BISMARCK, N.D. – Reigning Stock Contractor of the Year Chad Berger has a hidden gem in his bullpen this weekend and it isn’t necessarily a needle in the haystack either.
2015 World Champion Bull contender Smooth Operator is finally making his return to competition Friday night at the 16th annual Dakota Community Bank and Trust BlueDEF Tour event, presented by Cooper Tires, following a seven-month recovery from a lower back injury.
“We are going to crack Smooth Operator out there,” Berger said. “He looks like a beast. Man, he is big and he looks like he is ready. The vet said it is fully healed and we will see what happens.”
It was only a year ago, when Smooth Operator was still being talked about as a 2015 World Champion Bull contender, especially when he rebounded from being ridden by Guilherme Marchi (83.5 points) in Billings, Montana, with a 46-point outing at the Bismarck BlueDEF Tour event against Cody Tyler Rodeo for a 3-second buckoff.
However, Berger’s prized bovine athlete seemingly lost a bit of steam during the second half of the season and wound up finishing second to last in the World Championship race at the World Finals with a 42-point and 42.75-point outing.
Berger brought Smooth Operator for a routine check-up following the Finals and learned that Smooth Operator had been trying to compete with a lower back/pelvis injury.
Smooth Operator has yet to ever buck since the check-up. X-rays, physical therapy and plenty of rest have been the only requirements for Berger’s bull since the Finals.
Fans can watch Smooth Operator’s comeback Friday night on PBR LIVE beginning at 8:30 p.m. ET.
PBR Director of Livestock Cody Lambert said only time will tell if Smooth Operator can ever regain his previous World Champion contender form.
“I think it is a little too early to tell,” Lambert said. “I know that when one of those bulls has a serious injury like that, you have to lay him off a long time because they go into survival mode once they feel a little tweak there. Hell, people do it too. You start limping and you don’t even know it. You slow down even though you have more to give. It is just natural for your body to protect itself. I think it is the same with those bulls. I think if they have a sore foot or a sore spot on them, they don’t try to go as far. If that is the case, you want them to forget about that. You want to give them a long enough break that they don’t even remember they were sore anywhere.”
Berger isn’t exactly sure when or how Smooth Operator may have injured his back. He admits it was hard to tell if something was wrong with his bull because Smooth Operator would always bounce back from a poor performance.
In fact, heading into the Finals, Smooth Operator had been marked 45 points or higher in three of his final four regular-season outs.
“Before that injury he was the rankest bull out there,” Berger said. “At the time, everybody was talking like he was the rankest bull out there. I think what happened is when I look back, I bucked him twice in a row, and I believe it was Seattle where J.W. Harris got on him both times and that bull was so rank.
“There was not a ranker bull in the world. I think he bucked so hard that he just did it.”
Berger believes the injury would get aggravated here and there as the season progressed. It is why he no longer has so much frustration with Marchi after originally being visibly upset with Marchi’s amount of time in the bucking chute against Smooth Operator in Billings.
“I really think when Guilherme got on him in Billings, I blamed Guiherme a lot, but I think that bull was already hurt,” Berger admitted. “I would say that whenever Guilherme got on him in Billings it was like that, but he is such a strong powerful bull he didn’t show it.”
Smooth Operator concluded 2015 with a 16-1 record and an average bull score of 44.44 points. He is 23-1 in his two-year BFTS career with an average score of 44.06 points per out.
Lambert understands Berger’s aspirations for Smooth Operator, but he also knows he has to make his future decisions about Smooth Operator returning to the BFTS based on who the bull is this year, not any past accomplishments.
It is why Smooth Operator’s performances at the BlueDEF Tour level this summer may go a long way in showing if he still can be not just a potential World Champion Bull contender, but even a BFTS-caliber bull.
“I look at it just from where he is at now,” Lambert said. “I don’t get emotional about how they struggled and rehabbed the injury or whatever. I just have to look at what the bull is doing right now. My opinion of Smooth Operator is not the same as it was a year ago. He was a World Champion contender, for sure, a year ago and right now my opinion is he will give up real easy. I hope he is as good as he was, but he is going to have to prove it.”
Berger thinks Smooth Operator is ready to prove to everyone he is not done just yet. He even thinks his bull can earn of the two wild card spots for the World Champion Bull race given by the Executive Competition Committee if his bull has a strong enough fall run.
“Hopefully, he is healed and he will stay healed,” Berger concluded. “If he goes and has a good fall he can still be a player for World Champion Bull. They don’t have to have so many outs. They are picking some. I am just hoping he stays healed. If he does, he will be a player at the end.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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