By Jolee Lautaret-Jordan
Houston, Texas— Just moments after clinching an unprecedented third straight win at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, Utah barrel racer Nancy Hunter said what everyone was likely thinking.
"He's no longer going to be Fuzz," she said of her 15-year old sorrel gelding. "From now on, he's RodeoHouston."
The change makes perfect sense. Not since Charmayne James and the ProRodeo Hall of Fame horse Scamper earned 10 titles at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 11 years has a horse and rider combo so dominated this event. And James' titles came in the era before the event was a tournament, sudden death event.
"He runs good here, doesn't he?" she kidded rodeo announcer Boyd Polhamus.
Hunter rides Flit N Fizz, a son of the legendary Dr Nick Bar out of Sting It that her husband of four decades, Fred, took in from his breeders, Harry and Vivian Blackwell, to line out and sell. After being unable to find buyers, the Hunters bought the gelding; with Fred's training, he became a solid rodeo horse who had won multiple Wilderness Circuit Championships before the Hunters ever came to RodeoHouston.
Hunter calls the gelding Fuzz and he carried her to her first RodeoHouston® win back in 2013, the only year the rodeo has not been sanctioned by the WPRA. The duo battled through an injury and had to get to the Championships through the Wild Card to get the win.
A year later, with sanctioning agreements back in place, Hunter won again, coming from behind after tipping a barrel in the opening round of her Super Series. She again battled her way to the finals and beat a crowd of the best horses in the world for the win. It sent Hunter to her first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, where she finished a career-best ninth in the final WPRA World standings.
In 2015 Hunter marched quietly to the title . . . until the end.
Certainly not under the radar after two straight wins, Hunter competed in Super Series IV, one of the toughest sets at the rodeo with three of the four Semi-Finalists advancing all the way to the final Saturday, and she finished third behind 2014 Calgary Stampede Champ Kaley Bass and former Wrangler NFR average winner Brenda Mays.
As they did a year ago, Fuzz and Hunter got faster when they needed to the most. Her run of 14.41 in the first Semi-Final won the round, her first round win of the 2015 rodeo.
Running on the final Saturday, Fuzz really went to work. Drawing right in the middle of the Championship Round at fifth, Hunter posted a smoking fast 14.14 second run despite a strange hang-up behind the first barrel. It was the fourth best time of the rodeo but the very best of the Championship Round.
Behind Hunter, Bass tied with the No. 1 cowgirl in the 2015 WPRA World standings, Sarah Rose McDonald, at 14.25 seconds while 2014 WPRA Reserve World Champion Lisa Lockhart was just two one hundredths behind at 14.27 to round out the field for the Shoot Out Round.
With just under an hour to catch their breath, and calm their nerves, the four cowgirls returned for the Shoot Out round and the chance at the huge $50,000 purse to the winner.
Hunter was the only cowgirl in the field who knew what it was like to win RodeoHouston but Lockhart had been twice on several occasions in the past including 2014. Bass proved that the pressure of the big moment doesn't bother her either after she won the Calgary Stampede and $100,000 on the final day of that rodeo last July. Meanwhile, McDonald did not even own her WPRA card at this time last season and was competing in her first RodeoHouston but had shown incredible poise in finishing no worse than third at two of the winter's biggest rodeos, Fort Worth and San Antonio.
As the fastest qualifier, Hunter got to set the benchmark for the rest of the field in the final run. With her husband Fred riding her to the gate as always, Hunter and Fuzz blasted into NRG Stadium, eating up the turns and flying back to the gate.
When the scoreboard flashed her time—13.96 seconds—the rest of the field surely knew it would take a gargantuan effort to stop the Hunter-Fuzz juggernaut. The time is just four one-hundredths off the arena record in Houston, set in 2012 by Carlee Pierce on Rare Dillion, and the first sub-fourteen run since that time.
While the three to follow all put in beautiful, fast runs, no one could top the Queen of Houston. Lockhart took runner-up honors for the second year with her 14.13, a gorgeous run aboard Louie where she rubbed every barrel in search of every hundredth of a second she could find.
Bass' 14.15 was third while McDonald clocked 14.16, an impressive and tight barrel race to the end.
Nancy Hunter spoke to RodeoHouston announcer Boyd Polhamus on the arena floor at NRG Stadium minutes after winning her third consecutive barrel racing title in Houston. Photo courtesy RodeoHouston.
"I ran a .23 [in the Super Series] and I won it with a .25 last year," said Hunter. "But I've never run a 13.96 before."
Hunter came to Houston unranked in the WPRA World standings, which will change in a big way after her earnings of $55,900 are added to the count. In fact, it's been a rough winter for Hunter, who hadn't entered many rodeos and was in a very scary wreck prior to her competition at RFD-TV's The American a couple weeks back.
"We got in a wreck on the way down here and it's just been total chaos until we got to Houston," Hunter told the crowd following her win. She thanked RodeoHouston for their world famous hospitality. "Once we got here, everything was fine."
It has become something of a running joke to ask Hunter what she does with the money, an incredible $163,900 in three years. Calling herself everything from the "budget queen from hell" to a miser, Hunter took her grandkids to Disneyland with the first $50,000 and notoriously bought Fred a wheelbarrow but has tucked most of the money safely away in savings.
"I'm not going to be called a cheapskate anymore," she laughed. "I bought Fred a new tractor."
When prompted by announcers whether Fred got the tractor and she got the horse, Hunter replied, "well, the tractor's in my name so I guess I get them both!"
Hard to believe that Hunter thought the gelding's career was winding down three years ago with his advancement into his teens. At the ripe, young age of 15, Fuzz has given Hunter a huge opportunity to get back to the Wrangler NFR for the second straight year with the win.
Lockhart finished with earnings of $28,800. Bass picked up $18,600 and McDonald added $11,300 to her impressive 2015 total. McDonald will likely hang on to her standings lead with better than $56,000 won this season while Hunter should debut at second.
For more information and complete brackets, visit www.rodeohouston.com.
Shoot Out Qualifiers
Name (Super Series) / Horse / Championship Time
Nancy Hunter (IV) / Flit N Fizz / 14.14
Kaley Bass (IV) / Wonders Cowboy Dan / 14.25
Sarah Rose McDonald (II) / Fame Fling N Bling / 14.25
Lisa Lockhart (V) / An Okie with Cash / 14.27
Other Finalists (Each earned $1,250 in final round) / Total Earnings
Fallon Taylor (V) / Flos Heiress / 14.37 / $6,950
Brenda Mays (IV) / Judge My Fame / 14.44 / $6,250
Britany Diaz (I) / Dasher Dude / 14.44 / $11,150
Callie Duperier (III) / Rare Dillion / 14.63 / $9,100
Laura Kennedy (I) / Hopes Money Boy / 14.63/ $3,350
Sammi Bessert (II) / Terrible Tommy Twist / 14.72 / $5,350
Shoot Out Round
Name / Shout Out Time / Shout Out Money / Total Money
Hunter / 13.96 / $50,000 / $55,900
Lockhart / 14.13 / $20,000 / $28,800
Bass / 14.15 / $10,000 / $18,600
McDonald / 14.16 / $5,500 / $11,300