By Jolee Jordan and Ann Bleiker
Dodge City, Kansas—If there is any team in ProRodeo that probably doesn’t ever want to get the heck out of Dodge, it’s Michelle Darling and her great mare Martini.
The dynamic duo from Medford, Oklahoma have made winning in the legendary ”King of Cowtowns” a habit since hitting the rodeo scene in 2017 but it wasn’t until this year that the pair finally captured the championship at the Dodge City Roundup Rodeo, a stop on the ProRodeo Tour.
“I’m so excited,” says Darling, who also won the Kansas Biggest Rodeo up the road in Phillipsburg over the weekend.
Darling grew up riding—her father trained horses and she worked in a sale barn—and barrel racing followed soon thereafter. The family started out in Ashland, Kansas before moving to Ponca City, Oklahoma while Darling was still quite young.
“We grew up doing this, it’s all we’ve known,” she notes. She continued training and running barrels through junior rodeo and right into adulthood. She bought her mare Martini, who is registered Morning Traffic, through the Myers Performance Horse Prospect Sale as a two year old. The mare is by the Myers’ legendary stallion Frenchmans Guy and out of the Dash Thru Traffic mare, Evening Traffic.
“I bought her at Bill and Deb Myers’ sale and I started her,” explains Darling. “I had her going pretty well but I had some family stuff come up, I got pregnant, so I sent her to Stevi [Hillman].”
Hillman futuritied the mare at four years old and then famously transitioned her to the rodeos as a five year old, capturing big rodeo wins like the Pendleton Round-Up and the All American Pro Rodeo Series Finals in Waco, Texas.
“She was a very hot, fragile mare and I knew Stevi would take her time and not push her harder than she needed,” Darling says. “She did a great job with her.”
After appearing for a few runs at the 2016 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) with Hillman, Martini came home to Darling. She took the then-six year old to some rodeos, making it to the Ram Prairie Circuit Finals for the first time in 2017. She would return again in 2018.
“We got our feet wet at the rodeos when she was six,” says Darling, who works to limit the number of runs she puts on the mare each season. She’s spent the last two years figuring out which rodeos work best for their schedule.
Dodge City is definitely at the top of the list. In 2017, Darling’s first trip, she tipped a barrel to win the first go round but returned to take the win in the second round. Last year, she also won a round en route to the short go where she finished tenth.
Darling kicked off her 2019 campaign in Dodge City on Wednesday morning in the slack. It was not without drama.
“The first set of girls had trouble with the ground, some fell down, pancaked,” she says. “The judges stopped it. They moved us after the tie down roping and reworked the ground and started over.”
Darling was drawn 21st on the ground, first after a tractor rake, and she said she felt she had an advantage with the position.
“Wow. It was one of those runs where the stars aligned . . . she just made one of those runs,” Darling gushes. “Even before they said my time, when I was pulling up in the alley, I just knew it was fast.”
When the announcer said 16.70 seconds, however, even Darling admitted to being surprised.
“I thought, ‘did I get a hand flag?’” she laughs. She was just off the Dodge City arena record which is 16.68 held by Benette Little.
“She loves that pen,” Darling said simply.
Darling ran again that night, putting a solid 17.29 on the books to take the lead in the two-run average. Then she headed north to Phillipsburg, again relying on past experience.
“That’s a tough set up because the pattern is crooked. The first time I ran there, two years ago, I didn’t set up right and we ended up missing the second barrel because of how we came off the first. So I learned my lesson there.”
Darling got the set up she wanted on Thursday night and Martini delivered again, this time stopping the clock at a wicked fast 16.88 seconds. It would hold off a fast time from Hallie Hanssen, who was also under 17 seconds at 16.97, to win $3,211.
“She made a run!” Darling says. Darling still had Abilene on her agenda for the weekend, but knowing it had rained there, she decided to make the four hour trip home first, dropping Martini off and taking a back-up horse to Abilene to help get her required rodeo count in for the circuit finals.
“I just turned her out in her pasture; she’s happier at home.”
By Sunday night, when it was time to get back to Dodge for the Championship Round, Darling was battling a head cold and strep throat. She was worn out and needed reinforcements.
“I got a babysitter for my two younger kids and took my oldest son, Talon, and my husband with me to help,” she says. Husband Cody is a team roper when not busy with his two businesses, Casing Crews Inc. and Mission Oilfield Supplies. “He stays busy,” Darling says with a laugh.
Back in Dodge, the pit crew had Martini ready.
“It can get deep—it’s good ground but it can get deep—and I was down a bit at sixth. I knew I needed to be smooth and not get wide to stay out of the ruts,” she says of her final round strategy. Though she felt her mare hung up a bit on the third turn, she cut off the clock at 17.17 seconds, good enough for third in the final go. “It was one of the toughest rounds I’ve ever seen there.”
Shelley Morgan won the final go with a run of 17.09 seconds while Ericka Nelson was second at 17.15.
Darling’s three-run total of 51.16 was two tenths ahead of Hanssen for the championship. Along with the first go win, she totaled checks worth $6,826 for the rodeo.
The win in Dodge made for a $10,037 weekend, shooting her to first in the Prairie Circuit standings and 39th in the WPRA World standings.
“My goal is to get into the top 30 so I can go to Houston,” she says. “I’d like to win the circuit of course, maybe get to go down to Florida for the Ram [National Circuit] Finals because I think the winner there gets to go to Calgary. That would be cool.”
Darling won’t be hitting the road hard with eight weeks left in the season however, as her kids are starting school again this week. She also has a “little bit of a breeding business” that occupies much of her time. But the top goal is to take care of Martini, extending her career as long as possible.
“This year has been great,” she says. In fact, her roll into August began back in July with big paydays in Spanish Fork, Ogden and Cheyenne. She’s well over $22,000 won in WPRA money in the last two and a half weeks. “Some years are heartbreaking. I just try to go to the ones with more money because it’s tough when you only have one horse. I want to have a horse left at the end of the year.”
Martini is definitely the “diva” of the barn and she knows how special she is.
“I’ve ridden hundreds of horses in my life, my dad put me on colts since I was six years old,” she says. “She is the hardest horse I’ve ever had. But I knew she was special when I bought her.”
“She was a fighter.”
“I mean, she jumped out of the round pen when I was starting her,” she adds ironically. “She fought with me every day, she nearly killed me a couple of times. But I knew she had it and she’d give 110-percent because she would fight for it.”
While now she channels her energy into barrel racing, Martini still has her moments. For example, she still doesn’t like back cinches.
“Oh my gosh, I threw one of my colt saddles on her the other day, thinking ‘she’ll be OK for a quick ride.’ She blew up and bucked. I couldn’t get it off of her fast enough!”
“It’s hilarious how quirky she is.”
Darling is thankful to her family—Cody, Talon as well as Case and Demi—for all they do to support her rodeo dreams.
“I just want to thank my family for sticking with me!”