want somebody saying, ''I rode the best bull in the world,'' but it was when he was old and broken down."

A few of Russell''s bulls have been assured immortality. In 1997 a white bull named Nitro was anointed Bucking Bull of the Finals by the Professional Bull Riders Association. In 1993, Grasshopper made the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Bucking Bull of the Year. (Grasshopper has since retired into a randy dotage of breeding and posing for pictures; his image graces the Coors banners hanging around the rodeo grounds in Salinas.) And from 1988 to 1990, another Western Rodeos bull named Pacific Bell took home the Bucking Bull of the Year award for an unprecedented three years in a row.

The Russells started their breeding program with Pacific Bell semen, a plan that''s paying off. A Pacific Bell son named Bell Dinger was named Best Bull at Bakersfield just last month after he bucked off top-ranked rider Tater Porter twice.

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Cody Lambert, former bull rider, Professional Bull Rider Association livestock director and all-around bull expert, describes Porter''s ride on Bell Dinger like so: "Both times Bell Dinger blew in the air, maybe not quite as high as Pacific Bell used to, but almost as fast. He had a little roll to the left, and spun to the right. He tipped Tater forward, then clicked his heels. That means his feet went back behind him so far that they came over the bull''s back. Tater was almost doing a handstand on Bell Dinger."

Bell Dinger, a smallish, unprepossessing red bull, is one of the first animals unloaded in Salinas along with Playmate, and he grazes quietly in the company of his penmates. Western Rodeos'' other bulls of note, Trick or Treat, Skeeter and Tombstone, are due to arrive the next day. Their reputations precede them like a scent.

Playing the Stocks

"People study these animals like investment brokers study stocks," says Tommy Keith, assistant supervisor of officials for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and a former bull rider himself. "There''s guys that keep complete notebooks. We have a bull riding director that keeps a complete log. A rider''ll call up and say, ''I drew X 12,'' and he''ll say, ''He''s good, he''s got power, he turns back and drops fast.''

"They''re not as stupid as a lot of people think they are," Keith continues. "They get a lot wiser the older they get. They learn through experience, so if they buck a guy off they''ll remember how they did it."

Their temperaments change with age, too, says bullfighter Joe Baumgartner. They settle down, stop chasing riders after unseating them. Baumgartner''s job title in the vernacular is "rodeo clown," but that hardly does justice to the job description of protecting riders from indignant bulls intent on running riders down. In 1997 Baumgartner suffered an injury that landed him and his doctors an episode on The Learning Channel. "I stepped in front of a bull rider and the bull hooked me and completely blew my knee out," Baumgartner says cheerfully. "It''s been a miracle of modern science."

Baumgartner knows Western''s stock because he''s been a pro for 13 years. Pacific Bell, he says, "would try to clean house when the whistle blew." When Trick or Treat was younger, he used to go after riders after he bucked them off. As Cody Lambert says, "now he just likes to blow snot at them and scare them, then leave the arena." He''s not all show, though; Trick or Treat scooped Baumgarten up and carried him around the arena at the Red Rock rodeo this year.

Baumgartner''s admiration for Trick or Treat is evident. "He''s not really mean, but he''s a great athlete," he says. "He puts out 100 percent every time he leaves the bucking chute. He''s a thinker, too." Trick or Treat''s status is secure. Last year Chris Shivers rode a 96 on him in Las Vegas.

The consensus among rodeo people is that the bulls like their jobs. The comparisons to competitive humans are ubiquitous. "They''re athletes and they''ve finally found something they enjoy doing," says Tommy Keith. "Everyone''s temperament is different. It''s just like children. You raise them up and sometimes you get a good one, sometimes they''re independent and want to do what they want to do, and some of them are just out of control. In the rodeo business we pretty much get the ones that are out of control."

Whether the animals like the rodeo is a subject widely debated. Who knows what''s going on in the mind of Tombstone or Skeeter when the fans are screaming and the girth strap is secured in the chute? But the fans love it, and bull riding is one sport that actually has some crossover appeal, as the beer advertising contracts attest.

Part of that is its unpredictability. Riders draw bulls and no one knows the outcome of a rodeo, whether a bull will be ridden or whether he''ll toss his rider like a ragdoll in the first three seconds.

For all anyone knows, the California Rodeo will produce a new star at Western Rodeos'' Folsom ranch. Russell points to a white bull in the same pen with Baby Boy. The animal stands sullenly, rolling his eyes so the whites show as Baby Boy prances by in yet another impetuous demonstration of mettle. "We just bought him. His name''s C 204 Electric," he says. "They say he''s a good one. We''ll see."

Photos courtesy of California Rodeo

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