Record falls as top steer takes center stage at Houston Rodeo
The bidding starts at $50,000 — nearly as much as the average household earns in a year in rural Scurry County, where 18-year-old Lillyan Digby lives with her family. Which is why, as she stands on stage at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on Saturday morning with her steer Hank, Lillyan can’t help but think, “This isn’t real.”
Hank’s nervous. Cows aren’t built to traipse around a stage in front of hundreds of people waving yardstick bidding paddles. Not even prize-winning steers like Hank, who on Friday night was named the show’s grand champion among all 34 of the rodeo’s breed champions. And while Lillyan is determined to keep her composure behind pursed lips, by the time the bidding hits $300,000 — just a minute or so into the fast paced one-upping — Hank lets out a long, deep moo.
This elicits a few laughs from the crowd of a couple hundred of Houston’s most well-to-do, dressed in ensembles that make you realize cowboy boots really do pair well with Louis Vuitton. But the vast majority of the people seated in the sales pavilion are too pumped up to notice. In the front row, Alan Kent is battling his way to the top bid. He’s a mainstay at this auction — the businessman in a black cowboy hat who’s bought too many champions over the past four decades to even remember the total number. But a few rows to his right, Paul Somerville is determined to take the top bid.
They play chicken — along with a few others. There’s McCarthy Building Company, and Emily and Robert Clay up front. And further back in the stands, there’s the Champagne Cowgirls, a group of more than a dozen of Houston’s most high-profile female philanthropists, dressed in matching denim jackets. They’re fueled up on coffee (and maybe a few cocktails, one of their members, Hallie Vanderhider, says with a wink) and ready to raise the auction’s energy to the next level.
Somerville takes the lead at $400,000, then loses it before securing it again at a half-million dollars. But then there’s Kent with a $525,000 bid.
Hank stomps a foot. Snorts.
Lillyan looks around, but she can’t focus on a darn thing. “This is a lot of money,” she thinks. She’ll get a cut of it — somewhere between $75,000 and $85,000 — enough to pay for all four years at the college she plans to attend. The rest will go into a general pot for the other student competitors in the running for a rodeo scholarship.
She tries to wrap her mind around that thought. And the thought that this will be the last time she sees Hank, the stubborn steer she’s worked with daily since last April. Then she lets her mind wander for a second: She’s competed in the Houston show each year since she was 9. And this is it. This is the final moment — the one sparkling accomplishment she’s worked her boots off to accomplish year in and year out.
She tries not to cry. It isn’t easy.
Last year, the champion steer went for only $410,000. But this is the biggest rodeo in the biggest city in the state where everything’s bigger. It would just be bad manners to stop at last year’s mark. Wouldn’t it?
At the $500,000 threshold, the Champagne Cowgirls drop out. Maybe if they hold onto their designer purse strings, they can take home the top bid for the reserve champion, Vanderhider says.
The bidding slows with Kent’s $525,000 bid, even as the auctioneer’s voice grows faster. And just when it looks like Kent might saunter home with a winning bid of $525,000, McCarthy Building Company offers up $530,000. Somerville’s back in with $540,000. Then Kent with $560,000.
No one’s willing to give in.
The world record bid of $600,001 came in 2002, back when money was a little looser, and no one has come terribly close since. But today feels special.
Kent stops bidding for a moment. He motions to Somerville: What if they teamed up? And what if they looped in the guys at McCarthy Building and Emily and Robert Clay?
The bidding slows for a second at $600,000 as they hatch this plan. Then, the forces that had been competing against each other for the last two minutes combine. Not only does this assure that each of these Texas men gets a claim to the winning bid, it also means a larger pot for the scholarship fund.
“I’ve got $625,000, you want me to sell this steer?” The auctioneer calls out. He’s met with hoots and screams. “It’s a new world record! Jackpot!”
The crowd grows louder. There are back slaps and whoopees. But up front, Kent and Somerville sit in dignified silence for a moment. Somerville touches the blue button he’s pinned to his suit jacket. He must have handed out dozens of these pins this morning, and right now it feels good to be wearing the simple message: “It’s for the kids.”