by Kenneth Springer
With Presidential race rhetoric calling for change in November, there’s nothing like a group of highly competitive NBHA barrel racers jumping ahead of the politicians and making a big change in early August. A slate of fresh winners emerged from the 11th annual Colonial National Championships hosted by the National Barrel Horse Association held August 7-10 at the Virginia Horse Center in scenic and historic Lexington, Va. Ticks of the clock, rather than votes, determined the winners.
Lee Comly, Bedminster, Pa., led the assault when he clocked a 14.694 in the Open Short Go with his 9-year-old gray gelding, Blue Sugar Jag, to win his first NBHA 1D national championship. Fellow Pennsylvania barrel racer Carol Kerstetter, normally more at home running on the dirt at Women’s Professional Rodeo Association First Frontier circuit rodeos, found the Senior 1D saddle and buckle to be a very comfortable fit after posting a 15.030 in the Senior race. Hannah Shirey, Rushville, Ohio, rounded out the fresh Colonial look with a 14.762 to take the Youth 1D title.
Despite steep fuel prices and an overall soft economy, the NBHA members of the Colonial region held on to their status as the largest national show of the year in the NBHA, even though the Great Lakes national championships ran a close second. During the four days of competition $87,171 was paid out based on 676 Open entries, 236 Youth entries and 167 Senior entries.
Pennsylvania barrel racers were at the top of their game at the 2008 Colonial Nationals taking home six of the 12 national championships awarded. The cowgirls outclassed the cowboys, but only slightly, with seven ladies making it to the winner’s circle. Geldings out performed mares in a ratio of seven to five. Transplanted Virginian Mike Berberich, Conroe, Texas, scored the fastest run payday of $1,877 when he clocked a 14.690 aboard his Cowboy national champion gelding, Simple San, to win the Open second go round. Kate Keeney, York, Pa., and Hope To Burn were the pace setters in the Open first go with a 14.751.
“I knew when I outran Dianne (Kenney) in the Short Go that I had a good shot of winning it,” said 1D Open champion Lee Comly. “But I had no idea when I entered the Colonials that I would end up being the 1D champion. My horse has gotten really consistent the past six months and I don’t think I’ve been anywhere that I haven’t gotten a check, but I haven’t been running against so many tough horses as I did here.”
Comly, a 24-year-old farrier, and his 9-year-old gray gelding, although consistent, weren’t the betting man’s favorite choice going in to the Open Short Go. A 14.992 earned them a ninth place 1D check in the first go. A bit slower in the second go, a 15.017 kept them in the 1D with a tenth place finish. But 14.751 and 14.690 had won the respective go rounds.
“In the first go Jag came in the gate running too hard to the first barrel,” said Comly. “In the second go I tried to keep him from breaking too soon and too hard and he panicked coming out the gate and then I dropped my reins leaving the first barrel and didn’t get him over for the second barrel until we were there. But in the Short Go we got off to a good start and he made a really pretty run. It was one of the best he’s ever made.”
Comly, a charter member of the NBHA, followed in the footsteps of his dad and sisters who ran barrels and competed on a regular basis in local gymkhanas.
“My mom never rode and dealt with the horses as little as possible,” explained Comly. “But she’s always been there to support me. She closes her eyes every time I run but she’s always there. My dad (Leroy Comly III) has ridden all his life but recently has started spending more time playing with his Harley motorcycle than riding horses.”
Comly credits his father for encouraging him to buy his NBHA national champion barrel horse.
“Jag originally came off a ranch in Montana as a two-year-old,” said Comly. “They had to rope him to catch him and then raked the ice off his back. I bought him from a lady who had started him but decided to sell after having an accident with him. She sent Jag for us to sell because I’d ridden him once for her. My dad has always been pretty good at picking nice horses for me through the years and he told me to buy him, so I guess he?s picked another good one.”
