By Neal Reid
Barrel racing fans making their way to Las Vegas or tuning in to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo on CBS Sports Network Dec. 5-14 are in for a treat this year, as one of the most diverse and talented fields is set to do battle for 10 days at the Thomas & Mack Center.
This year’s Top 15 has it all – world champions, wily veterans, hungry young cowgirls and optimistic first-timers – and they’re all looking for glory on the sport’s grandest stage under the bright lights in that famed yellow arena. Nellie Miller – the 2017 world champion – leads the way, but she will have her work cut out for her when she arrives in the “Entertainment Capital of the World.”
Miller, of Cottonwood, Calif., finished the year with $154,611 in regular-season earnings, money she amassed at just 28 rodeos. That total and $5,500 per-rodeo average are staggering numbers, especially considering Miller and her superstar steed, Sister, entered 21 fewer rodeos than any other Wrangler NFR qualifier.
The Wrangler NFR average record holder said she was deliberate about where she chose to enter, and a big win in March gave her a nice cushion that allowed her to be picky about where she hauled Sister.
“I had a really successful year, and everything just went really smooth. I can’t complain,” said Miller, now a four-time Wrangler NFR qualifier. “We figured out where my horse likes to go, and she has had a lot of success in the same arenas for multiple years now. It’s kind of nice knowing what she likes at this point.
“Starting out this winter, I made the decision not to go very much, and we only went to three rodeos this winter. That was a conscious decision on our part to limit the wintertime runs, but after winning Houston in March, that just gave us the luxury of picking and choosing from that point forward.”
Miller is optimistic about this year’s Finals, and clearly Sister likes the arena inside the Thomas & Mack Center since they set the average record of 137.32 seconds on their way to the gold buckle in 2017.
“Yeah, she does pretty well there,” Miller said. “At this point, she’s feeling really good, and we’re just going to focus on keeping her really fit and ready to go for those 10 days. It’s a long 10 days, and it gets pretty grueling for both of us. So, from start to finish, it’s a long haul.”
Nipping at her heels is reigning World Champion Hailey Kinsel with $148,867, with 13-time qualifier and two-time NFR average champion Lisa Lockhart a close third at $146,352. Kinsel and her talented mount, also known as Sister, had a dominant Finals last year when they won four rounds and placed in six on their way to the crown.
This year’s talented Top 15 is a diverse group that includes three world champions, 10 returning qualifiers and NFR rookies Emily Miller (seventh), Dona Kay Rule (ninth), Ericka Nelson (10th), Jennifer Sharp (13th) and Lacinda Rose (15th), setting up a highly entertaining 10-day shootout at the $10 million rodeo. Speaking of rookies, WPRA Rookie of the Year Carly Taylor of Andersonville, Tenn. – who finished 18th in the standings with $72.300 – will have some time to shine at the Thomas & Mack when she’s honored with the sport’s other rookies of the year on Resistol Rookie Night on Tuesday, Dec. 10.
With $26,231 up for grabs each night and $67,269 going to the average winner, it could be anyone’s title to claim.
“Every year, there’s a good mix between first-timers and the veterans who’ve been there,” said Miller, who finished eighth in the world in 2018. “There always seems to be a first-timer who does pretty well, but I don’t know who that’ll be just yet. It’s always interesting, and with the amount of added money now, it makes it even more interesting because there’s a lot to be won and anything can happen. It’s really fun to watch it all play out.”
Miller knows it will be a competitive 10 days at the Thomas & Mack Center, and she said going into the event in the No. 1 position for the first time won’t change her mentality.
“I don’t really feel different, because I know once you get to Vegas it just kind of changes and you never know how it’s going to go there,” Miller said. “It can go really great, or it can go really bad. I’ve had it go multiple ways, and I think Vegas is just something of its own.”
Jessica Routier of Buffalo, S.D., was last year’s runner-up to Kinsel and also finished second in the average in her first trip to Las Vegas, and she expects a high-pressure competition at this year’s Finals.
“Oh, it’ll be wicked tough,” said Routier, who will be riding her prized horse, Missy, in Las Vegas. “Just the way the whole system is set up, no matter what, it’s going to be wicked tough. There’s some really tough horses and tough competitors, and it’ll be fun. It’ll be a good barrel race to watch.”
Routier, who joined the WPRA in 2010, enters this year’s Finals eighth in the standings with $96,582 and would love to have a similar experience to 2018 in Las Vegas.
“If it went as well as last year did, I’d be super happy,” said the mother of five. “I’d like to try to have a little more solid run in the first round, but other than that, I cannot complain about how my horse worked there last year. I also know anything can happen there, so you don’t expect to have that good a year two years in a row. We’re prepared for anything, but hopefully it goes well again.”
Miller had a seven-year gap between her first two Wrangler NFR qualifications (2010 to 2017), so she knows exactly how Shali Lord and Cheyenne Wimberley will feel this year. Lord, of Lamar, Colo., qualified in the fourth position with $111,776, her first Finals berth since 2005.
Wimberley, of Stephenville, Texas, is back for the first time in a whopping 21 years, with her two NFR qualifications coming in 1997 and 1998. The busy entrepreneur used four horses to finish 14th in the 2019 regular-season standings with $90,361, and she is over-the-moon excited to be back at the world’s richest rodeo.
“It really is quite a thrill, because it’s been more than 20 years since I’ve been there,” said Wimberley, who was 20 and 21 years old at her first two NFRs. “The older you get, the quicker it goes, so you definitely appreciate it a lot more. It’s been 20 years, so it’s definitely not something you can take for granted.
“It’s definitely going to be almost like going for the first time.”
Wimberley made her way back to the NFR riding mares Misty (11 years old), Lex (9) and Smooch (8), as well as an 8-year-old gelding named Rocco, during the season. She said she hasn’t decided which of the four horses she will haul to Las Vegas, and that may be the toughest aspect of her qualification.
“They all won good money throughout the year, so, I’m just going to have to pick what I feel like are the best ones for that setup,” Wimberley said. “For sure, I’m going to take three of them, and I’ll decide on the fourth one. I feel like I want to start off on the one that’s real consistent.”
Wimberley – who nearly qualified for the NFR as an 11-year-old WPRA Rookie of the Year when she finished 16th in 1986 – owns and operates Cowboy Classic Saddlery with her mother, Christi. If that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, she also sells real estate and equine insurance and raises and trains a large number futurity horses.
So, heading to 89 rodeos this season wasn’t exactly in her plans, at least not until she got the chance to expand her stable.
“I don’t own all of those horses, but I was offered a couple of really good horses and the opportunity just came,” Wimberley said. “I hadn’t really rodeoed that much, but had rodeoed a bit last year. It came to the summer and the horses started working really good, and I kept entering and kept going.
“I just knew I had to continue to keep the grind going after Cheyenne, and I had a really, really big month in August. When that month kept going really good, we were just going to keep riding that momentum. I knew that, if it ended like it started, we’d have a good shot.”
Wimberley is excited about her return to Sin City, and she anticipates a great barrel race.
“I think it’s always exciting, even if I’m just watching it, to see how the new horses handle that arena because it’s a tough arena,” she said. “I remember the first time I went. They can tell you about the Thomas & Mack, but until you’re in the alley and you experience the barrel pattern, you just can never be told enough about it.”