By Ted Harbin
There we many challenges that the women of the WPRA faced in 2020, and it all stemmed from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
No matter their place in the world standings, the ladies persevered, and the top 15 in the world will get a chance to showcase that at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, set for Dec. 3-12 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
“For everybody to rally in whatever way they did this year, it shows the resilience everyone had,” said Hailey Kinsel, the No. 2 cowgirl in the standings who trails the leader, two-time world champion Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi by about $11,000. “You had to make a new plan all the time. Having to do that was exhausting. I applaud all the ladies that made the NFR for that and taking every change in stride.
“There was no such thing as a duck-off rodeo. Drawing mattered. It took some great runs just to place. I made some great runs, and I still didn’t place. That had as much to do with the draw as it did the competition.”
From being quarantined and competition halted to the majority of rodeos being canceled, the ladies of the WPRA were in more of a steeplechase than a barrel race – the ups and downs of the season featured many obstacles.
“You won big when you won, because everybody was at the same place,” said Pozzi Tonozzi of Lampasas, Texas. “It was not as financially good, because of all the driving and expense to go with it. You had to make perfect runs to make anything anywhere. You also had to be up on the right date.
“I had the luxury of not having to go everywhere, so I got to pick and choose. I got to go to some futurities and do some things I don’t normally get to do, so that was nice.”
Her opulence came from a very strong winter. She moved into the lead in the ProRodeo World Standings following her big win in San Antonio in February and didn’t relinquish it. That’s a special feeling, and it’s one Pozzi Tonozzi has held before. This will be her 14th trip to the NFR, where she owns two average titles in addition to her world championships.
“It’s always fun going in No. 1,” she said. “It’s an honor, and I’m definitely proud of that accomplishment, but once you get to the NFR, it’s anybody’s chance. From one to 15, everybody has a chance to win a world title. There is no cushion for going to the NFR first.
“It’s going to be a large pattern and a barrel-turning contest. There won’t be any walls. This will be the complete opposite of the Thomas & Mack.”
The Las Vegas arena features 13-second patterns, and the cloverleaf racetrack is fitted in the dimensions of a hockey rink. In Arlington, the pattern will be custom-fitted inside the baseball diamond that was built to house the Texas Rangers.
Most of the top 15 women who have advanced to compete in the 40,000-seat stadium have never competed on a baseball field before; Pozzi Tonozzi has.
“I’m showing my age,” she said with a laugh. “El Paso used to have its rodeo on a baseball field, and I ran a couple of years there.”
Still, this will be a unique home to ProRodeo’s marquee event.
“To me, it’s going to feel like things did at The American,” Kinsel said, referring to the springtime event that took place at AT&T Stadium, Globe Life Field’s neighboring complex. “We’re down inside the stadium before we run instead of outside leading into an alley. I think the auditorily factory is going to be so much louder. I think the key is keeping our horses fresh and keeping them excited.
“You just have to figure out the pattern and hope the ground is good.”
Kinsel and her main mount, DM Sister Hayday, understand the pattern and the ground in Las Vegas. They set an arena record with a 13.11-second run in 2017 while also setting a WPRA earnings record at the NFR of $189,385. Kinsel finished as the reserve world champion that year. Over her first three qualifications, she has pocketed $488,404 inside the Thomas & Mack and two world titles. She will be looking for her third straight, a feat that hasn’t been done since Kristie Peterson in the late 90s.
“This is going to be a lot like my first NFR,” she said. “I’ll have to see how Sister likes the arena. It’ll be a refresher course on being a rookie again. We’re all starting from square one, so I’ll get that rookie rush feeling once again.”
Kinsel won’t be the only one. One-third of the 15-woman field will be made up of NFR rookies, led by Jimmie Smith of McDade, Texas. She is fourth in the world standings with $65,022, thanks in large part to a terrific season with Lena On The Rocks, an 11-year-old palomino mare she calls Lena.
“It’s pretty amazing to have made the NFR,” Smith said. “What a crazy year to finally get it accomplished, and I’m just thankful for all the committees that stayed strong and kept going. I know it was hard for them to do that, and we greatly appreciate them.”
She and the other competitors should. In a typical year, there are about 700 rodeos that take place across North America. COVID-19 cut that number by more than half.
“It was different,” she said. “Not only was there only one route over the Fourth of July, but because of that one route, it made things tougher. It was the absolute toughest year of rodeo. I’ve only been out there for three years over the summer, but this was unbelievable: The horsepower, the numbers … it was crazy.
“You could not take a breath during your run, or you were not going to win a check. Whether it was a $500 added rodeo or a $10,000 added rodeo, it was going to be tougher than tough no matter where you went.”
That makes Smith appreciate her first trip to the NFR that much more. She understands the difficulties she faced were spread across the board. Money was spread out, too. There were no six-digit earners heading into this year’s finale, and the cowgirls in the 14th and 15th spots, Wenda Johnson and Brittney Barnett, came in with less than $40,000 in earnings. Those types of figures haven’t been seen in many years.
“Of course, I really wanted to go to Vegas,” Smith said “I believe Lena would absolutely loved the Thomas & Mack, but I don’t believe moving it to a different state takes away from making the NFR and getting that NFR back number.
“This season was like the old days, where you had to travel to all those little rodeos to make it happen.”
Now, each lady will have to formulate the best method for getting through a pattern they don’t yet know on a field they have yet to see.
“I think the barrel racing will have no walls at all, which will definitely be a game-changer,” Smith said. “I think it will be one of the toughest NFRs to date. Only so many horses like a 13-second pattern, let alone a 13-second pattern for 10 runs. Because of that, I think the money will be spread out even more than it usually is.”
The NFR is always a horserace, but there are some horses who take to the fast setup in Las Vegas, like Kinsel and Sister; they also like the bigger pens, too. Take Dodge City, Kansas, where they re-established the record on the standard pattern with a 16.63 to win the second round; a week later, they set an arena record with a 16.90 in Lawton, Oklahoma.
“I have only so many days to get ready, and I’m going to use every one of them,” Kinsel said. “I’m formulating my plan to be as ready as possible and try to be perfect; that’s what I’m shooting for. I want to try to focus on the quality runs, and I’m going to use my time to hone that in. I’m going to focus on what I can control, and that’s keeping my horses healthy and as fit as possible.”
Pozzi Tonozzi hopes to have Babe On The Chase (“Birdie”), KissKiss BangBang (“Mona”) and Ima Famous Babe (“Katniss”) all in the stable and ready to run at any time once she arrives in Arlington.
“I think I’ll have three really cool mares to take,” she said. “I’m really hoping that Texas is going to open up and we are going to sell it out and that the money is going to be the same in Arlington as it has been in Vegas (a $10 million payout).
“I’m also looking forward to seeing some new faces. It’s going to be a little bit different, but I think it’s going to be nice for people that don’t get to make the trip to Vegas to enjoy the NFR.”
While the ladies of the WPRA will miss the lights and excitement of Las Vegas, the majority of the field is excited about the NFR’s proximity to their hometowns.
“Having the NFR in Texas is going to be really cool,” Kinsel said. “It’s not Vegas, and it’s going to be quite different, but I hope everybody enjoys it for what it is. Not having to drive all the way there because it’s close to home is going to be nice.
“If it’s not going to be in Vegas, then I dang sure want it to be in Texas.”