Being a farrier by profession after graduating from Oklahoma State Horseshoeing School in Ardmore, Okla., Comly has some flexibility in his schedule which will enable him to compete on Jag at his upcoming NBHA Pennsylvania State Finals, the Quarter Horse Congress Sweepstakes in Columbus, Ohio and the NBHA Open World Championships in Augusta, Ga.
‘I haven’t been to the NBHA World Show in about four years, so I’m looking forward to going back and running Jag there for the first time. The dates for the Congress and World Show are almost on top of each other so I’ll have to leave Ohio and head straight for Georgia but I’m looking forward to it.”
Selling his national champion for the right price isn’t out of the question but the transaction would come with a lot of restrictions according to Comly.
“It would take a lot of money to buy him and he comes with a lot of instructions, which would scare most buyers off,” admits Comly. “He’s not the type of horse that just everyone could get along with. He’s a bit snorty. He’s terrified of ropes being swung anywhere near him and he used to be scared of plastic bags. But my dad has fed him enough carrots out of a plastic bag that he’s almost over that. He’s settled down a lot and certainly gotten a lot more consistent just the past six months. The hardest thing for me has been not to panic if he misses the first barrel a little. He has such a big motor that he can make up for a mistake at the first barrel if I won’t panic and start pushing him too hard to the second and third. If I’ll just let him run his race and stay out of his way we do a lot better.”
With checks totaling $2,751 from the Colonial Nationals, Comly experienced the largest win of his barrel racing career, which he says he will spend “paying bills and buying diesel.”
The idiom “turnabout is fair play” pretty much sums up the sentiments of Open 2D champion Jaci Berberich, Conroe, Texas. Earlier in the year at the NBHA Cowboy Nationals in Amarillo, Texas, her home state, husband Mike Berberich earned his first NBHA 1D Open national title. He had come home to Virginia for a two-week visit in quest of a Colonial championship. Even though he clocked the fastest time of the entire show to win the Open second go, lady luck wasn’t on his side in the Short Go when his horse ducked to the right of the first barrel. But it didn?t keep him from coaching his wife to her first national championship.
Teamed with her 12-year-old sorrel gelding Pocos NonStop King (“Levi”), Berberich qualified for the Short Go by placing fifth in the 2D in the first go with a 15.312, then came back in the second go with a slower 15.410.
“My first run was good but Levi wasn’t paying any attention to me on the second run and was kind of running through the bit,” said Berberich, 27. “I just wanted him to be listening to me in the Short Go and he did. It was a great run and he gave me everything he had.”
Living just outside of Houston, Berberich grew up attending every performance of Rodeo Houston—watching Charmayne James and Scamper win championship after championship—she became obsessed with the idea of becoming a barrel racer. With the full support of her mom Sharon Stevens, she started riding when she was 12 and running barrels the following year. Making sure her daughter was always well mounted, Sharon had no idea she would be gaining a son-in-law when she purchased the great barrel horse JD Dunit that had been campaigned so successfully at past Colonial Nationals by Mike Berberich. Naturally, when Jaci needed help with JD they turned to Mike and it took only a few trips from Virginia to Texas before a romantic relationship began. Today, the couple competes side-by-side in a battle to outrun each other.
“I want to thank Mike and my mom for all they’ve done for me,” said Berberich. “And I especially thank Buck and Kathy Harrelson for allowing me to buy Levi. I watched Buck run him at the World Show in Augusta in 2005 and liked him. When we heard he was for sale we bought him.”
Open 3D champion Sherri Crumpler, Kenly, N.C. has been back in the saddle only four months after sitting on the sidelines for four years.
“I started running barrels when I was 14 and continued to compete for ten years and then I quit for four years,” said Crumpler, a hair stylist who owns her own salon. “About four months ago I decided I was going to start back and of course started looking for a barrel horse. I tried a bunch of different horses and everyone told me Jackpot would be a great horse for me.”
Jackpot, whose registered name is Bullion Dollar Breez, is the 6-year-old sorrel gelding that took her to her first NBHA national championship and her first trophy saddle and belt buckle. After hitting the third barrel on her first run, Crumpler was the last to qualify for the Short Go after finishing 15th in the 3D of the second go round.
