It all happens in a matter of seconds. A chute door opens, and a steer, usually a 500-pound longhorn or corriente, bolts for the middle of the rodeo arena. In the blink of an eye, behind the steer comes a cowboy on horseback, charging hard, dirt flying as he tries to close the gap on the escaping steer. His horse galloping flat out, the cowboy lowers himself off the side of his saddle as he approaches, his body floating perilously above a whirl of pounding hooves and horns. Then, just as his horse pulls even with the target, the cowboy lunges from his position, grabbing hold of the steer’s horns. For a brief moment, the steer and the cowboy and the horse are all one big hurtling mass of momentum. The cowboy redoubles his grip as he comes completely out of his stirrups, twisting the horns and leaning his weight back as he falls to the ground, his boots digging into the ground fighting for purchase. Then, in one fluid motion, the cowboy violently throws the steer’s head across itself and down, stopping the animal dead in its tracks and dropping it to the arena floor with all four legs up in the air. A nearby official waves a flag marking the end, the time is noted, and the steer is released, trotting off as the cowboy picks himself up from the dirt, collects his hat, and dusts off his jeans. If the cowboy is any good, the whole ordeal should have lasted no more than four or five seconds.
The sport is called steer wrestling, or “bulldogging,” as rodeo regulars know it, and, when it comes to competition, there is no bigger name in the steer-wrestling universe than Los Alamos’ Luke Branquinho. At 32 years old, Branquinho is the sport’s current reigning Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) World Champion, a title the Santa Ynez Valley Union High School alum has enjoyed three times since turning pro in 2000.
He is a markedly humble and handsome and accommodating sort of champion, one who always seems to have time for a reporter’s one last question or to sign one last autograph for the kid at the back of the line. He loves his large extended family, and during interviews, he talks often about his wife, Lindsay, and their two boys, Cade and Jameson. His phone plays Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream,” and he does a classic little ass-shaking celebration shimmy (think the gopher from Caddyshack) when he makes a particularly fast time in the arena.
Headed into this week’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas, the Champ has a decent shot at winning yet another world title. This hasn’t been his best performance year on the rodeo circuit, but in the last few months, things have been looking up for him. In his usual direct-talking, word-economical way, he summed up his chances a couple of weeks ago at his family ranch, located a mile outside of downtown Los Alamos: “I’ve been on a pretty good run lately,” Branquinho said. “Hopefully, I can keep things going when we get to Vegas.”
Recipe for Success
Six feet tall and tipping the scales somewhere north of 230 pounds, Branquinho has a build that says linebacker more than it does rodeo legend. But make no mistake: Rodeo roots run deep with this one. When you call a working cattle-and-horse ranch home, it is no surprise when you find yourself on the rodeo circuit. The youngest of three boys, Branquinho grew up taking after his big brothers, Tony and Casey — both of whom have also enjoyed stints on the professional rodeo circuit: “Sure there was baseball and football,” said Branquinho. “But on the ranch, roping and wrestling was all we did and all we really wanted to do.” He was a state high school rodeo champion, winning in both steer-wrestling and team-roping competitions. In his senior year at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, in 1998, Branquinho earned the All-Around State title.
As a freshman at Coalinga’s West Hills College, however, as Branquinho was recovering from a rodeo-induced shoulder injury, he found himself losing weight, feeling exhausted, and having trouble seeing. Type 2 diabetes was the diagnosis, and Branquinho, fearing the end of his budding rodeo career, was crushed. “At first, it seemed like the end of the world,” recalled Branquinho. “But luckily, I had a good doctor, and we got things figured out. Once I learned how to stay level, it was game on.”
Game on is an understatement. In 2000, Branquinho’s first year on on the PRCA circuit, he took home Rookie of the Year honors in both the Overall and the Steer Wrestling categories. The following year, he placed third overall in Steer Wrestling, and he won his first World Title in 2004. He won the World Title again in 2008 and then again last year. He has made it to the year-end NFR in Vegas, which is only reserved for the top 15 in the world, 11 of the past 12 years, with his lone miss coming in 2005 after he tore a pectoral muscle. His total career earnings are just shy of $2 million and counting, and his fastest time taking a steer down, at least so far, came in 2007 at a place called the Cow Palace in San Francisco during the Grand National Rodeo. He did the deed in 2.7 seconds flat.
