James "Big Jim" Vietheer, far left, looks on as business partner… (P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Sacramento — Standing inside the livestock pavilion at the California State Fair, where cattle lowed and city folks stared, James Vietheer held his breath as he spritzed rose-scented oil onto his prize Black Angus bull.
Chumlee, a show ring prima donna who tips the scales at a buff 2,400 pounds, needed to be pretty for the livestock show judges. The animal's hooves had been polished to a shine, but his hairy ankles looked kind of fat. Vietheer reached for a comb and plugged in a commercial hair dryer to restyle the hair to make the ankles look slimmer.
Darrell Hansen, Vietheer's best friend, ran a pair of electric clippers over the hair on the animal's thick neck. The bull's muscles sharpened into view.
Photos: Animals at the fair
In the competitive arena of state and county fair livestock contests, Hansen and Vietheer are a valuable breed. They are cattle fitters, or "show jocks" in circuit slang, beauticians to the bovine set.
Show champion animals can fetch auction prices that are double those that fall short of the winner's circle. That's where show jocks come in, gussying up their charges to their championship best.
There are scores of them on the circuit. Some are college students, eager to put their years in 4-H to use. Others are ranchers such as Vietheer and Hansen, who primp their own cattle, and occasionally handle other people's animals for $100 a day and all the fair food they can stomach.
"Need the Pink Oil?" Vietheer, 58, hollered at Hansen as he held up a can of hair conditioning oil.
Hansen, 37, straining to hear over the grumbling bull and the hum of the clippers, nodded.
It's not just cattle that get such fairground makeovers. There are people who prettify hogs, pamper llamas and groom goats. But show jocks like Vietheer and Hansen are particularly prized because in the world of livestock economics, cattle is king: A winning bull, sold for breeding, can easily command six figures.
On rare occasions, people have gone to extreme lengths to win. In 1994, eight people at the Ohio State Fair were caught drugging bulls with clenbuterol, which makes animals put on muscle, and injecting vegetable oil between their skin and muscle tissue to give them a smoother look.
Such tales dismay Vietheer and Hansen. Cheats, they say, taint the reputation of this close-knit club, where rivals share paper towels when a contestant takes an ill-timed potty break.
"If you can't do your job with clippers and product, you don't deserve to be here," Hansen said as he combed the hair on Chumlee's neck.
This year's state fair in Sacramento, where Friesian horses dance and vendors hawk maple-bacon sundaes, is the men's latest stop in their annual tour of half a dozen summer festivals and farm shows in California and elsewhere in the West.
That circuit is growing smaller. California's sluggish economy and consolidation in the livestock industry have caused some stock shows to close and purses to shrink. In Sacramento, the supreme champion bull will walk away with an award buckle and a $1,000 prize, about the same as cattle kings did a decade earlier. Only the contest entry fees and price of straw bedding for Chumlee have grown.
Turning a one-ton bull into a barnyard pin-up is a Hansen family tradition.
Hansen's father, Mel, spent a lifetime as a ranch manager in California, fitting cattle and winning enough shows to paper his dining room walls with victory banners. He used methods ranchers have relied on for generations: To smooth out a cowlick, brush the hair up, then forward. To condition hair, massage on bay rum after-shave and flower oils.
He handed down this knowledge to his only son, Darrell. The boy had steady hands and a sharp eye. Like his father, he could spot a single hair out of place from 20 paces.
But the younger Hansen grew tired of the long days and the occasional kick from a four-legged diva. In junior high he put down his clippers, though he still attended shows. Fairs were fun. His friends were there.
Then, in 1991, he offered to help a classmate — he thought she was cute — groom her Holstein at the Healdsburg County Fair. On show day, the judges objected. They knew him and his father from the show circuit.
"They said he was too good, practically a pro, so he couldn't help her. He didn't like that, nope, not one bit," recalled Mel, now 70. "They kicked him out of the fair. Me too. After that, there was no stopping Darrell." He joined the stock circuit out of high school.
Vietheer, the son of a milk-truck driver, grew up in Petaluma and joined 4-H, raising his first Hereford cow when he turned 9. He loved the quiet and letting his mind wander during hours of brushing his charge.
The boy became a man. People on the show circuit started calling him Big Jim because his lanky 6-foot-5 frame towered over the biggest bulls and his hands could palm a watermelon.