By Jolee Jordan
Cheyenne, Wyoming — It all began about six months ago under the hot lights of Las Vegas. The beginning of another great rivalry. Think Ali-Frazier. Or Yankees-Red Sox. Or better yet, think Cervi-Peterson or Pozzi-Sears-Cervi.
This particular heavyweight battle is likely to rage for some time between two phenomenal equine athletes who share not only a tremendous talent and heart, but also a name: Sister.
The roan Sister—Rafter W Minnie Reba—won the average in Las Vegas at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) and earned a WPRA World Championship for her jockey Nellie Miller. The palomino Sister carried her jockey, Hailey Kinsel, to a new arena record and the WPRA Reserve World title.
The battle of the two Sisters took a short hiatus as the new season got underway with Kinsel earning some big wins through the winter while Miller rested up until the San Antonio Stock Show. While Kinsel picked up a huge win in the Alamo City and was ranked second, Miller was not inside the top 50.
But as with all great fighters, the counterpunch came soon enough as Miller and her Sister, the 2017 AQHA/WPRA Horse of the Year as well as WPRA Horse with the Most Heart, took RodeoHouston for $58,750. That jumped them from 51st to 3rd in the WPRA World standings while a second place finish for Kinsel moved her and the Scoti Flit Bar Rising Star Award-winning Sister to the top of the standings.
A win at the Clovis Rodeo, a stop on the Wrangler Tour, kept Kinsel ahead during a quieter spring run, though Miller moved to second in the standings, before she closed the gap with her own Wrangler Tour onslaught, winning the Reno Rodeo and Prescott Frontier Days as summer got underway.
Following the Fourth of July, the two ladies arrived at the Calgary Stampede just about $4,000 apart. Then Kinsel threw a big right hook with a win north of the border worth $121,000—$71,000 of which counted toward the standings. Suddenly it looked like a yellow Sister might just run away with the world title this time around.
Turns out the feisty little roan had something to say about that.
With little sleep following an all-night drive from the Championship Round in Calgary, Miller arrived at the legendary “Daddy of ‘em All” — Cheyenne Frontier Days. Running against more than 200 of the toughest horses in the WPRA, Miller took the first round win in the Monday morning slack on July 16, a win worth more than $6,600.
“This is the best I’ve ever done in Cheyenne,” Miller admitted in an on-line interview right after the win. “To have her do that here is really special for us. She worked really great and does good in these types of setups. She just really fired. She always turns no matter what so these big wide open arenas, she’ll always hunt those barrels.”
With a lightning fast time of 17.54 seconds, Miller would not run again until the final regular performance in Cheyenne to be held Saturday, July 28. She trekked back home to California, competing in the California Rodeo Salinas, where she won the second go round for another $2,300 before making her way back to the Cowboy State.
Meanwhile, in Cheyenne, the weather had become the biggest star. Two-time World Champion Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi rode her good mare Mona to the second round lead at 17.61 seconds—as well as the average lead—on Wednesday afternoon, just minutes before a huge hailstorm hit Frontier Park.
With half the arena underwater on Thursday, some horses had trouble keeping focus while a few—Sherry Cervi’s Arson and Shali Lord’s Can Man —were able to lay down round money winning runs and put themselves into contention for a berth into the Championship Sunday round.
Mother Nature was not content and dumped even more rain and hail on Friday, turning the huge Cheyenne arena into a virtual lake. With the format set up to run the fastest times from the opening round in the later performances, many of the top contenders fell out facing mostly water in which to run. Only Katelyn Scott, who had won second in the first go and traded to the Friday performance, was able to scamper through the water fast enough to get to Sunday.
With the water finally settling in, the Saturday competitors, including Miller, faced soupy conditions—a little splashing that some horses just flat didn’t like but ground conditions around the barrels that actually held very well.
In fact, three cowgirls ran into the second go money on Saturday—Stevi Hillman’s Truck raced to third in the go with a 17.66, Miller and Sister were solid as always at 17.76 for a split of fifth and Lisa Lockhart and the rock, Louie, at 17.87 for the tenth hole. Though she didn’t earn a round check, Jackie Ganter also navigated the mud successfully to make her way to the Finals.
With the sun shining early on Championship Sunday, July 29, the ground looked good and things seemed to be lining out for the competition at the 122nd edition of one of pro rodeo’s most prestigious events. However, as the time drew near for the barrel race, the rodeo went into an unprecedented weather delay as tornado warnings for Frontier Park caused officials to shut things down for twenty minutes after the single steer roping finished—in other words, right before the barrel race.
Those with long memories were brought back to another stormy day in Cheyenne, back in 1996, when the ProRodeo Hall of Fame team of Kristie Peterson and Bozo set an arena record that still stands, posting a 17.03 on Championship Sunday with tornado sirens blazing and hail falling from the sky. Would the same happen again?
As the barrel race resumed, the tornado threat had lightened but the rain began to fall heavily. Running in an order that was drawn randomly, each cowgirl took her shot around the pattern with reigning Cheyenne champion Hillman taking the round lead at 17.66 seconds. That put her into the lead with 53.26 seconds on three runs. Lockhart nearly chased her down in pursuit of her second CFD title, stopping the clock at 17.70 seconds which put her behind Hillman in the average by just two one-hundredths of a second.
Finally, it was Miller’s turn but the rain had turned to hail just as they introduced the reigning WPRA World Champion. With some time to spare thanks to her two outstanding long round runs, Miller and Sister battled through the weather, stopping the clock at 17.91 seconds. Though it wasn’t enough to earn a go round check, the time was just enough for Miller’s first CFR title at 53.21 seconds, an amazing finish to a fantastic race in Cheyenne.
After taking her victory lap, a rain and hail soaked, yet still smiling Miller took to the CFR stage to accept the many awards that come with a Cheyenne championship including a buckle and saddle.
“I’m so happy,” Miller gushed to the huge crowd. “It’s amazing. Being from California, I’m not used to tornado warnings, so I was a little nervous. I’m so glad it worked out and I love it here.”
She shared the now famous story of Sister, the half sister to her first WNFR mount Blue Duck, whose mother was Miller’s high school rodeo horses. They were all trained by her father, Sam Williams.
“Sister, we raised her from time she was a baby,” Miller said. “My dad trained her so we have a long history together. We have a whole family of horses related to her so it’s really just about family —my family and hers.”
Later, on social media, Miller posted more thoughts on her first win in Cheyenne, and brought up the terrible wildfires raging near her home in Northern California.
“Well, it’s never a dull moment at the Daddy of ‘em All! I can say it was a first for me and Sister to have to take cover for a tornado and run in a hail storm but boy it was worth it,” she wrote.
Showing her sense of humor, Miller included two hashtags in her post: #iwasscared and #sisterwasnt.
“What a rodeo the Cheyenne Frontier Days is, such an honor to take this win home,” she continued. “Now if only the rain would follow us to put those fires out!”
Fires near Redding, just north of Miller’s hometown of Cottonwood, have destroyed more than 700 structures and burned nearly 100,000 acres since breaking out last Monday. Five people, including two firefighters, have lost their lives.
Almost 40,000 people around Redding, home of the Wrangler Tour Stop, the Redding Rodeo each May, have been evacuated from their homes. Firefighters are working tirelessly against unfavorable weather conditions and have achieved just 5-percent containment as of Monday, July 30.
As Miller heads for California, with wildfires burning across the state, she has effectively stayed in the fight for the 2018 WPRA World title. A lead that was more than $70,000 was cut nearly in half thanks to $19,530 in earnings from the Daddy in Miller’s bank account.
She’s now won more than $141,000 for the season and is still within striking distance of the lead with two months of regular season, not to mention the WNFR, still to contest.
Miller was already among the leaders in the Wrangler Tour standings, as competitors chase a berth into the Wrangler Tour Finale at Puyallup, Washington in early September, and she held her position with her Cheyenne performance.
With her second place finish in Cheyenne, Hillman improved her position in the standings tremendously, moving from 15th to fifth in the World. Lockhart leapfrogged Taci Bettis into third while Pozzi Tonozzi continued her hot streak, moving to sixth from ninth.