When pressed for the secrets to his sustained levels of success over the past decade, Branquinho is quick to credit everyone but himself. He praises his horses, Spyderman and Rowdy, or the work of whoever is “hazing” for him — the latter being the cowboy who rides on the other side of the steer once it leaves the chute in hopes of keeping it in a straight line and increasing the chance of the wrestler to have a quick run. “I try to ride the fastest horse I can and let them do the work,” he says with a little aw-shucks laugh before adding, “I just try and make as good a run as I can because that is what everyone else is trying to do.” When I asked him to explain “good,” he said simply, “Get a quick start, and be consistent.” It is the second part of that formula that is perhaps Branquinho’s greatest asset. During this past summer’s Fiesta rodeo here in Santa Barbara, I got the chance to ask a number of professional steer wrestlers what made Branquinho stand out and virtually all of them used the word “consistent” when describing Branquinho’s magic. And, in a sport that requires competitors to travel more than 120,000 miles a year and to compete in 60-70 rodeos, achieving any level of consistency is a damn hard achievement. Think of all the time on the road, sleeping in strange towns, eating crappy fast food (something that is even more of a potential stumbling block for a diabetic), and being away from family, and you begin to understand just how impressive Branquinho’s accomplishments have been.
When Santa Barbarans were last able to see Branquinho compete, the broad-shouldered champ was in the midst of a rather formidable slump. He was home for the 2012 Fiesta rodeo in August, a time of year when, as he explained it, “I am usually already qualified for the National Finals.” However, he had not won a rodeo until late May, and Branquinho found himself well outside of the top-15 ranking needed to enter the NFR. The annual Fiesta rodeo at the Earl Warren Showgrounds is a bit of a homecoming for Branquinho, who was hanging out with Lindsay and the kids and greeting friends and relatives before the Steer Wrestling finals. He spoke frankly about his situation. “It’s not the worst year I’ve ever had, I don’t think, but it is probably the worst I’ve done in the last 7 years or so. It has been tough.” That day, his time was only 5.4 seconds. Branquinho didn’t get the win he was looking for, but he did place fourth, which earned him a much-needed payday to help toward climbing back into the top 15. The winner was one of Branquinho’s cousins, Ty Gonsalves, and, as evidence of the family-first camaraderie that is critical to Branquinho’s approach, Branquinho himself was the one hazing for Gonsalves on his winning run.
After his Fiesta showing, however, Branquinho’s results have only continued to improve. “I’ve caught a little bit of fire and had some good finishes,” downplayed Branquinho recently in what may be the understatement of the year. In fact, after Fiesta, Branquinho has won rodeo after rodeo after rodeo. The late-season hot streak launched him up the rankings list from well outside of the top 15 all the way to number 4 in the world. Even more telling, his prize money to date this year now sits at $85,345, just $13,350 shy of the current first-place pace of Ethen Thouvenell. The gap is considerable, but certainly not impossible, especially for a cowboy like Branquinho, who has an established track record of getting hot in Vegas. Plus, he has a bit of a secret weapon going for him when competition gets underway later this week. Branquinho, a man who reckons his horse is his greatest asset, will be competing atop Gunner, the same horse that helped deliver him to both his 2004 and 2011 world titles. The 21-year-old steed is coming out of a quasi-retirement to once again compete on the rodeo’s biggest stage, and Branquinho is banking on him rising to the occasion. As for the rest, well, you guessed it; in Branquinho’s words, “I just have to make a few quick starts and try and stay consistent. If I can do that, I think we will be looking all right.”
The 2012 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo runs December 6-15 in Las Vegas, Nevada. To keep up with the action and Luke Branquinho’s pursuit of his fourth Steer Wrestling world title, go to prorodeo.com.