By Ann Bleiker
It’s a special honor and privilege for any contestant to pin on the No. 1 back number at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
For only the third time since 1967, when the barrel racing was added as an event at the NFR, a WPRA barrel racer will pin on the prestigious No. 1.
Mary Burger of Pauls Valley, Okla., set a new regular season earnings record in the WPRA in 2016 en route to the top spot with $190,977. Although Burger usually just goes with the flow, once she realized that she could be the 2016 top regular-season money earner, she had a new focus.
"I wasn't going to go to some of the rodeos at the end of September but started thinking I really should try to win a little more to cinch that deal," Burger said of the race to the No. 1 back number. "I didn't really realize it until we were almost into August where we were at in that race. I thought at this point, there were a couple of roughstock riders who were gaining leaps and bounds, so to me I thought I am just going to go to a few more of these last ones to stay right in there giving me a chance. With everything that has happened this year, I really wanted to try to stay in that No. 1 slot. It means a lot to me to have secured the No. 1 back number."
Photo by Kenneth Springer
The first WPRA member to wear No. 1 was Charmayne James in 1987 at the young age of 17; it was just her fourth NFR. Sherry Cervi would also achieve this feat in 1995 when she was just 20 and competing at her second NFR. It has taken 21 years for the honor to return to a barrel racer, and the age spectrum has changed. Burger will be competing in her fourth NFR and, at the age of 68, will be the oldest NFR qualifier male or female.
"I give credit to the great rodeos this year that have helped me be in this position," Burger said. "It is very special to me to be in the company of Charmayne and Sherry, because those are two of the greatest barrel racers with quite a record in the sport. To stick right in there with them is just a wonderful feeling."
Cervi will be competing in her 19th Wrangler NFR this year, tying the record of most qualifications in the WPRA with James but fondly remembers the time she got to wear No. 1.
"It was an awesome feeling that I don't think I really appreciated at the time but has meant more to me as I get older," said the 41-year old cowgirl from Marana, Ariz. "It was pretty special, and I am super excited for Mary, who has had an amazing year. I think it is really cool that a woman gets to wear No. 1."
Photo by Kenneth Springer
James was likewise happy for Burger and reflected back on being the trailblazer wearing the No. 1 back.
"Mary Burger has been an exceptional horsewoman, the way she manages her horses and the ability to win, so it is not surprising. Over my whole career, I have looked at her as somebody that has been able to turn up and win on a lot of different kinds of horses," said James. "When I wore it that year, I was sort of criticized for wearing the No. 1 back. I remember a quote in the Denver paper saying it was a sad day in rodeo when a teenage girl wears the NFR No. 1 back number. What it reminds me of today is (the late) Lewie Feild as he was the first one to congratulate me and was so excited for me. He was genuinely happy for me and I remember that to this day."