By Jolee Lautaret-Jordan
Every penny counts. Every run matters. Every turn must be tight.
That's what's on the minds of WPRA barrel racers across the country for the next five weeks as the regular season slams to its conclusion on September 30. With only 15 positions available to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, competitors will be scrapping for every dollar at remaining stops on the schedule.
The race inside the race this year is the chase for the title of WPRA Rookie of the Year.
The field has essentially been narrowed to four. It's quite compelling with a veteran barrel racer and trainer riding for a lost daughter and a WPRA Junior World Champion. There is a college graduate looking for a little piece of history and a young gun making a big splash with a "back-up" horse.
The lead has changed nearly every week this summer with each contender making her run and winning rodeos.
And it's a very real possibility that the race won't be decided at the end of the regular season as all four are within striking distance of the Wrangler NFR. If more than one lady makes it to Vegas, the race will continue through 10 rounds there for the first time since 1997.
As of August 24, the lead is in the hands of Vickie Carter. Unlike her closest competitors, Carter is a veteran barrel racer, having trained horses for many years, but always selling her good horses before she had a chance to hit the pro rodeo trail.
Her run at the 2015 rookie title is a tale of great emotion. Her equine partner, Blazin ta Fame, aka Blaze Man, belongs to Rachel Hendrix. Hendrix was an incredible talent, just about to embark on her own pro rodeo career, when she died of carbon monoxide poisoning in January 2014 at the age of 18.
Carter had known Rachel and her family since the young girl was competing in junior rodeos alongside Carter's son. She had been one of Rachel's mentors in the barrel racing arena. Rachel's mother, Annette, called Carter, "Rachel's barrel racing mom" and Carter called her, "half my daughter."
Because a trip to the Wrangler NFR was always one of Rachel's goals, Annette and Rachel's father, Clay, asked Carter to take Blaze Man and make a run for the Finals.
"If she can't get there, at least maybe her horse can," said Annette of the 10-year old gelded son of Blazin Jetolena out of the Dash ta Fame mare, Princess Dasher.
Carter always wears a shirt emblazoned with the words, "Ridin for Rach" and speaks often of the feeling that Rachel is riding with her on this journey. She has quite a following through Hendrix's Facebook page, bringing everyone who loved the young cowgirl taken too soon along for the ride.
She notes that wins early in the season at Yuma and Fort Mohave (Ariz.) were turning points for her.
"They kinda got me kick started," she says. "I remember traveling to Yuma and Kathy Millhiser was with me. She looked up the standings and said I was 50th. I was shocked cause two weeks earlier I was 23rd."
"I told her that wasn't where I wanted to be and I had better get in gear!" she laughs. "I've been doing pretty good since."
In fact, Carter seems to be picking up steam the longer the season runs. In recent weeks she won Great Falls (Mont.) and Jerome (Idaho), taking second at Billings (Mont.) and Omak (Wash.).
Carter took the lead in the rookie standings over the weekend on the wings of two rodeo wins at Moses Lake (Wash.) and Burley (Idaho). At the Cassia County Fair and Rodeo in Burley, she clocked in at 16.92 seconds, just five one hundredths off the arena record that she herself set a year ago as she and Blaze Man got their feet wet in rodeo and filled her permit.
Carter also made her first appearance inside the top 15 following her $4,600 weekend, coming into the week ranked 13th. The Richfield, Utah cowgirl has won $54,898 in 2015.
PHOTO BY: Peggy Gander
A week ago the lead was in the hands of 2014 WPRA Junior World Champion Barrel Racer Jackie Ganter of Abilene, Texas. Despite winning about $1,500 at Kalispell (Mont.) and Moses Lake (Wash.), Ganter slipped to second in the rookie race over the weekend with just about $1,663 separating her from Carter.
Starting her equine career in English riding, Ganter came to barrel racing—her mother Angela's passion—around the age of 12. Since changing to the speed event, she has garnered major wins in divisional races and with aged horses in the futurities and derbies. She just graduated high school back in December.
Ganter has a trailer full of talented horses to call upon in her campaign this season including Blazin Baby J, a six year old son of Dash ta Fame out of Medley A Blazin, by Chicks A Blazin, who helped her to one of her biggest wins this season, the title at the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour stop in Logandale, Nev. Ganter has also won big money on another Dash ta Fame, Cartels Fame, who is out of the Corona Cartel mare Corona Koolaid.
She may also call upon Roxy Dual or Guys French Jet, saying the decision is based upon which horse she thinks is most suited to each rodeo.
Ganter says her favorite memory of her rookie season is a big win at the Wainwright Stampede in Canada.
"The whole month in Canada . . . my mom and I got to do and see things we had never done in the past," she says. "It was an awesome experience."
Ganter is currently ranked 15th in the WPRA World standings. If she could hang on to her spot, she will make history, along with Callie duPerier, as the first WPRA Junior World Champs to go on to the Wrangler NFR.
"I try not to look at the standings but I fail at that usually," she admits. "At the beginning of the year, I really let it get to my head, but now I have learned to just make my run and worry about it later."
Lurking close behind Carter and Ganter are Katelyn McLeod and Paige Willis.
PHOTO BY: Kirt Steinke
McLeod has watched her mother, Michele, compete at the last two Wrangler NFR's and started her rookie season off with a bang in the fall, collecting about $10,000 aboard Kellies Chick, aka Skye, the same mare that would then carry her mother to the fastest time of the 2014 Wrangler NFR.
After graduating from Southwestern Oklahoma State University in the spring, McLeod has hit the road with her mother, earning more big wins with Skye, including firsts in Vernal (Utah), Nampa (Idaho), and Grace (Idaho) to take her turn at the top of the rookie standings.
