By Jolee Lautaret-Jordan
Omaha, Nebraska—There will surely be computers heating up at the auditor's office of the Women's Pro Rodeo Association (WPRA) following a wild finish to the 2015 season on September 27.
With just one weekend left, a handful of ladies still legitimately had a chance to punch their tickets to the $10 million Wrangler National Finals Rodeo to be held in December in Las Vegas. From 13th ranked Vickie Carter down to 20th ranked Kimmie Wall there was less than $8,000 with veterans and new comers alike chasing their Wrangler NFR dreams.
All eyes were on the Justin Boots Championships (JBC) in Omaha, Neb., presented by the Ak-sar-ben Rodeo committee. The top 24 competitors in the WPRA World standings from August 27 were invited to compete. Twelve competed on each night of the JBC, September 24-25, with the four fastest coming back for a short round run following the long go on Friday night.
With her back pushed way against the wall ranked 17th, Jana Bean laid down the gauntlet for the rest of the field on opening night of the rodeo, posting the fastest time of 14.93 seconds. Sarah Rose McDonald, ranked third in the standings, was second at 14.95 seconds.
On Friday night, it was 2012 WPRA World Champ Mary Walker with the night's quickest run in the long go, a 14.96. Running near the end of the draw was Wyoming cowgirl Cassidy Kruse, the champion just two weeks back at the Justin Boots Playoffs in Puyallup, Wash. Kruse and her gelding J.J. slid into the short go with the fourth sub-fifteen second run of the rodeo, a 14.97.
Unlike Puyallup, where the final round qualifiers competed in one go on the final day of the rodeo, Kruse and Walker came right back within an hour of their long go runs, joined by Bean and McDonald, for the race for the JBC title. But just like she did in Washington, Kruse and J.J. blistered through the pattern on the final run, winning the short go with the fastest run of the weekend at 14.82 seconds.
While Puyallup was based on the two-run average, Omaha was a sudden death race for the title but the outcome was exactly the same: championship to Wyoming, another feather for Kruse as she heads for her first trip to Las Vegas.
"As I am getting home for the first time again in two months, I can't put into words what it feels like to be back! For 2015 we set some big goals for ourselves and accomplished a dream that's now reality," Kruse posted to Facebook on Sunday. "I have made my very first NFR!"
Kruse won $4,854 in Omaha to finish the year ranked 8th in the world with $81,346.
On the other side of the top 15 battle, Bean gave herself a chance, winning second in the short go with a run of 14.92, one one-hundredth faster than her first run. She banked $6,015 in Omaha, an event-best.
The final night of rodeo action in Omaha was the finale of the Wrangler Champions Challenge (WCC). WPRA world leader Callie duPerier book-ended her fairy tale season with another WCC win. She kicked off her 2015 campaign with a win at the year's first WCC in Kissimmee, Fla., last October. In Omaha, she stopped the clock at 14.93 seconds to hold off a tough challenge from Taylor Jacob (14.96), Sarah Rose McDonald (15.03) and Michele McLeod (15.05).
It was duPerier's third win on the WCC this season and second consecutive after she also won in Pueblo early in September. She won an event-best $30,820 at WCC events in 2015 to push her season earnings over $165,000 as she goes to her first Wrangler NFR ranked No. 1.
McLeod helped solidify her third trip to Las Vegas with the clutch run in Omaha. She has won better than $15,000 at WCC events this year.
With no bubble contestants entered at the WCC, the chase for the final positions into the Wrangler NFR came down to rodeos elsewhere such as the American Royal in Kansas City, the Cowboy Capital of the World Rodeo in Stephenville (TX), and the Amarillo (TX) Tri-State Fair and Rodeo.
In the chase were Carter, Arizona's Jill Welsh, former Wrangler NFR qualifier Layna Kight, New Mexico cowgirl Meghan Johnson, five-time WNFR qualifier Deb Guelly and Bean with an outside chance given to Carmel Wright, Kimmie Wall, Alexa Lake and Shelby Herrmann.
While Bean won the most in Omaha, both Guelly and Kight picked up checks in the long round. Bean won more at Stephenville and Amarillo, while Guelly won Amarillo and placed third at both Stephenville and Kansas City.
With a little breathing room over the field, Carter's second place finish in Kansas City and fifth in Stephenville—with a truck breakdown and rescue in between—was enough to keep her head above the fray and leave her 13th in the standings. She will battle Jackie Ganter, ranked 12th, for the rookie title through the Wrangler NFR as both cowgirls have qualified to pro rodeo's season ending championship.
Kight picked up another check in Kansas City while Welsh rode a borrowed mount for Omaha. Both she and Johnson faced injuries to their number one horses in the final month of the season, making their runs for first time trips to the Wrangler NFR that much more difficult.
Long shots Wright and Wall gave it a valiant effort, placing several times, but fell a little short. For Wall, who won Pendleton (OR) and Kansas City in the final two weeks of the season, it was her second straight top 20 finish in the standings in two seasons as a pro finishing the year ranked 19th.
With the dust beginning to settle, Bean won $7,367 in the final weekend while Guelly collected $7,242. Both capped off incredible Septembers: Bean and her mount Hammer, Ima Royal Design, won $22,883 in the final month of the season while Guelly and Commander, Royal Star Commander, banked $17,126.
Whether it was the "royal" influence or the veteran status of the two former Wrangler NFR qualifiers, both Bean and Guelly earned another trip to Vegas, the second for Bean and sixth for Guelly. Bean ended 14th and Guelly 15th, about $500 ahead of Welsh. Of course, the auditor's will have to verify in the coming weeks.
"I believed if it's meant to be, I would be there," said Guelly, who started the season on young and borrowed horses before earning the mount on Ruth and Jim Haislip's Commander in the spring. "I just kept believing."
For Bean it was the second straight year of last minute drama. A year ago, her good horses were injured and she was clinging to the 15th spot as the season closed.
In 2015 it was Bean stalking the field.
"I think last year was harder because my horse was crippled and I didn't have a chance to defend myself," laughs Bean. "I was waiting to see what everyone else was doing!"
The outcome was the same, another trip to Vegas with season earnings over $60,000.
"God is good!" Bean said. "Hammer was a rock star for me."
For more information on the final WPRA World standings, stay tuned to www.wpra.com. For more information on the Justin Boots Championships and Wrangler Champions Challenge, visit www.prorodeo.com.