“My run in the Short Go was about the same as my second go run but the time fell just right for me to win the 3D,” said Crumpler. “I want to thank Rex Nelson, Nicole Ferrell, Will Lear and my parents for all they’ve done for me to help me with my barrel racing.”
Open 4D Colonial national champion Randy Johnson is easy to spot at any barrel race. Look for the longest red mustache that runs at least an inch below his chin and you’ve likely found the right Shartlesville, Pa., barrel racer. And if he’s riding a new Tex Tan saddle and sporting a new Gist trophy buckle you’re sure to have found the right fellow.
A newcomer to the game, Johnson has been riding for ten years but barrel racing for only the past 18 months. “It looked like something fun that I thought would be a rush and sure enough, now I’m hooked.”
Johnson traveled 260 miles from the beautiful farm country of Shartlesville to ride his 5-year-old Paint mare Miz Prime Time Jet (“Scoot”) at their first Colonial National championships. Johnson, a first year member of the NBHA with limited competitive experience, can attest to the NBHA being a place where beginners can be winners.
Carol Kerstetter, Milton, Pa., a four-time WPRA Circuit champion, showed she hadn’t forgotten how to make a quick switch from rodeo to divisional barrel racing by topping the Senior race with a 15.030 clocked aboard her quick and speedy bay gelding Panama Kissed Bayou. Even though she has a 2003 Senior 2D World title, earned in Augusta, Ga. on her barrel racing resume, she had to beat 2006 Senior 1D World champ Brad Wagner riding the never-to-be-overlooked Heza Dash Of Sis before she could claim her Colonial national title.
A self-employed barrel horse trainer, Kerstetter finds time to enjoy art and do a little home interior decorating when not astraddle a barrel horse. Having ridden many winners during her barrel racing career spanning four decades, Kerstetter is especially proud of her bay gelding that she has been running only nine months.
“His previous owners Carl, Diane and Sandy Linsenbauch hand picked me out to buy Bayou,” explained Kerstetter. “Not only that, but they allowed me to take him home for two weeks and try him. We just clicked from the very beginning. He gets a little excited before he goes in the arena but he is a very focused horse on the barrels and once you get him headed to the first barrel he’s very smooth and a dream to ride.”
Senior 2D national champion Cathy Botsford, Loganton, Pa., is accustomed to her friend Carol Kerstetter helping her in many ways from hauling with her to rodeos to helping her with her barrel racing. At the Colonial Nationals, Botsford and her 11-year-old dun gelding Ko Ko Gambler were sitting on a time of 15.568. They needed someone to run a 15.068 or faster to put them in the 2D. Sixteen runners later it was friend Kerstetter to the rescue with the winning time of 15.030.
Botsford has been a barrel racer since she was six and has ridden many horses. Of all the horses she has owned, she finds it interesting that when she bought Gambler four years ago she really wasn’t looking for another horse to buy.
“I went to a show with one horse in the trailer and came home with two,” said Botsford with a grin. “Gambler has made a really nice horse for me because he loves running barrels and from the time he starts up the alley he’s all business and runs as hard as he can. He loves it here in Lexington. The ground is what he likes and he just tries that much harder.”
Botsford credits her husband Tom for allowing her to pursue her dream of being a barrel racer. “Without him I would not have gone to many NBHA shows. He helps me with the horses, takes care of the truck and trailer, and does all the driving.”
A year seldom goes by that a member of the Mike Roper family doesn’t claim a Colonial National title. His son Adam is a two-time Colonial national 1D Open champion and wife Diane has advanced to the Open short go almost every year. But this year it was Mike’s turn in the spotlight with a Senior 3D championship.
The 8-year-old bay mare, Stacey Kay Express, that took him to the title is full of Roper family history with her dam, Stacey Leo Tassel, being Adam Roper’s first winning barrel horse. While her dam took Adam to the winner’s circle as a youth, her daughter is taking Adam’s father to the winner’s circle as a Senior.
