By Blanche Schaefer
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.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
How did you start riding Shes Just Like Candy? She belongs to a friend of mine, Carrie Thompson. Carrie bred and raised her, she’s an own daughter of Brisco County JR and out of a good barrel mare Carrie college rodeoed on and won the reserve at NBHA World Show back in the early 2000s. Carrie raised [Shes Just Like Candy] and has been competitive on her ever since. About three years ago, Carrie started letting me ride her at some bigger stuff, especially locally bigger jackpots and three-day shows. We’ve had a lot of success and won some goes here and there; I’ve rode her off and on since. We tried for the American last year but bumped a barrel. I hadn’t really rode her a lot this year; I sent her home and Carrie was going to ride her a bit. I hadn’t ridden her since February, but I got on her a couple times and won some shows. Carrie asked if I wanted to ride her in the American qualifier, and I decided to give it a shot. Luckily it worked out that we don’t have to go any further, and we can go try our faith at Fort Worth now.
Tell us about your run in the Starkville qualifier race. I had a good draw about halfway in between and got to watch a few go before, and I noticed the ground was pretty deep for the pen at Starkville. I knew it’d be alright to go really hard, and I’d have to go hard to get around the barrels. She’s that kind of horse you’ve got to ride off-the-cuff—she’s really quick and makes hard moves around the barrels; you’ve got to stay two-handed and stay honest on her. I sent her hard to the first, and she dialed in and had a really good first and finished it well. When I went to the second, I felt like she got in a little bit so I had to stand her up and put my hand on the barrel—I don’t know if I would have hit it or not, but I didn’t want to take the chance on tipping it because I knew she had a good first. She was in the right spot at the second, but she was just tight. I made sure it didn’t fall, and I knew when I got around second that she was good enough. I kept her really square to third and stayed honest, and I actually had to bump her over to it to turn it. I’ve run in this pen a lot, and this was one of those races where you turn the third barrel and you don’t know if you’re going to win the barrel race, but I knew what I’d seen, and at that point she was winning when she turned the third barrel. It was a relief when we got around third—I didn’t know if we’d come out on top, but I knew we were good enough to place in the top 10.
What are your plans between now and the semifinals in Fort Worth? We’re going to keep running her for sure. I only got her at my place a week before the qualifier and fine-tuned her. Carrie will continue showing her and going to some local stuff. I’ll probably take her at the end of the year and jump-ride her a couple times and make some runs if there are some good shows and Carrie and I are near the same place. Carrie will keep her how she needs to be and keep her comfortable and sound, and I’ll jump-ride her a few times before Fort Worth and hope it all ends up like it did at the Starkville qualifier.
What does it mean to you and Carrie to qualify this mare out of such a tough field? It means a lot, especially on that mare. We’ve had a lot of success locally and won some goes—she ran a really fast time in the second go at the Mega, which would have been second in the finals if we could have backed it up. She had a shot at winning the Mega, but bumped a barrel in the finals, so it’s like we’ve been the “lady in waiting” on her. We’ve won some goes and won here and there at local stuff that could have been more prestigious. I was glad she got the win when it finally counted, especially for Carrie and the horse.
Blanche Schaefer is associate editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected].