By Jolee Jordan
Colorado Springs, Colorado — As the sun set on Sunday night September 30, there was nothing more to do for pro rodeo’s road warriors.
No more hours behind the wheel, no more figuring how to enter, no more cussing the weather and traffic, no more saddling up, no more fast food stopovers in the middle of the night.
And for those chasing a berth into the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, there are no more chances . . . the regular season is done and only those inside the top 15 of the WPRA World standings are invited to play in Vegas come December.
As the season has raced to its conclusion, the battle for those final spots in the WPRA’s barrel race has been simply marvelous as nearly ten cowgirls fought for the final five positions into the Wrangler NFR. The performances have been gutsy, by both the jockeys and the horses.
Over the last month and a half of the season, each lady has stepped up to the plate with a big performance but during the final weekend only one word came to mind: clutch.
Nearly every cowgirl from eleventh to nineteenth brought their best to the season’s final rodeos and while not all of them will get to compete at the Wrangler NFR, they all kept the fans riveted with the chase.
Three cowgirls earned more than $4,000 on the final weekend and two will make their first appearances in Las Vegas thanks to their big wins.
Tracy Nowlin won the huge Ellensburg Rodeo over Labor Day to bounce back into the top 15 after sliding to 17th. She sealed her fate with two huge runs on the final weekend, winning Omaha and placing fifth in Kansas City. Riding her great mare Dolly Jo, she added a little check in Stephenville to earn $4,129 for the weekend. She finished the season with $90,496 and will go to her first Wrangler NFR ranked 12th in the WPRA World standings.
“I truly want to thank everyone for the messages, texts and calls. I am having a hard time getting back to everyone, but I am trying!” Nowlin posted to Facebook on Sunday, thanking her Mom and son as well as all her supporters. “I am still in shock, and mentally and physically exhausted. Thank you to my God and Savior Jesus Christ for placing Dolly Jo with me and keeping us going. My Grandma told me before she passed that I didn’t have to sell my horse- how could she have known what eventually would happen?”
“Thank you to everyone rooting for me and Dolly Jo. Thank you for your constant encouragement, support, and prayers. This is my dream come true. “
Jessie Telford split her final weekend between two horses and two regions of the country. She began the weekend in Omaha and Kansas City aboard the mare Shu Fire. She left winning checks at both before trying to catch a flight from Omaha to Utah on Friday afternoon. The flight was canceled but Telford scrambled, finding a generous friend with an airplane and rounded up more bubble cowboys in the airport to split the cost of a private plane.
Though they arrived after the rodeo had begun, Telford had time to jump aboard her gelding Cool Whip and race to second in the rodeo in Mona, Utah. After an all-night drive with fellow bubble competitor Blake Knowles, Telford arrived for two rodeos in California on Saturday afternoon. She left winning second at Poway after a matinee perf but refused to accept congratulations on Saturday night, not wanting to celebrate until it was official. In the meantime, she threw down a first place run in San Bernardino.
All those positions would hold up and Telford banked $4,777 with five checks earned including $620 won aboard Shu Fire on the eastern run. She punched her ticket to Vegas with $88,342, enough to jump from 15th to 14th on the final weekend.
Though her 2018 story will not end at the Wrangler NFR like Nowlin and Telford, Jessi Fish was on fire on the final weekend. She too split her time between the two runs and she earned five checks in six rodeos. Fish earned $4,009 for checks won in Omaha, Kansas City, New Braunfels, Stephenville and Poway. She finished up her season ranked 18th with $79,620. Ironically, that mark is nearly $600 above the previous record for earnings to qualify for the Wrangler NFR set back in 2016.
Amberleigh Moore worked her way off the bubble in the last two weekends and earned another $1,254 in Kansas City to polish off her third straight Wrangler NFR qualification. Though she was scheduled to head south again to Texas, Moore and her mare Paige knew their position was secure so they headed home from Omaha. Moore is ranked 13th with $89,127.
Exactly twelve months ago, veteran barrel racer and veterinarian Kelly Bruner was not planning on a race to the finish with a berth to the Wrangler NFR on the line during September’s final days. But within a few weeks, Bruner won the WPRA World Finals, securing a spot in RodeoHouston. She paired her great October with a strong winter including a top ten finish in Houston which qualified her for Calgary. Though she looked like a lock for the Wrangler NFR following the July Calgary Stampede, Bruner found herself in need of extra dollars in the final weeks of the season.
She delivered big when she had to . . . Bruner collected the win in Apache (OK) and second in Kansas City for final weekend earnings of $2,976. She’ll run in her first Wrangler NFR as the 11th ranked cowgirl after winning $90,515 this season.
“We ended on a high note. Won Apache an arena that Suzy loves,” Bruner posted simply on social media, referring to her good gelding and partner for most of her earnings.
Though they didn’t burst the bubble this time, Teri Bangart and Kellie Collier still made good showings in the waning days. Collier earned $770 in Stephenville before deciding the math was not in her favor and calling it a year. She finished 19th with $78,264 won.
Bangart pulled in $3,774 in the final days, capped with a win at Stephenville. She landed 17th in the final standings with $82,060.
Though she did not pick up a check on the final weekend while riding a borrowed mount, reigning Canadian champion Carman Pozzobon’s season earnings of $86,947 proved sufficient to earn her first trip to the Wrangler NFR in the 15th position, setting a new record for earnings to qualify. She finished $3,936 ahead of Carley Richardson.
With the bubble breakers—Bruner, Nowlin, Moore, Telford and Pozzobon—now determined, the field for the 2018 Wrangler NFR is finally set.
Hailey Kinsel and Nellie Miller will carry their battle back into the Thomas & Mack and fans are hoping for the same magic they brought in 2017. Kinsel, in her first appearance, electrified the crowd with her arena record setting 13.11 in Round Three, all part of a record setting $189,385 performance.
Miller meanwhile marched to the average title in a new record time of 137.32 seconds in ten runs, earning $177,962 during her second Wrangler NFR to clinch the WPRA World Championship by just over $20,400.
Kinsel and Miller and their two Sisters have dominated 2018, winning the season’s biggest rodeos. Kinsel’s ended the season with $192,834. Miller trails Kinsel by $46,008. With go rounds worth more than $26,000, the race is most definitely on.
Lurking behind the leaders are two of the WPRA’s winningest cowgirls, Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi and Lisa Lockhart. Both are making their 12th Wrangler NFR appearances, tying Sherry Johnson, Kay Blandford, and Mildred Farris for second most in history behind Charmayne James and Sherry Cervi who have 19 each.
Pozzi Tonozzi and Lockhart have both won two Wrangler NFR average titles and sit third and second, respectively on the WPRA’s career earnings list. Both have more than $2 million. Lockhart has won more than $1 million at the Wrangler NFR alone, bolstered by 14 go round wins.
Pozzi Tonozzi rode a big summer wave thanks to the return of her 2011 AQHA/WPRA Horse of the Year, Yeah Hes Firen, better known as Duke. Duke joined Pozzi Tonozzi’s stable of other tough horses to carry the two-time World Champion to third in the standings with $137,267, well within striking distance of a third title.
Lockhart rode her two buckskin phenoms, Louie and Rosa, to fourth in the standings with $123,515.
Stevi Hillman makes her third straight appearance in Las Vegas. Though Cuatro Fame has played a big role in her first two qualifications, he nearly carried the entire load in 2018. Hillman caught fire with a big win in Ponoka over the Fourth of July and locked up her Wrangler NFR berth by the end of August after picking up a repeat win in Caldwell. She goes to Vegas ranked fifth with $110,232.
2017 Rookie of the Year Taci Bettis returns for her second Wrangler NFR trip but this time around she’s racing against her mentor and hauling partner, Tammy Fischer. Bettis won the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo (RNCFR) back in April, just one piece in her big winter run. She was set for the Wrangler NFR early in the year and finished sixth with $103,692.
Fischer came close to a seventh Wrangler NFR a year ago but used a huge Fourth of July, worth $29,133, along with a clutch performance at the Justin Playoffs in Puyallup (WA) in early September to earn a spot this year. She goes in ranked tenth with earnings of $91,277.
A pair of Wrangler NFR rookies come to Vegas in seventh and eighth. Kylie Weast is a legacy cowgirl at the Wrangler NFR: her grandmother, Florence Youree, competed in the NFR five times, mother Renee Ward qualified in 1985 and older sister Janae Ward-Massey went three times, winning the average and the WPRA World title in 2003.
Weast has been solid all season with her young superstar mare Reddy, beginning at the WPRA World Finals in September 2017.
Jessica Routier will take her own youngster, the good mare Missy, to Vegas after a journey that began in early October at the Ram Badlands Circuit Finals Rodeo. Routier claimed the Badlands Championship, earning a spot at the RNCFR where she finished second behind Bettis. That performance put Routier into Calgary where she won third and cinched her first trip to Wrangler NFR. She won $98,704 this season and is ranked eighth.
Rounding out the field is Ivy Conrado, who makes her third straight Wrangler NFR. Conrado relied heavily on J-Lo, the palomino mare who helped her win a round at the 2017 Wrangler NFR as well as second in the average. She won $98,385 to finish ninth in the 2018 WPRA World standings.
Fabulous Finish in Rookie Race
For much of the 2018 season, the race for the Rookie of the Year title was a two-woman race between KL Spratt and Leia Pluemmer. The cowgirls bounced back and forth in the lead for months but a late season sprint by Texas cowgirl Jimmie Smith put her in the hunt as August came to a close.
Smith had won only about $7,700 at the end of July but August proved to be her month. Riding her mare Lena, she made the finals at Kennewick and Ellensburg, the last two stops on the Wrangler Pro Tour. Points won there put her into the Justin Finale in Puyallup.
That’s where she blew the doors off the race. Trailing Pluemmer by $4,000 as the weekend began, Smith fired off a huge win against much more seasoned veterans, winning more than $21,000 as the champion of the Finale.
Since then, in the final two weeks of the year, Smith cemented the title with more than $11,000 in earnings as she won Texarkana and Abilene, finished second at Apache and Stephenville and third in Amarillo.
Smith finished the season ranked 24th in the World standings with $61,199 while clinching the Rookie title by more than $21,000.
The 2018 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo begins at the Thomas & Mack on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on December 6, continuing for 10 days and paying out over $1 million to the 15 WPRA barrel racers.
Courtesy of WPRA