“This is my first year to be eligible for the Senior class and I won the Virginia NBHA State Senior 1D this year and now we’ve won a national championship,” said Roper, 50.
Retired from the United States Air Force after 23 years of dedicated service, Senior 4D champion Mike Neal, Stokesdale, NC had never won a saddle or belt buckle until competing for the fifth time at the Colonial Nationals. A short two and half hour drive from his home, Neal and his 6-year-old streak-faced sorrel mare One Okie Chung arrived at the Virginia Horse Center fresh and ready for their run in the Seniors on Thursday evening.
We made a clean and basically smooth run,” said Neal. “We went a little wide on the third barrel but it worked to give me the time I needed to win my first saddle.”
The biggest upset of the 2008 Colonial Nationals came late in the afternoon of the last day when Hannah Shirey, Rushville, Ohio came from litterly out of nowhere to win her first saddle, first belt buckle and first Youth 1D national championship. With 236 Youth entries, Katie Manley, Lothian, Md., was the first to clock a coveted sub-15 time running a 14.872 on her mom’s hard turning black mare Dixie Miss Jet. Manley held the lead well over an hour until 71 runners later when NBHA Teen World champion Corey Breedlove, Nashville, Tenn., turned up the heat just slightly with a 14.847 aboard his gray mare Sheza Easy Runaway. But as the add-ons started running about an hour later, an unexpected faster time of 14.762 flashed on the scoreboard after Hannah Shirey and her 14-year-old sorrel mare Six Nix crossed the time line.
If the last name sounds a bit familiar, even though Hannah hasn’t been in the winner’s circle before, it’s because she is the daughter of NBHA and BFA competitor Brad Shirey and the granddaughter of equally well-known Dan Shirey.
“My dad ran Six in the futurities and then sold her,” explained Hannah. “He bought her back and sold her again before he bought her back again five years ago. I’m certainly glad my dad talked me into riding her because I wasn’t so sure at first. But she’s got a lot of heart and determination.”
Hannah and Six saved their best run of the week for the Youth. After clocking mediocre times of 15.319 and 15.358 in the Open go rounds, they came back in the Open short go and hit the first barrel.
“My dad and I tuned on her between the Short Go and my run in the Youth,” said Hannah. “It was such a thrilling run. This is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me.”
Her grandfather, Dan Shirey, went a step further and stated, “Undoubtedly this is the greatest win ever for the Shirey family. We’ve been lucky through the years but there’s something so special that words can’t describe it when your granddaughter wins her first big barrel race. We are very, very proud of her.”
Courtney Prough, Sayre, Pa., kept the dominance of Pennsylvania rider’s alive with a Youth 2D title. Prough, 17, a junior at Sayre High School, rode her 12-year-old gelding T Bar Tic Tac to her first saddle win.
“I’d like to thank my family and friends who support me and a special thank you to Kandi Cook for the opportunity to ride Tic Tac.”
Youth 3D champion Jimmy Fraley, 19, started his barrel racing career 10 years ago. A year later his 9-year-old sorrel mare Sugar was foaled at his family’s Clear Creek, W.V. place located 140 miles from where she took Fraley to his national championship.
“We raised Sugar and I trained her myself,” said Fraley. “That’s what makes this win so awesome.”
Being 21 didn’t stop Allison McGill’s sorrel gelding Matador Cricket Bar from taking his 17-year-old rider to the Youth 4D winner?s circle. Calling Bethlehem, Pa., home, McGill was the last of the six Pennsylvania residents to step into the Colonial Nationals spotlight.
“We work hard to complete a pretty pattern every time and this run wasn’t our best but it was a nice run and it was a lucky time,” said McGill who is a freshman at Northampton County Community College. “I owe my trainers Bonnie and Terry Taglang a big thanks because I wouldn’t be the rider I am today if it hadn’t been for them and the support of my family.”
Kenneth Springer is a regular contributor to BHN and the man behind the lens at major barrel races across the nation. E-mail comments on this article to [email protected].