By Jolee Jordan
Rodeo veterans will tell you that there are only two days in a season when pro rodeo standings really matter.
The first is following the 10th round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) each December, when the World Champions are crowned.
The other is October 1, the day after the final day of rodeo’s regular season when the field for the WNFR is finalized based upon the top 15 money winners.
Some WPRA barrel racers this year knew months ago that they were spending December in Las Vegas but for a couple, the travel plans couldn’t be made until the last moments of the season.
Oregon cowgirl Amberleigh Moore was not on the radar for a trip to the WNFR early in the season. In fact, Moore did not hit the top 15 until the second to last week of the season, leaving her 10 days to hold off the charge from a pair of Taylors, the WNFR arena-record holder Taylor Jacob and fellow Texan, Taylor Langdon.
“Albuquerque put me over the top,” Moore notes of her second place finish at the New Mexico State Fair Rodeo behind Langdon in mid-September. When the September 19 WPRA World standings appeared, Moore was 15th for the first time all season.
“It was my first one down there,” she notes of her final season push from Oregon to New Mexico to Missouri and Texas. “After that I just thought, keep pulling checks.”
Moore grew up on a horse, competing alongside her parents in o-mok-see (gaming) and gymkhana events. Amazingly, her father Bill and mother Sandy Neely, who are 74 and 69, respectively, are still competing today.
About 15 years ago, Moore began to train and compete in barrel racing futurities.
“I finally got that one that allowed me to go play,” she laughs of CP Dark Moon, the seven year old mare by Darkelly out of SRQH Hew Highs, by On A High. Moore purchased Paige, as she’s known around the barn, from fellow trainer Cody Hyde as a three year old.
“He had 60 days on her and I went on with her, taking her to the futurities as a four year old,” Moore says. The mare runs to the left barrel first and Moore notes, “she came that way. I’ve never changed anything.”
Moore and Paige found success at the aged competitions including a win at the 2013 SWWA Futurity in Salkum, Wash. Moore says she got to go play with the mare by beginning to hit the rodeos during her five and six-year old seasons.
Despite her years of experience, Moore was a rookie in the WPRA in 2015.
“If I was going to go play, I wanted to do it right,” she says of never joining the pro ranks prior to owning Paige. “I’ve been in the futurity business a long time and I’m competitive. I wasn’t going to go rodeo just to say that I am.”
A fundamental practicality and sheer economics backed her decision. In addition to training horses, Moore operates her own bling tack business, AKM Originals, and helps with her family’s business, Emerald Outdoor Living.
“I do all the bookkeeping,” Moore states of the business, which includes pools, hot tubs, grills, patio furniture and fireplaces. “It’s basically a summer job . . . and guess where I was all summer?”
Moore balanced her responsibilities at home by relying on her daughter, Keirstin, and husband, Paul, and by working hard in between rodeo trips.
“The last time I was caught up was before I left for Cheyenne [at the end of July] so now I’m home and I have to clear up three months of my mess I have!”
After qualifying for her first Ram Columbia River Circuit Finals Rodeo in 2015, finishing second at the finals and claiming the Rookie title, Moore decided to set her goals higher for 2016.
“My goal was to win my circuit and get myself established for next year’s winter rodeos,” says Moore. She got off to a great start with a pair of wins at Sisters and Union in Oregon in early June. The checks kept coming in and soon Moore was closing in on the top 20.
“It’s been the joke all along . . . every time we’d reach another goal, we’d be like, ‘ok we filled that goal, what now?’” she laughs. “We just started with smaller goals and the goals got a little more expanded [as the season went on.]”
Moore finished third in Reno and St. Paul, sixth in Cheyenne and fourth in Hermiston. Her name was beginning to appear steadily inside the top 20 but not yet inside the top 15.
Moore points to the Caldwell Nite Rodeo as the moment she truly began to believe she and Paige could end up in Vegas.
“I had a pre-planned business trip I had to go on. So I took off and went to the East Coast with my husband on our business trip for our store. And when I got home, I jumped on her and we left the next day.”
“That mare never looked back after having two weeks off. She came back firing and placing and winning everywhere I went,” she says. “I thought, ‘now we have a chance.’”
The winning continued through the Justin Boots Playoffs in Puyallup, Wash., a key win for Moore when she finished second in the average after winning the short go.
“I knew Puyallup would be the key, if we would keep going or not. I entered everything in Texas and figured, if we did well in Puyallup, we’d go.”
After finally cracking the top 15 at Albuquerque, Moore hit the final 10 pressure packed days with a calm born of years of competing. O-mok-see involves racing in four lanes at once, a format that requires steady nerves.
“I’ve been doing that since I was 12 and I’m 48 now,” she laughs. “I guess I’ve been preparing my whole life for this. I think the more pressure is thrown at me, the harder I ride.”
