By Ann Bleiker
Miller Wins ProRodeo Tour Finale in Salinas, Punches Ticket to Las Vegas
Looking from the outside in on the final weekend of the 2021 rodeo season, many might have been inclined to think WPRA World Champion Nellie Miller would be a nervous wreck knowing it all came down to her success at the ProRodeo Tour Finale at California Rodeo Salinas. After all, she entered the weekend just $29 out of the Top 15, but as a true champion, she wasn’t nervous but confident.
“We started at the beginning of the year wanting to get there after they announced it would be in Salinas,” Miller, of Cottonwood, California, said regarding the new Tour Finale location. “I knew I wanted to try to make it there. I got a late start to the season, so I thought at the end of the year that would come in handy, and it definitely worked out that way.”
Yes it did. It is always good to have an ace in the hole when trying to make it to Las Vegas for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. For Miller, she actually had two aces in the hole for the weekend: one being her horse, Rafter W Minnie Reba “Sister” and the other being her familiarity with the set-up at Salinas.
“It definitely helps. When you have that much experience in an arena, I feel like it just helps when you are under a pressure situation,” said the 2017 world titlist. “I had a lot of confidence in my horse, as I knew she would do well there, and it was peace of mind to be in an arena I am so comfortable with.”
Miller and Sister rounded the cloverleaf pattern during the first performance, stopping the clock in a time of 16.42 seconds, a round won by Katie Jo Halbert in 16.16. Miller finished fourth, good for $1,260. She and Sister sped things up in the second round, stopping the clock in a rodeo-best 16.03-second run, outdistancing two-time WPRA World Champion and past Salinas champion Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi by 3-100ths of a second. Miller added another $2,070 for that run.
“I was up the first night, and I think the first crack out of the hat you are just trying to get a feel for it again. (On) the second run, she had a day off in between and was just really feeling good, plus she had one run under her belt there already,” Miller said about the lightning quick time in the second round. “I feel she just gets stronger with every run and she really did that night. It was a lot of fun.”
Miller easily advanced to the semifinal round, finishing second in the average with a two-run time of 32.45, again behind Halbert with a 32.39. Miller added another $1,800 to her standings.
Miller – who is very familiar with the sudden-death formats in ProRodeo having won the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo in 2020 as well as RodeoHouston in 2018 and 2019 – had positioned herself and Sister for a big day during the finals on Sunday in Salinas.
“She is so confident herself that it helps me be confident in her,” said Miller about her 13-year-old blue roan mare. “I have had a lot of success with the back-to-back, showdown-type formats, and I am pretty comfortable with that at this point as we have done it a number of times. You know your horse and what she is capable of, and I just had a lot of confidence going into that final round.”
The duo didn’t disappoint, finishing third in the semifinal round in a time of 16.29 seconds, good for $2,771; they were behind Cheyenne Wimberley and Steely Steiner, who posted identical times of 16.20. With one run left, Miller and Sister again brought their A-game, stopping the clock in 16.15 seconds outrunning Wimberley by 3-100ths.
“The format in Salinas as the Tour Finale definitely mattered to me,” said Miller, the mother of two daughters. “In years past when I made the Tour Finale and it was in Puyallup (Washington), I don’t think I ever won a check there, so when they announced it would be in Salinas, I was jumping for joy. I just knew my horse would like it there and I had a good chance of doing well there. It is always a relief when it is somewhere that you feel that good about."
Not only did Miller win the barrel racing title in Salinas for the second time in her career, but she also picked up another $10,000 bringing her weekend haul to $17,901. Not only did she move inside the top 15, she shot all the way to No. 8 in the world with a shot at another world title.
“When I won it in 2016, that was our first big win ever,” Miller said of her start with Sister in Salinas. “So it was exciting to be in that position and exciting for different reasons this year. I always think the Salinas win in 2016 is what started it all for me. It got the ball rolling for Sister and I as it was one of our first big wins together.
“I think it just shows how consistent she is and how consistent she has stayed over the last five or six years. I didn’t necessarily think I would still be running her, but she has just held up so well and she takes care of herself. She just keeps coming back strong, so as long as she feels good it makes my job easy.”