For beef cattle, there is no higher pedestal than the auction block at the American Royal Live Stock and Horse Show and Rodeo, now concluding its 85th annual session here.

One recent day, a greenhorn-tinhorn-tenderfoot-dude from Chicago mingled with ranchers, cowpokes, farmers, sheepherders, sod-busters and just plain down-home folks to watch final judging for the auction's premier offering: the title of grand champion steer of the 1984 Royal.

This choicest champion of all, explained judge Gene Raymond, would be the animal that matched "steer with eye appeal, a trait and tradition of our consumable red-meat product."

Raymond described the challenge before him: "In muscle quality, fit and cover, the condition they carry . . . are they killable? . . . The one that most pretty correctly fits into that category," he said, would win for sure.

We craned forward eagerly. Although the exhibitors were farm children of the 4-H Club and the Future Farmers of America (FFA) rather than high-rolling cattlemen and breeders, thousands of dollars and plenty of publicity hung on the judge's decision.

For the Royal, as the 3 1/2-week exposition is affectionately known, calls itself "not only the oldest and best-loved tradition in Kansas City, but also . . . the largest combined livestock, horse show and rodeo in the nation."

First held in a tent here in 1899, the fair occupies 13 acres next to the famous Kansas City stockyards, south of the muddy, meandering Missouri River. In a nation that ranks among the world's major consumers of red meat, the Royal is mecca for shrewd cattle raisers, hog farmers, shepherds and grain growers. By the thousands, they congregate, commiserate and seek out each other's strengths, weaknesses -- and secrets.

Raymond, a cattle and hog farmer in Garnett, Kan., is known as one of the keenest appraisers of cattle flesh hereabouts. "Been judging cattle since I was seven," he told the tenderfoot just before the championship round in the main arena at the American Royal Building.

He had already looked at more than 200 prize animals to narrow the field to four finalists, two each from 4-H and FFA. In earlier judging, he had made mesmerizingly clear why some beef on the hoof was hamburger, not filet mignon.

Looking at a group of about 15 young stock, he had quickly found the losers. "These maybe have too much shoulder," Raymond said, "a little too heavy." He pointed out that the necks and forequarters of several steers seemed fuller and coarser than others'.

"This one is maybe a little too heavy in the lower third of the body . . . . Now this one, this one is a smoothly finished kind of a calf . . . . But that red steer there is just a little rough. Now this one catches the eye, but the proportion is not quite good . . . .

"Here's one thick in natural makeup, with a lot of eye appeal. This big one on the end -- not quite as smooth, and a little narrow in the shoulder. Maybe on him there isn't quite as much muscle composition . . . . And this one's a steer that's got a little more cover, a little narrower base, he's got meat and power to him."

Raymond walked up behind steers, reached over their backs to feel the flanks. "Now this is a very expressive kind of a loin," he remarked by way of explanation.

The final judging took about 15 minutes. The contest was between the overall 4-H champion, a young steer named Thriller, shown by Denise Klehm, 16, from Tonica, Ill., and the FFA winner, a steer named Porky, shown by Dana Berend, also 16, of Friona, Tex.

Raymond circled the steers, ran his hands along their carefully shampooed and blow-dried pelts, checked out the highly buffed and polished hooves, felt the loins for expression.

The animals goggled walleyed at Raymond as their young owners quieted them by gently rubbing the animals' bellies with gleaming steel "show sticks," pronged metal poles used to position the cattles' feet.

On the sidelines, Elmer and Sharon Klehm held their breaths. They have been raising cattle on their 250-acre farm in central Illinois for 26 years, supplementing farm income with outside jobs. Recently, they began breeding the familiar, stocky, short-legged Black Angus with the newly imported Chianina, a rangy Italian breed.

Thriller was the result. To the city slicker, he looked like a formidable animal. Although less than 2 years old, the steer already stood nearly 5 feet tall and weighed 1,268 pounds.

In the end, the slicker and the cattle judge reached the same verdict: Thriller won it horns down.

"This is the biggest thing that has ever happened to us," gushed Sharon Klehm as her daughter tugged at the huge steer's halter to get it headed back to the shampoo and hair dryer.

At the auction the next day, something even better happened: Dwight Sutherland, president of the Royal, beat out other bidders to win Thriller. He forked over $18,000 for the steer, the second-highest price ever paid at the Royal for a grand champion steer.

That works out to $14.20 a pound. And that ain't hay, bub.