BEERS, STEERS AND...

Fried Twinkies, $5 bumper cars, Hannah Montana and the hardest working kids in Texas

"You'll see some tears shed because a lot of them don't want to see that animal go," Cowley says. "They've become attached to it. They know from the outset that it's a market animal, but they've worked with them for a year."

Even the animals that get eliminated from the competition before the auction are marched onto trucks and taken away to become hamburger. (Or, if they're really bad, Steak-Ums, we guess.)

It's a harsh little ending, and it finishes a competition that, since it involves hard-working kids who've reached a big-time Moment of Truth, can be as tense as any 5A high-school football final. It all takes place just a few steps from the midway, but most folks never know it's going on.

Two environmentally safe modes of transportation meet up on Memorial Drive.
Daniel Kramer
Two environmentally safe modes of transportation meet up on Memorial Drive.
Know your rodeo: Click here to see our version of how to get around Reliant Park.
Know your rodeo: Click here to see our version of how to get around Reliant Park.

BAIT AND SWITCH

And what happens when you put in a winning bid for a steer? Do you take the animal home to Bellaire? Or even Seguin?

No. In fact, you don't even get the meat from the thing.

"Because we sell 660 steers, to try and logistically get each and every buyer the meat from their steer broken down into boxes and whatnot, it's just not feasible," Cowley says.

Winning bidders have two options: they can get a $1,000 credit on their bid (so if they won with a $13,000 bid, say, they'd only write a check for $12,000). Or they can get a "gourmet meat package" from a steer that never even entered the competition.

"It's essentially steaks they get," Cowley says, "about 112 pounds. Restaurant-quality beef that's been aged 21 days, choice restaurant-quality beef."

That works out better for the buyer, too, because as pretty and perfect as the winning steers may look, there's no guarantee about how good their meat will be. There's no way to check for the marbling that defines great meat, unless you want to slice open the animal on the judging stand.

"Most of them are fairly young animals and have been fed often enough that they'd still eat pretty good, but there's more consistency in the meat that [winning bidders] get with the gourmet packages," Cowley says. "Not all those steers in the competition are going to grade choice."

The meat the winning bidders will get has already been cut and stockpiled a week before the show opens. On the bright side, that means that the winners, as they chomp down on their prime beef, don't have to be bothered by the fact that they've actually seen the animal they're eating.

Never meeting the steer that provided your meal -- it's made many a steak dinner go down easier.

NO SHIT

Having thousands of animals together produces, you won't be surprised to learn, a lot of crap.

When the circus comes to town, people line up to get the elephant manure to use as mulch in their gardens. The rodeo and livestock show must be a gold mine for the stuff, right?

Alas, no. None of you locals are getting your hands on any of the 10,000 cubic yards of brown gold that the show's animals put forth.

"During the show it would be a danger to the public to try and let them into these areas to get it. I mean, we barely find room for all the livestock show contestants to pull in and unload their animals," says Greg Golightly, managing director of the rodeo's Buildings & Grounds Department. "It would create a huge problem if you tried to do something during the show on the site."

The shit comes combined with the bedding used in the stalls, which consists of pine shavings and pine dust. It would still make great stuff for the garden, but even after the show closes for the year -- when about 70 percent of all that the animals produce is still there for the taking --the material is off-limits to the public.

Again, it's logistics. There's an army of workers and vehicles tearing down everything that got put up a month earlier, so having folks come in with shovels and pickups would be an insurance nightmare and a traffic hassle.

Instead a company called Living Earth contracts to take away the bedding and future mulch. It all gets piled up in a (presumably smelly) corner of the grounds, and for a couple of weeks 18-wheeler after 18-wheeler comes and takes it away. Maybe 40 truckloads' worth, Golightly says.

Not one of the more glamorous rodeo-related jobs, to be sure, but not everyone can escort Beyoncé on stage.

ART AND SCIENCE

Looking at the eclectic lineup of musical entertainment that the rodeo offers each year, you might think someone somewhere simply plucked names out of a hat. Take last year: The shows included Trisha Yearwood, Maroon 5, Larry The Cable Guy and Hilary Duff. Ain't no rhyme or reason there, right?

Wrong. These days the lineup is determined by a sophisticated polling-and-computer-analysis system that would put many a political campaign to shame. And the ins and outs of what rodeo officials consider when putting together shows involve some quirky bits of information.

Leroy Shafer, chief operating officer of the rodeo, has a master's degree in communications with an emphasis on audience analysis, and he's the mastermind behind the whole deal.

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