Moore thinks Paige likes the pressure too.
“She’s a perfectionist. She gives 110-percent every time I run her. She thrives off the competition and pressure.”
Moore began her final week of rodeo at the American Royal in Kansas City in the slack. After tipping the second precariously, she posted the fastest time of the event, a 15.04 second effort that was nearly two tenths faster than Taylor Langdon and was worth $1,875.
“We actually watched the junior rodeo all day before that and we were laughing because the kids would hit the barrels and it was like weeble-wobbles . . . they just wouldn’t fall over,” she giggles. “So when I brushed it, it was like, I’ve seen that all afternoon, I’m ok.”
The same couldn’t be said two days later when Moore tipped the same barrel to win her first ever Wrangler Champions Challenge event in Pasadena, Texas.
“She barely touched it and it fell,” notes Moore with a laugh. “She came out and was so proud of herself, all arched up like she had just done the coolest thing ever. And she did!”
Moore would go on to win second in Amarillo, just two one-hundredths of a second ahead of Jacob, and pick up checks at the Pasadena rodeo as well as Stephenville. When the standings appeared again on Monday, September 26, Moore was clinging to a lead of less than $2,000 with Jacob still to compete in Pasadena.
She loaded up and headed for Mona, Utah, the season’s final rodeo, but she wouldn’t have to run there when Jacob failed to place in Pasadena on the year’s second to last night.
“My motto all year was just to take it one run at a time,” Moore insists. “We’re not going to focus on anything bigger than that run, that day, that night and right now. Because that’s what matters. The rest falls into place.”
“I think I’m proof that you have to let it happen!”
Moore’s unofficial final season total of $79,068 is the highest amount it has taken to qualify for the WNFR in WPRA history.
“I think it’s starting to sink in now that I’ve been home and had time to detox,” says Moore. “Paul is so excited for Vegas, he can’t stand it.”
“It definitely takes a whole support team,” Moore notes, citing stories of family and friends helping out with long drives on the road. “I was always begging friends to help me drive.”
As for competing in Vegas, Moore is definitely optimistic.
“At Reno and Cheyenne, in the short rounds, the third run was her fastest one yet. She came through the gate and you better hang on for dear life!” Moore laughs. “I think she’s going to have fun [in Vegas].”
Moore is one of six WNFR first-timers including 2016 WPRA Rookie of the Year Cayla Melby who qualified to her first Finals ranked 10th after winning $87,737. Melby continues a great mother-daughter tradition in the WPRA; her mom Jane has competed in the WNFR twice.
The other WNFR rookies are Ivy Conrado (4), Kimmie Wall (5), Stevi Hillman (6) and Pam Capper (11). Wall and Capper have both been quite close to a WNFR berth in recent years, finishing inside the top 20 on several occasions.
Like Moore, Conrado is a sophomore WPRA member, part of an extremely tough class of competitors that includes 2015 WPRA Rookie of the Year Jackie Ganter, who returns to the WNFR again in 2016, this time ranked second in the WPRA World standings.
2014 Rookie of the Year Sarah Rose McDonald is back. She won or shared the win in three rounds a year ago. McDonald is ranked eighth in 2016.
Thirteenth ranked Carley Richardson is making her second straight visit to Vegas for the WNFR while Michele McLeod and Jana Bean are making it a trifecta; each lady is making her third consecutive trip this year after both ladies won rounds a year ago. McLeod is ranked ninth while Bean, who pulled off some last month heroics of her own, finished 14th.
This WNFR will also feature some veteran competitors including three WPRA World Champions and the reigning Reserve World Champ, Lisa Lockhart. Lockhart is ranked seventh and is one of three WPRA 2016 NFR cowgirls with more than $1 million in career earnings.
Four-time champ Sherry Cervi ties the record for most WNFR appearances currently held by Charmayne James with her 19th trip to Las Vegas. Cervi made history back in March by becoming the first WPRA member to earn over $3 million in her career. She is currently 12th in the standings.
2012 WPRA World Champion Mary Walker crossed the million dollar mark in career earnings over the summer as she punched her ticket to Vegas for the fifth time. She is ranked third in the standings as she chases a second gold buckle.
The whole field is chasing 2006 WPRA World Champion Mary Burger, who returns to the WNFR after a six year absence. Burger set the record for regular season earnings this year with $190,977 and has a chance to break Lindsey Sears’ total season earnings record of $323,570.
Burger’s lead over Ganter is an impressive $75,000 but that amount is the equivalent of just three round wins in Las Vegas, meaning no lead is safe. Meanwhile, just over $37,000 separates Ganter from Moore in a tightly packed field.
The 2016 WNFR will be held at the Thomas & Mack Arena on the campus of UNLV, December 1-10, 2016.