The champion underdogs of the “Auction angels” of the Houston Rodeo student cattle show

Hundreds of bidders with big hats and deep pockets fill the stadium inside the NRG Arena sales pavilion each year for the Houston Livestock Show and the Rodeo’s annual young steer breakfast and auction.

Some organized groups, like the Champagne Cowgirls, dress up in matching outfits and make six-figure deals for the top-ranked animals. In 2021, they purchased the Grand Champion Junior Market Steer for $400,000. Last year, Don D. Jordan set a record when he bought the 2022 Grand Champion beef for $1 million to celebrate the rodeo’s 100th anniversary.

It’s all good, said Tony Bradfield, owner of Tenenbaum Jewelers and a member of the beef auction committee for four years. But what about the other exhibitors?

That question became the reason he and Dana Barton founded Rodeo Auction Angels. According to their website, the group’s mission is to “support the last few lots at rodeo cattle auctions that usually go unsold, ensuring no hard-working child is left alone on stage.”

The Rodeo Junior Market Steer Auction is a marathon, not a sprint.

Sometimes the offer extends for more than five hours. By then, the big spenders are gone and the kids ranked low on the list walk away empty handed.

“I want the first-place finisher and the 284th-place finisher to have the same quality of experience and recognition,” Bradfield said.

The idea came to him a few years ago when he looked around the bleachers at RodeoHouston and noticed a curious dichotomy: the lower-level seats and private suites were often unoccupied during most concerts, while the more convenient rows in the section 700 were always full.

“Privilege provides access,” Bradfield said, adding that the same is true for the beef auction as well. He has been on the committee since 2020.

This year, 2,586 students from Texas 4-H School and Future Farmer’s of America entered the steer contest. On March 17, 420 of these exhibitors were selected to participate in Saturday’s live auction.

“The goal is for each student to receive (at least) $6,500 per beef or lot at auction,” Barton said. “This is a family project that teaches responsibility, respect and leadership all year round.”

She and Bradfield aren’t worried about this year’s Grand Champion, Milam County ISD’s Stiles Patin, or the Reserve Grand Champion, Sterling Himes of Sterling County ISD. Himes was also last year’s Reserve Grand Champion; his award-winning beef set a record $675,000.

They’re looking for guys who might feel like “the last pick on the team.” Those without well-connected parents. The ones who get busy, waking up before dawn for months to care for their animals, but may not have the right looks to attract the attention of a high-profile bidder.

Some rely on steer auction money to fund their college education, Bradfield explains. He has a soft spot for the young female exhibitors he’s seen curled up with their animals for a nap between rodeo events.

Bobbie Nau, one of the 18 founding members of Rodeo Auction Angels, pressured Bradfield and Barton to get the ball rolling.

“Everyone has to remember that this is all about the kids. Anything we can do to support those scholarships is great,” said Nau. “What Tony is doing doesn’t detract from any other bidders or what other bid groups are doing. But the bottom half of that stage empties, and down to the last kid, we want them to know I’m still a champion. Everyone needs to know that their cows are validated.”

Rodeo Auction Angels’ goal is to become a $1 million buying group each year. They raised $126,000 for 2023.

On Saturday, it took six hours for the auctioneer to reach lot #1. 389. To pass the time, Barton visited other events. Bradfield retired to his vehicle and received text updates.

At 5:37 pm finally, it was time to go.

In the span of 15 minutes Bradfield bought eight steers. By the end of the night he hoped to buy at least 30 lots.

“No one has offered me more than $2,500,” he gasped. Then the next batch was announced and Bradfield tapped his paddle stick into the ground.

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