LAS VEGAS — If you're a steer wrestler who missed out on qualifying for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo this year, don't give up hope just yet. There's another way many of the top bulldoggers are using to get to Las Vegas — hazing. No, we're not talking fraternities and freshman and college hijinks, we're talking the right-hand man of any steer wrestler, commonly referred to as the hazer.
In layman's terms, the hazer is the other guy on the horse in the arena during a bulldogging run. He's responsible for making the steer run straight. Sounds simple, right? Not exactly.
"He keeps the steer running straight, ideally, but if you have a steer that wants to go right, he needs to get out there and pick him up so he doesn't get off to the right where you can't catch 'em," explained Luke Branquinho, who is a two-time and reigning world champion in the event.
"Same thing about going left, if you know one goes left he has to hang back a little bit 'til you get in the right position, and then go ahead and get up by him so the steer can't move back to the right and you miss him. And a steer that stops, you want him to stay right there alongside him and kind of even behind pushing him so he doesn't stop and get away from you."
Clear enough? Well, suffice it to say that no bulldogger makes a good run without a good haze from his partner.
"He can make or break you," said Graves, whose hazer is Jody Brown, a former Canadian champion himself. "If he misses a haze, you don't have a chance to win anything."
For the hazer's troubles, he comes away with 1/8th of anything the steer wrestler wins — that is, if he owns his own horse. If he doesn't, then 1/8th goes to the horse's owner, leaving the hazer with 1/16th of the purse.
But before you scoff, consider this: so far this WNFR, Graves has won $68,995. Brown leases his horse, so after paying the piper he's already come away with $4,312. Graves is also leading the average, which would pay out an additional $43,954 — meaning that, at the very least, Brown will walk away with $7,059. Not bad for 10 days of work, especially when you consider that many hazers work for two or more bulldoggers at the same time.
Branquinho said paying his hazer, who just so happens to be 2007 world champion steer wrestler Jason Miller, is worth it.
"Jason saves a lot of steers for me," Branquinho said. "I've won lots and lots of dollars with him over there, and just knowing he's over there gives me a lot of confidence in my bulldogging."
In fact, the hazer/bulldogger relationship is usually based on a long-standing friendship and a trust established on the rodeo trail over several years. Graves and Brown, who are both from Canada, have been rodeoing together since they were teenagers. Although Brown, who is 38, doesn't rodeo in the United States much these days, Graves hazes for him up north and vice versa.
Miller's traveling partner just so happens to be Branquinho and Curtis Cassidy, and the trio take turns hazing for each other out on the trail. Apparently, the best steer wrestlers also make the best hazers.
"I think to be a good hazer, you've got to be a decent bulldogger," Brown said. "You've got to know the game."
But knowing the game doesn't always equal getting the credit. If it did, then Jody Brown would be a household name at this point.
"They're kind of like the silent partner in the situation," Graves said, laughing. "The only time they get credit is when they mess up, and then you cuss 'em."
The WNFR will be televised nightly on ESPN Classic and ESPN2. At the conclusion of the 10th performance on Dec. 12th, the contestants with the highest earnings in each event will be crowned as the 2009 world champion.