Branquinho is still in position to make a run at sixth gold buckle
The first time Luke Branquinho won the steer wrestling world championship, he was 24 years old. Ten years later, he earned his fifth Montana Silversmiths gold buckle.
Father time has been good to the California bulldogger, but like any athlete, things get a bit more challenging. He’s had his share of injuries over a career that began two decades ago: damaged knees, torn shoulders, ripped pectoral muscles.
They’re all hazards that come with big men wrestling big animals, and Branquinho is a big man who oftentimes wears black shirts mixed with his Cinch carpenter pants to make himself look even bigger. It’s not that the steers notice; but he is an intimidating presence in spite of his friendly personality and relaxed demeanor.
Life is considerably different than it was in 2001, his second year in ProRodeo and the first year he made the National Finals Rodeo; he followed that up with 13 more trips to the biggest stage in the sport, which takes place annually in Las Vegas. He last won gold in 2014 and hasn’t competed at the Thomas & Mack Center since 2015.
“You get hurt, you rehab and you come back,” said Branquinho of Los Alamos, California. “That’s the nuts and bolts of it. You can’t put that in your mind; you’ve got to block it out and just go do your job.”
There is a resilience that comes with being a cowboy, and the California kid is proof of that. No matter how many times he’s been knocked down, he bounces up and flashes that recognizable grin. He’s more than a cowboy these days; he’s a true rodeo personality. People like up for blocks to meet him and get his autograph, and he’s as accommodating on the 150th person as he is the first.
This year, he’s found his way toward the top of the world standings. In mid-July, he was in the top 10 on the bulldogging money list. That’s saying something for someone of his stature. So, what does it feel like to wrestle 600-pound steers at age 40?
“It hurts,” he said with a laugh as he made his way to the Calgary (Alberta) Stampede. “In my mind, it’s not different than it was when I was younger. You have to modify and tweak against these little turds.”
He’s not talking about diminutive cowboys. He’s talking about youngsters, like the reigning world champion, Jacob Edler, who is 27, or the runner-up from last year, Stetson Jorgensen, who just turned 28. It’s younger men that he has to butt heads with, whether he’s in Redding, California, or Evanston, Wyoming. That’s the nature of grown men who travel the country to compete in a sport they love.
“It’s been good this year,” he said. “I think sometimes I get a little too critical of myself. I’ve been drawing good, and that’s huge, especially in this event. You have to have the right steers. You also have to have good horsepower. The key is drawing good steers and trying to use them the best I can.”
If the random draw doesn’t work in his favor, then the veteran knows to handle the steers as best as possible. It might not be a round-winner, but he’s made bad cattle look good for most of his career. His experiences have led him here, still contending for world titles.
“I just focus on making good runs and getting good starts,” Branquinho said. “I’m going old school: just run your steers and go onto the next one.
“I try to pick and choose rodeos I’ve done good at in the past. It helps your confidence when you’ve done good at a rodeo before. I’m going to pick the right rodeos and make sure I’m riding a good horse.”
It’s simple, really. The fundamentals are vital when athletes are first learning their game, but they remain important through each phase of a career. The better one is at the basics, the better that person will be overall. From riding his horse to transitioning to the steer to securing the animal’s nose, the runs get better with each basic maneuver the cowboys make.
Slow is smooth; smooth is fast.
For many, steer wrestling is the most competitive event in ProRodeo. The top 25 in the world can change on a weekly basis, and it seems to be more difficult to repeat as a champion in bulldogging than any of the other rodeo disciplines.
“The competitiveness of rodeo is what drive me,” he said. “When a guy has a competitive edge and can take advantage of it, then that’s what you’re looking for. You’re always trying to go out there and win. Being the youngest of three brothers, I was always trying to be better than them. That’s the way with rodeo: Just stay on top and stay winning.”
Like all rodeo cowboys, the toughest part of the job is being away from home. For Branquinho, that means leaving behind his wife, Lindsay, and their three sons, Cade, Jameson and Luke Hayes. Someday soon, he’ll spend more time with them and maybe spend more time commentating on television broadcasts of rodeo. He leans on his family for their support, and he likes giving it back when possible.
“My wife likes to make fun of me a lot on social media, but she also builds me up, too,” he said. “A long time ago, we didn’t have the luxuries of FaceTime and social media, so it’s nice to have those. It makes you feel closer to home when you’re in Canada.
“I’m going to stay involved in rodeo. Hopefully the commentating will be an avenue where I can stay involved. My kids are big in junior rodeo, and they’ll continue to do that.”
In rodeo, success is gauged by the hardware a person wears. Only the best each year earn the most prized trophies, those that are worn around the waist and help keep their Cinch jeans on tight. Branquinho has earned more world titles than most, but that’s not the most important part of who he is and what he does.
“I want to be remembered as a strong competitor and a good person,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be about being a world champion. Those buckles are great, but if you’re not a good person, those gold buckles don’t mean anything.”
Whether he’s promoting youth rodeo or chasing another world championship, Luke Branquinho is always focused on the good that comes from being a cowboy. It’s why young bulldoggers continue to flock to him and why he’s one of the most respected voices in the sport.
He has all the accolades any cowboy would ever want, and he’s earned every one of them.