By Neal Reid
Emotional Hillman Wins First Career Wrangler NFR Go-Round
on Husband’s Birthday
LAS VEGAS – Stevi Hillman finally delivered on the birthday present she’s wanted to give her husband for years.
The four-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier laid down the quickest run of the rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center to win Round 9 on Friday night and provide her husband, Ty, with a birthday prize like none other. Hillman, of Stephenville, Texas, guided the 7-year-old gelding MCM ImASharpGuy, “Sharpie,” through the cloverleaf pattern en route to a blistering 13.53-second run that brought the crowd of 16,880 to their feet.
The superb time was .11 of a second quicker than second-place Hailey Kinsel and her magical mare, Sister, and put a smile on the affable blonde’s face.
“It feels amazing, and I can’t even explain it,” said Hillman, who is ninth in the WPRA world standings with $157,219. “I’m a little emotional. Obviously, my first go-round win is incredible, and I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.
“I’ve wanted to win a go-round for (Ty) on his birthday for four years now, so we finally got it done. For it to happen today is just really special.”
Hillman has had a roller-coaster experience in Las Vegas, from a third-place finish in the opening round, to downed barrels in four other rounds, to a no-time in Round 6 and even the death of a family member. The trials and stress have taken their toll on her, but she has leaned on her faith and support network to get through it all.
“It’s been the worst and best week we’ve had in a really long time,” Hillman said. “I can’t thank my horse owners (Matt & Bendi Dunn), sponsors, my family, friends and crew here enough. We’ve had a lot going on, so it’s been a really emotional struggle. So, we’re very grateful for this win tonight.”
Hillman was thrilled to share the victory with Sharpie, a horse that comes from a talented bloodline.
“Sharpie is a special horse and means so much to me,” Hillman said. “Sharpie’s owner, Bendi Dunn, told me today that Sharpie’s mom won Rounds 9 and 10 with Angie Meadors. So, I thought that was pretty special. I came unseated a couple times, but I was keeping the barrels up tonight.”
Kinsel’s runner-up finish in the round was good for $20,731, moved her to third in the Wrangler NFR average and virtually assured the Texas cowgirl of a second consecutive world championship. She leads the standings with $283,674, more than $75,000 ahead of second-place Amberleigh Moore, who remained 12th in the average after knocking over another barrel.
The battle for the Wrangler NFR average is razor-thin, with Ivy Conrado-Saebens leading Emily Miller 124.58-124.60 seconds. Nellie Miller – the 2017 world champion – moved to third place in the world standings thanks to a fourth-place check and enters Round 10 with at least a mathematical chance to unseat Kinsel.
Emily Miller also has a chance to do the same, but if Kinsel and Sister make a clean run on Saturday, the gold buckle is all but theirs. Kinsel has earned an event-best $134,808 and is in a battle with bareback riding frontrunner Clayton Biglow ($150,391) and red hot bull rider Boudreaux Campbell ($148,558) for the RAM Top Gun Award, given to the Wrangler NFR contestant who earns the most money at the $10 million rodeo.
If Kinsel is able to double down in Las Vegas and claim another world title, she’ll become the first barrel racer to go back-to-back since Kelly Kaminski won two in a row from 2004-05.