Now ranked 20th—and third in the rookie standings—McLeod has been aboard Apt to be Special, aka Toby, for several weeks as Skye has gone back under the saddle of her mom. Toby is nine years old and new to the rodeo trail but carried McLeod to several checks including placings at Kalispell and Moses Lake over the weekend.
"We got him to help Skye going in the arena and Mom ran him at Spanish Fork and Rock Springs [before I started on him]," says McLeod, adding there's a little learning curve to manage. "He's holding his own."
The Whitesboro, Texas cowgirl is hoping to make the finals alongside her Mom, making them just the second mother-daughter duo to accomplish the feat in the same year following Cindy (Witcher) Smith and Marion Gramith in 1976.
"We know they're there," McLeod laughs of the standings and the temptation to study them as mom Michele is also fighting for a Wrangler NFR position (she's 11th). "But we also know how close it is from 10th down to 23rd or so and we know it's anybody's game."
"Mom taught me, just keep grabbing checks. You don't have to psych yourself out, thinking you have to win because you're falling behind."
"You have one good week and you can push yourself back up."
McLeod has won $44,585 this year already and says it would be awesome to have her mom be back in Vegas because the family had so much fun the last two years.
PHOTO BY: Jim Fain
Willis started her season aboard the tough mare, Miss Gay Bar Abby, picking up checks across Texas and the Southeastern Circuit where she makes her home in Goshen, Ala. She left for the summer run with hopes of testing the waters and at least earning enough to be qualified for the big winter rodeos.
Things quickly turned on the cowgirl, however, as Abby got injured a week before the Fourth of July. Willis had Goodfrenchmanfriday, aka Friday, in the trailer to continue the process of seasoning she had begun earlier in the season.
Not knowing what to expect, Willis and Friday had a blisteringly great Fourth, winning $11,849 to rocket to the top of the rookie standings at the time.
"When he decided to hook-up like he did, it was just unbelievable," says Willis of the eight year old by BHR Frenchies Socks out of Joyces Gal.
Now ranked 21st in the WPRA World standings, Willis has won $43,845, just a smidge over $11,000 behind Carter.
"In the beginning, I looked a lot," she says of the standings-watch. "Now, I'd rather not know, just go on to the next one and do our best."
Willis is leading the WPRA Tour standings, meaning she has a good shot to get into limited entry rodeos next season including Calgary.
"We didn't even realize what that meant," she notes, "until we were looking at how you get into Calgary. That would be nice."
In fact, the rookies are all faring well in the WPRA's other standings with Carter ranked second on the WPRA Tour and leading the Wilderness Circuit, Ganter sitting fifth in Texas and ninth in the All American ProRodeo Series standings and McLeod currently sixth in Texas and 16th in the All American. Willis is third in her circuit and second in the All American.
The crunch is on for the next 37 days and all four ladies are planning on staying on the road hard until the season ends. All four are looking at rodeos in the Northwest including Kennewick, Bremerton, Couer d'Alene, Ellensburg, Walla Walla, Filer, Lewiston and others.
Each cowgirl is also no doubt hoping to earn a berth at the $20,500 added Justin Boots Championships held in conjunction with the Ak-sar-ben Rodeo in Omaha, Neb.; the rodeo is open to the top 24 in the WPRA World standings and is held on the final weekend of the regular season.
Also on the radar is the famous Pendleton Round-Up, though Willis said she hedged her bets and will enter Texas rodeos going on the same week.
"In case I chicken out," she laughed.
Ganter, meanwhile, listed Pendleton, and its huge 29 second pattern, as one she was most looking forward to running.
"I've always dreamed of running there. I have a lot of friends who say it's a lot of fun so I can't wait to run there."
McLeod noted her plans are up in the air but could include a run at Pendleton before returning home to Texas. Things are also more complicated for McLeod because she is traveling with her mom, who is qualified to compete in the remaining Wrangler Champions Challenge events.
"We have to go to those for mom but she only has 21 more rodeos and I have quite a few more left [WPRA barrel racers are limited to counting earnings from 100 rodeos only]," McLeod says. She didn't rule out the possibility of getting back on Skye before season's end as well.
"She's been just awesome for us," said McLeod of the daughter of Darkelly out of The Skye Chick. "I won about $10,000 last fall on her and then Mom got on her this spring and won the majority of her money on her."
"She's such an incredible mare."
Willis and Ganter have just under 20 rodeos left each while Carter and McLeod have a few more but each cowgirl will be burning up the fuel to get to as many as possible in the next few weeks and will rely heavily upon the help they are each getting.
"Julianne Richens has been traveling with me and Janie Freed will be coming this week," says Carter.
Willis noted her friend Brittany is helping with driving. "I would not have made it this far without help."
"After this week it will be busy and a lot of driving," says Ganter. "My mom has driven me and helped me all year so she will be behind the wheel. Alan and Teri Dufur will help if I need to be flown between rodeos."
Like Ganter, McLeod has her mom on the road with her to help out and she points out the significance of a good support system at home as well.
"We have a really supportive family with my dad and sisters," she says. "I have an aunt that lives in Boise and she's been cooking for us while we're here (in Caldwell). Ron and Betty Ralls help us out with our riding, offering tips to help us stay on track. Everybody's always encouraging and that means so much... it gets tough out here."
Whether the drama ends September 30 or runs right through the end of the Wrangler NFR on December 12, at least one competitor says she's enjoyed the ride.
"I loved running at the rodeos you hear about like Reno, Greeley—that was awesome. Winning Nampa was unimaginable. Running at those rodeos can't be explained, it has to be felt."
"Win or lose, I've had a great rookie year," says McLeod. "The experiences I've had will help out for years to come."