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.
What made you decide to enter MCM Imasharpguy in the qualifier? I’ve been riding him in the futurities since about March. He’s been a real nice horse. We decided to put him in [the qualifier], and everything just worked out the way it was supposed to.
Did you have a strategy heading into the qualifier? I didn’t really have any game plan; I just tried to keep him clean. Most of those qualifiers are pretty tough. Sometimes you’ve got a little bit of room to play with, but you can’t take out too much insurance because you’ll get knocked out. You’ve got to go in there and let him do his job.
As you were making the run, did you think he was going to clock that fast of a time? I know that horse has got the capability—that’s probably the best run I’ve ever had on him. I didn’t know it was going to be that good. Even though that horse hasn’t run there much—he’s only run there one other time—I’ve run in that arena for probably 15 years. I think a 15.109 was the arena record, and he ran a 15.118. I’ve seen a few get close with .2s and .3s, but a lot of times you go there and .4s and .5s will win the barrel race pretty easy. There were some good runs, that’s for sure; it was a tough barrel race.
You also qualified Dasher N Dancer in Ardmore, Oklahoma; how are you feeling about the trip to the semi-finals with the two horses you qualified? If I can keep them healthy and everything goes good, I feel really good about it. They’re both nice horses; it’s a smaller pen and a lot more rodeo atmosphere. [MCM Imasharpguy] is just a 4-year-old, so it’s going to be a big learning curve for him. He’s run against open horses all year long and clocks right with them, so I don’t worry about him getting outrun by open horses. I know if he makes his trip, he’s going to run right with them or outrun them.
Do you think the rodeo atmosphere will affect him? I don’t think it’s going to affect him, I really don’t. When the horses are that tough, you’ve just got to shoot through there and keep it clean and let the run fall where it falls. All I can do is hope my horses stay healthy and sound so we can get them to Fort Worth [for the semi-finals] and try to get them all the way to Arlington [for the finals].
What would it mean to you to run in Arlington at AT&T Stadium in the finals? It would mean a lot; it’d be nice and is something that’s totally different than futurities. It’d be special in that it’s way different from what I usually do. What would be awesome, even if I didn’t win it, is just to get back in the top four and make it back to have a shot. To go for the big win would be pretty awesome.
Blanche Schaefer is associate editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected]. For more information on American qualifiers, results and barrel race calendar, visit Better Barrel Races.