By Blanche Schaefer
Competing against the top cowboys and cowgirls in the nation for a slice of a $2 million pie has set the bar high for many rodeo contestants since RFD-TV’s inaugural The American Rodeo in 2014. Each year, hundreds of barrel racers enter various qualifiers across the United States, gunning for their shot at a run under the bright lights of famed AT&T Stadium. In the end, only four will remain. The path to Arlington, Texas, is crowded with the nation’s fastest horses and handiest riders, but the qualification process gives anyone a chance to outrun them. Barrel racers run at designated qualifier races throughout the fall and winter to advance to The American semi-finals in Fort Worth, Texas, from February 15–17, 2017, where they will compete against several “exemption” riders invited by The American. A slack round followed by a shootout round determine who advances to AT&T Stadium in Arlington for The American on February 19, 2017. Qualifiers compete in the long round against the top 10 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association barrel racers in the country, who receive an automatic invitation to The American. Out of the long round, only four will advance to the final shootout match to battle for a hefty championship purse: $100,000 if the winner is a rider invited by The American or $1 million to a champion who qualified through the semi-finals. With qualifier season well under way, we spoke to several winners who’ve solidified a spot in The American semi-finals.
Your daughter, Kelsey Lutjen, trained and futuritied KN Fabs Gift Of Fame and won the Reno, Nevada, qualifier this year on her as well. Do you have a background with “J-Lo?” I rode and barrel raced before Kelsey was born, and once Kelsey got old enough to ride, I got off and supported her and helped her for many years. I started riding again about two years ago. I ran J-Lo probably three times before the qualifier, and that’s all I ever rode her. She’s not very easy to ride, because she’s really quick and catty. You have to really do things right with her. Ivy Conrado got on her at Buckeye, Arizona, [before the New Year’s Bustin’ Out Barrel Race and qualifier] and ran a 16.9 on a standard pattern. She’s a pretty amazing mare.
What makes J-Lo such a tough horse? J-Lo has the heart of a champion. What J-Lo has, you can’t make them do—they’re just born with it. She loves her job, and she craves it. She wants to be good. She’s very arrogant; you can tell when you’re around her that she knows she’s good and knows she’s special. It’s hilarious to watch her. She struts around like she’s the queen of the place, and she definitely is the queen. Coming back from the injury that could have been career-ending was pretty amazing, too. Last year at the semifinals, she wasn’t herself because it was only her second or third run back. She was out for a year and in a rehab facility. It took her a little bit of time to get her groove back, because she had changed so much. She grew stronger; her body was different when she came back.
What was your run like in the qualifier? I knew going in I needed to get her by the barrels—the mare takes care of the clock because she’s so fast and catty. My goal was to get her by. She turns the first barrel so fast that she can catch it on the backside if you don’t get her far enough past it. She turned the first so good, and then she inhaled the second and bumped it on the backside. Going to the third, I was like, ‘Just run, just run, don’t over-do it.’ I knew she’d take care of the clock, because she’s amazingly fast. She just worked so good; I tried to stay out of her way and let her do her job. Just keep the forward motion going, that was my goal.
Do you find yourself calling Kelsey for advice? Oh yes, I ride with Kelsey every chance I get. I just started running barrels again about two years ago—it had been probably 25 years. She keeps me tuned up and gives me good constructive criticism. We have a good deal going.
What does it mean to you for you and your daughter to both win qualifiers on a horse she trained? This is my first time to qualify for The American semifinals, and it means the world to me. I get emotional every time I think about it, because it was such a special experience for me. It was neat having Kelsey, Kenny [Nichols] and Dale [Barron] so behind me and encouraging me. I stepped way out of my comfort zone, doing that [qualifier]. I’m just a little local-around-here barrel racer, and they kept encouraging me when I wasn’t sure I could do it. It was pretty dang special, and it was neat that Kenny and Dale could be there to watch it. I wished Kelsey had been there, but she was at the Barrel Futurities of America World Championships. She was dang sure the first phone call!
Have you and Kelsey decided who will run J-Lo in the semifinals? Kelsey will run her at the semifinals, and I will run a horse named Complete Bully owned by Tom and Vickie Stockton—they own TS Hayday Returns that Kelsey ran at the futurities last year. Kelsey qualified on “Bully” last year when J-Lo was just coming back from her injury, and Kelsey ran J-Lo instead of Bully at the semifinals. J-Lo repaid Bully the favor this year, so he gets to go this year. It’s exciting.
Do you have any words of thanks? Thank you to Kenny Nichols, Dale Barron and Kelsey. Also a huge thank you to Tom and Vickie Stockton for entrusting me with Bully, because he’s now my ride going forward. Without him, I don’t think I would have done it. I know with him I can at least be competitive in the semifinals. I feel very blessed.
Blanche Schaefer is associate editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected].