By Tanya Randall

FF01 MG 6624 webThere’s no doubt that the strength of the futurity industry has bolstered business for breeders of barrel horses. Photo by Alyssa ConklinA decade ago, the futurity industry was in limbo as producers opted for the new-fangled divisional races. Experiments with changes to age requirements, divisional formats and rider eligibility incentives—though trying at the time—gave birth to what we have today—a very strong industry.

Futurities, for horses ages 4- and 5-years-old in their first year of competition as well as 3-year-olds in December, pay out nearly as much as professional rodeos. Though restricted by the age of the horses, the futurity industry spreads the wealth far better than the rodeo industry. It also has a profound impact on the barrel racing’s fledgling breeding industry.

Though not always embraced, what has benefited the industry the most is its diversity, proving that variety is indeed the spice of life.

The Age Debate
As long as 5-year-old and 4-year-old futurities exist, the age debate will exist. Which is better 4-and-under? Or 5?

As it stands today, the Barrel Futurities of America sanctions 4-year-old and under futurities, as well as 3-year-old and under juvenile races held after Dec. 1. Predominantly, all the futurities in the eastern half of the United States are BFA-approved 4-year-old and under events.

From Texas, north to the Plains States and westward, futurities are typically 5-year-old and under. Only the BFA World Championships, and perhaps one or two others, are 4-and-under.

Reasons for the split run the gamut. Weather and demographics play a large roll. All-weather facilities aren’t common in sparsely populated Western regions where antelope outnumber people, and getting to those prized facilities can be somewhat hazardous when mountain passes and no-cell coverage zones are figured into the equation.

FF02 IMG 9605 webHaving the option of 4- and 5-year-old futurity events is unique in that it allows owners and trainers to decide if their prospect is ready or needs more time in order to fulfill his potential. Photo by Alyssa Conklin Statistically speaking, trainers from the West who do run 4-year-olds typically live closer to urban centers where they do access all-weather facilities, but they’re far outnumbered by those that don’t.

For six years in the early 2000s, BFA experimented with 5-year-old and under futurities, and purses dropped dramatically. While some of the decline was due to the age change, the futurity industry itself was in flux at the time due to the emergence of large, added money 4- and 5D jackpots.

Long-time futurity trainer and rider, and BFA board member Leslie Willis explains, “That person who didn’t have one great horse would gamble on a futurity horse every year, trying to find that great one. When the 4Ds came along, they could take a trailer load of those not so great horses to the jackpot and have a chance at winning some money, and spend the same amount of money that they would have on one futurity horse.”

In 2004, the first slot race for futurity horses—the $100,000 Pro Tour Futurity—was held in conjunction with the BFA World Championships. The BFA also added a Juvenile futurity that year and drew 247 nominated entries.

In 2006, BFA switched back to a 4-and-under-futurity, but kept their juvenile, which has experienced steady growth since 2007. Even though the BFA’s 5-year-old experiment failed, it was just a few years later that more centrally located 5-year-old futurities appeared.

The Texas futurities—the JB Quarter Horses Futurity, started in 2009, and the Diamonds & Dirt Barrel Horse Classic, started in 2012, both went with 5. Then Jud Little’s Bar Nothin Barrel Bash Futurity switched.

Even though Little still runs some 4-year-olds and has colts ready for the juvenile, he felt the age change fit more with his program, which was churning out aged event superstars that successfully transitioned to rodeo horses.

With several lucrative 5-year-old futurities in once 4-year-old territory, the age debate once again arose, and is still debated from time to time.

“If there was one thing I could change, I would like all the futurities to stay 4-year-old (and under),” says leading rider Cody Bauserman, Stillwater, Okla. “I think that’s the challenging part. I know up north that’s a hindrance, but the weather’s bad in Ohio too, and a lot of good futurity riders come from Ohio. I think it’s a matter of what you’re dedicated to do. If you’re really dedicated to it, you will find a way.”

Mike Green, on the other hand, wouldn’t mind if the futurities all went to the 5-year-old format.

“Honestly, I think we’d be better to change all the futurities to 5-year-olds,” says Green, one of the industry’s all-time leading owners, trainers and riders, not to mention he’s bred a few top notch horses, too, like his daughter’s recent sensation Sheza Dime, a 5-year-old futurity horse with a rodeo win record. “Now, if I have a 4-year-old that’s doing great, I’m going to run it, but with 5-year-old futurities—I think in the end it gives you a little more of a choice. I think in the end, we’d have better horses, because they’re grown up and sounder. I don’t think horses are any faster at 5 than 4, but that horse might be sounder and his mind’s better. They’d go on and be better open horses because we could take more time with them.”

A look at the numbers shows there’s strength in the status quo—having both lucrative 4- and 5-year-old events.

Leslie Willis says she sees the benefit of having both. The 4-year-old futurities are better for breeders because it helps keep the cost of their colts higher at younger ages, so their profit margin is higher. The 5-year-old futurities, on the other hand, allow you to salvage horses that may have had their training delayed due to injury or other “life” events involving the owner or trainer.
And, as Green points out, the 5-year-old futurities allow for greater opportunity to buy horses off the track.

“I’ve been in it for a long time, and I honestly think, (the racehorse people) don’t want to sell their 2- and 3-year-olds, because they can win so much money. You can’t hardly buy them, and by the time you can afford them, they’ve been run on the track so much it hurts making them (barrel horses). I think you could make better horses if you have another year.”

That’s also a plus for the sport because not all barrel racers can afford the high-dollar prospects from barrel horse breeders.

