The Congratulatory Slap

By Dean Fish, Santa Fe Ranch Manager

Fall fair season is upon us! Many of us have family members or friends who are getting those fat steers ready for their shining moment in the ring. The way it works in your mind is that the “apple of your eye,” i.e. your kid, is leading the calf that is slapped by the judge as the Grand Champion Steer. This happens once at each county or state fair every year. The complications arise when there are multiple “apple of your eye” types entered in the fair. The more entries, the more likely that you will not get the winner’s slap.

The Grand Champion slap happened for the Fish family!

Between my son Garrett and I, we have campaigned twenty such fat steers. Between the two of us, we have gotten the grand champion slap once. Once. That’s like batting .050 in baseball. You would certainly get cut from my beloved Diamondbacks baseball team for that, although you might still be able to play for the Padres. In the interest of fair disclosure (pun intended), he had one Reserve Champion. I had three Reserve Champion steers, however, Garrett believes he is still ahead of my record because he won the “big one.” Whatever he would like to believe is fine. Three trumps two in my book and since I am writing this blog, I have the last word.

In my multiple careers as an exhibitor, parent, leader and spectator of fat steer shows I have reflected on the many, egregious ways that a steer show is lost. They fall under two main categories: dishonesty or incompetence.


A fun #FlashbackFriday: Dr. Selke, long time Livestock Judging Coach at the University of Arizona and acclaimed Livestock Judge, doing his thing Santa Cruz County Fair, home county of the Fish family.

Outright dishonesty: Somehow the judge is crooked, bribed, or somehow otherwise enticed to select your rival’s steer. It has to be. That is the only way that an obviously inferior steer shown by a less polished showman could have beat your kid, right? Even if the judge has an impeccable reputation, has judged major stock shows and trained under the leading livestock evaluators of these fine United States, he or she really took that bribe or helped a fellow breeder out by selecting another’s steer. Maybe he or she was instructed which brands or ear tags were supposed to win. If you hang around the sideline long enough, you will begin to learn all about the various, devious ways that judges can pick the “right” steer. Let’s not even start on the fitter’s culpability in this “fix.” Fitters can do all kinds of stuff from airing and pumping steers to gluing fake tailheads and flanks on calves. Of course, any number of feeding tricks are employed to make sure that the winning steer handles correctly.

Outright incompetence: Either the judge is blind, hungover, pre-hungover, tired, or under some other influence that does not allow him or her to make a rational, educated decision. If they were competent, they would have picked your steer as the champ. Otherwise, how could that crippled, yield grade 5 no-good calf from the other side of the county beat your perfect calf? What happens when they get a swine breeder to judge a steer show? Oh boy, wait until the Livestock Committee or Fair Board hears about this! It is a well-known fact that a judge who picked a Charolais steer in 2007 would never pick a black calf to win it all in 2016.

I hope that by now you realize that this is a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the market steer experience. There is not a better way, in my opinion, to instill valuable life skills in a young person than by raising and exhibiting livestock. My participation in 4-H helped to develop critical life skills that I use to this day. My son is a much better person because of the experience and knowledge he gained by showing cattle and goats. One of the most important things that we learned as a family is how to lose. I will confess that I caught myself at my first county fair soon after my son’s defeat talking to the judge. In the heat of the moment, I proclaimed to him that a “good little one beats a bad big one.” I immediately recognized that as very poor sportsmanship and apologized, but the damage was done. It was difficult to swallow my pride and admit that maybe a “good big one beats a good little one.” Regardless, the judge has a hard decision to make and a lot of times it boils down to personal preference.

A very young Garrett Fish with one of his prized goats.


I hope that you go out to your county fair, state fair or other livestock show this fall and cheer on all of the livestock exhibitors. Only one of those exhibitors is going to be truly happy, but each and every one deserve your support and encouragement. Also, take a moment to thank all of the volunteers that dedicate their time to help keep this great tradition of livestock shows thriving. Sure, it’s not perfect, but they are doing a competent, honest job of running a good show. Ribbons fade and trophies disappear over time, but the lessons learned remain.  And if you, or someone you know, gets that “congratulatory slap,” make sure that you enjoy it. Heaven, and the Fish family, knows they are rare.

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