The Slot Race Question
FF03 2004ProTour100kRace Donnie Reece webDonnie Reece won the first $100,000 slot race paycheck in 2004 aboard Real Easy Doc, a horse that went on to run at both the Canadian National Finals and National Finals Rodeo. Photo by Kenneth Springer Following along with the age debate is the question of the slot races.

Outsiders question the sustainability of the horses, being pushed at an early age to be ready for 3-year-old races. So far, many of the slot horses have gone on to greater things and have been successful beyond their futurity years. In fact, the first $100,000 Champion Real Easy Doc, qualified for the Canadian National Finals Rodeo, and was borrowed to run at the National Finals Rodeo.

Insiders, too, question the sustainability of the horses, but acknowledge the option of running at 4- or 5- gives a little breathing room. If anything, the Diamond Jubilee Slot Race at the 2014 Diamonds & Dirt Barrel Horse Classic proved that 4- and 5-year-olds could compete in a slot race successfully. The additional maturity and physicality of the 5-year-olds didn’t stop 4-year-olds from taking top honors.

One minor problem, from a breeder’s perspective, is the impact of slot races on statistics. Leading breeder Bill Myers, who has seen his stallion Frenchmans Guy benefit from slot race winners, made the comment early on that a slot race win might make a horse look like the best as far as earnings go, but it might not have been the best horse all year long.

Even leading breeder Bob Burt, the owner of Dash Ta Fame, says you have to pay attention when you look at the slot race winners.

“I’m a fan of the slot races,” he says. “I think there should be more of them. They’re the closest thing that barrel racers have to what racehorses run at. But, you’ve got to pay attention to what else these horses have won. What have they done beyond the slot race? You’ve got to do your research. Those horses that have won $200,000 the hard way—they’re tough horses.”

The question is how should this payout be listed statistically? Earnings are earnings, yet is it a disservice to breeders not to delineate where those earnings have come from, especially in regards to the limited-entry slot races?

Limited entry is another question. The expansion of the LG Pro Classic to include more entries to the 2014 slot race was well received and sold out expediently. That begs another question. Why limit?

Taking Care of Business
FF04 Senior1D2013DixieMikeGreen webNational Barrel Horse Association charter, executive director and industry veteran Mike Green of the Southern Rose Ranch of Pelzer, S.C., would like to owners get more recognition for their efforts. Photo by Kenneth SpringerWhile aged events are doing rather well at the moment, there are some things that could be done better. Taking care of owners, says Green, should be a priority.

“I’d like to see more attention on the owners,” he says. “I think the ones that pay the bills need to get a little more focus. If you look at the racehorse magazines, they’re always talking to the owner. With barrel racing, the focus is always on the rider. A lot of owners do their own training and the jockey just hauls and runs the horse. I think if we could give owners more satisfaction, it would help build the futurities.”

Happy owners, he believes, would put more horses in trainers’ barns and benefit them as well.

Stallion owner Shelley Martin, who stands Firewater Ta Fame (“Stitch”), whole-heartedly agrees. When she was trying to get Firewater Ta Fame proven as a young horse she had difficulty getting him shown, and even now, as she tries to get his get proven, navigating the futurity world has been tough.

“We know we can’t rely on mare owners to prove our stud’s offspring,” said Martin. “We know we’re going to have to do that ourselves, but after what we went through with Stitch makes us leery. We were new to the game when we sent Stitch off, but we knew if we wanted to promote him as stallion that’s what we had to do. With what happened to him, it’s been very hard for me. There are a lot of good trainers out there that are honest, but I was about ready to give up until we met Andrea (Cline).”

FF05 LeslieWillisBFASuperStakes2007 webIn 2007, Leslie Willis took Bet Or Check to the BFA Super Stakes championship. Photo by Kenneth SpringerThe barrel horse breeding industry is irrevocably tied to the futurity industry. The lucrative purses and prestige can make a breeding program, but earning such notoriety can come at a high price.

“With all the advertising, stallion incentives and paying in foals, it’s expensive,” says Martin. “Then you have the slot races. It’s who you know and who has the money; it’s not something we’ve even felt like attempting. It’s really limiting that way.”

Another program the industry faces, and has always faced, is bringing new people into the sport. The slot races were supposed to draw outside investment to the industry, but other than a handful of new owners—most of whom had ties to the industry in their youth—the futurity industry at times appears like a big money swap between a select group of owners, breeders and trainers.

The good news is there’s enough money to make it worth playing the game, but the bad news is the industry isn’t getting any younger. There are, pardon the pun, few young hotshot riders.

FF06 BAUSERMANSlot Race Champion webCody Bauserman took the title of 2013 BFA Super Stakes champion riding Promise Me A Wagon. Photo by Kenneth SpringerWillis says she hopes she can change that with the debut of a Youth Finals at the 2014 BFA World Championship Futurity.

“We aren’t getting any younger,” she laughed, noting that most of the young riders are the children of former futurity competitors like the Ward daughters – Cassie Ward and Kylie Rodgers, both age 25. “I think the future is through our youth. The only requirement is that they be under the age of 18. They don’t have to own the horse or anything, just be astride in the arena.”

Bottom Line
The futurity industry has come a long way in the past 10 years. It’s a far cry from the early 2000s when many were left wondering how long the industry could hold out as purses dwindled and gas prices rose, and rose, and rose some more. Even with those obstacles, if 2014 purses and entries are any indication, the future of futurities looks very bright indeed.

Tanya Randall is an avid barrel racer and veteran contributor to Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected].

 

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