By Jolee Jordan
Reno, Nevada — Every year the Reno Rodeo seems to encompass Father’s Day and there are always plenty of father-son stories to celebrate in professional rodeo. But the 2017 edition of the Wildest, Richest Rodeo in the West produced a different twist on the tale, not a father-son story but rather a father-daughter story.
Northern California cowgirl Nellie (Williams) Miller grew up in the sport, traveling around to watch her father Sam compete and jumping into the sport herself at 12 years of age. She made her first trip to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) in 2010 aboard Rebas Smokey Joe, aka Blue Duck, a horse her dad trained.
After taking time off to start her own family—she has two daughters with husband James—Miller hit the ProRodeo scene again, riding another home-grown, Sam Williams trained roan horse, this one named Rafter W Minnie Reba and called Sister because she is a half-sister to Blue Duck.
Already ranked sixth in the WPRA World standings by the time the 2017 Reno Rodeo rolled around, Miller brought Sister to the party after the mare had taken several weeks rest coming into the big summer run, annually kicked off at Reno.
Miller and Sister made a pair of super fast runs in the preliminary competition, winning the first go and placing fourth in round two to enter the Saturday finals ranked second in the average behind Sydni Blanchard but as the high money winner in the barrels to that point.
The Reno Rodeo is two preliminary rounds for the 96 WPRA barrel racers entered, with each set of ladies competing twice in one day, once in the morning slack and again in the evening performance. After the final group competed on Friday, the field of 12 based on the two-run average time was set for the finals with 2012 WPRA World Champ Mary Walker and two-time WNFR qualifier Carley Richardson making their way into the finals on the final day of preliminary competition.
The Championship Finals field included a number of bubble barrel racers, ladies just outside the top 15 in the WPRA World standings. As only the 15 high money winners earn a spot at the WNFR each year, each lady was hoping to gather momentum in Reno toward a hot Fourth of July to propel them to Vegas.
Blanchard came to Reno ranked 15th with Richardson 16th and Cayla Small 17th. Also in the mix were the WPRA’s leading rookie, Taci Bettis, and past WNFR qualifiers Taylor Jacob and Jane Melby as well as the WPRA’s number two cowgirl Kathy Grimes.
Because all short rounds are drawn for positions, Bettis ran first after coming back in the middle of the pack. Showing no signs of rookie jitters running in such a huge event, Bettis and her horse Smash set the pace at what proved to be an unbeatable 16.91 seconds, the fastest run of the rodeo.
Megan McLeod Sprague took advantage of a spot in the finals thanks to a last minute replacement for another cowgirl unable to return to Reno, posting a fabulous 17.17 as the second runner in the finals.
Richardson and her horse Radio were next in the draw. True to form, Radio has already heated up as the summer temps have and the solid gray posted a 17.46 to keep Richardson solid in the average.
Miller was fourth to run and Sister was ready for the course inside the huge Reno Livestock Events Center outdoor arena. With a packed house screaming, the pair stopped the clock at 16.98 seconds, taking over the lead in the average with just the third sub-seventeen run of the week.
Riding a back-up horse, Jacob was next and kept clean to stay in the average with a 17.64 while Texas Circuit champ Kelly Tovar ran into equipment troubles that put her run long aboard the outstanding young horse Bakken.
The lone WPRA World Champ in the field, Walker, was next to run on Latte but penalties took her out of the average. California cowgirl Rachel Dice competed next, with her great mare Katie packing two around the Reno arena: Dice and her husband John will welcome their first child in the fall. Dice ran a 17.51 to sit in the middle of the average money.
Grimes has been super solid all season, winning reserve titles at many of the winter’s biggest events. In Reno, she rode her sorrel mare Ruby but a costly tipped barrel took her from a share of third to ninth.
While it may have been just after Father’s Day, there was also a mother-daughter duo competing in the short round and as fate had it, Jane Melby and Cayla (Melby) Small drew back-to-back. Both cowgirls advanced to the finals riding the super fast mare Perks Pazazz in their preliminary competition; there was no arm wrestling to see who would ride the mare in the finals, however, with Melby saying it was more important for Small to win than it was for her.
Of course, Melby came riding hard for the win herself aboard Brookstone Jo, the same horse she ran in the Reno short round a year ago. Unfortunately, Melby tipped a can, incurring the five second penalty that goes with it. But Small made the most of her opportunity, stopping the clock at 17.40 seconds despite giving up some space around the first barrel.
The race for the coveted silver spurs given annually to the Reno Champ came down to the final barrel racer of the night, the leader coming into the finals, New Mexico cowgirl Sydni Blanchard. Blanchard rode her speedy sorrel mare, Famous Heartbreaker, zipping around the first with great speed but needing to be 17.00 to edge Miller. When the mare sucked back around the second just a mite too soon, taking the barrel over, the title went to California.
With the tallying all done, Miller’s three run time of 51.34 seconds was nearly fourth tenths ahead of the rookie Bettis, whose phenomenal short round run moved her all the way to second.
Miller earned $12,277, nearly double the next highest barrel racer in the field. Though she won’t move up any spots in the standings, her season earnings are now just under $60,000. It is highly likely she will return to Las Vegas this December.
The cowgirl took to Facebook to acknowledge the moment and what it meant to her family.
“Reno rodeo was my favorite rodeo to come to as a kid,” she wrote. “We came every year to watch my dad rope and this year my dad came to watch me run and we won those spurs! Happy birthday dad, those spurs are going to look good on you!”
For more information on the Reno Rodeo, visit them on-line at www.renorodeo.com.
1. Nellie Miller, Rafter W Minnie Reba, 17.10, $3,341
2. Jennifer Barrett, Beduinos Prospector, 17.16 seconds, $2,864
3. Kathy Grimes, KG Blazin Nine Oh, 17.19, $2,386
4. Taylor Jacob, Honor Thy Frenchman, 17.23, $2,068
5. Tiany Schuster, Version Six, 17.30, $1,591
6. Ivy Conrado, CFour Tibbie Stinson, 17.31, $1,114
7. Mary Walker, Perculatin, 17.31, $1,114
8. Sydni Blanchard, Famous Heartbreaker, 17.34, $636
9. Carley Richardson, Doda Flit, 17.36, $477
10. Taci Bettis, Bogie is a Smash, 17.37, $106
11. Megan McLeod-Sprague, Fast Feet N Freedom, 17.27, $106
12. Kelly Tovar, A Dash Ta Glamour, 17.37, $106
1. Blanchard, 16.99 seconds, $3,341
2. Cayla Small, Perks Pazazz, 17.09, $2,864
3. Jane Melby, Perks Pazazz, 17.16, $2,386
4. Miller, 17.26, $2,068
5. Tovar, 17.27, $1,591
6. Grimes, 17.28, $1,273
7. Amberleigh Moore, CP Dark Moon, 17.30, $955
8. Richardson, 17.35, $636
9. Walker, 17.37, $398
10. Rachel Dice, Tivitosatthegogobar, 17.37, $398
1. Bettis, 16.91, $2,475
2. Miller, 16.98, $1,856
3. McLeod Sprague, 17.17, $1,237
4. Small, 17.40, $619
1. Miller, 51.34 seconds on three runs, $5,012
2. Bettis, 51.72, $4,296
3. Small, 51.87, $3,580
4. McLeod Sprague, 52.00, $3,102
5. Richardson, 52.17, $2,386
6. Dice, 52.33, $1,909
7. Jacob, 52.36, $1,432
8. Blanchard,56.83, $955
9. Grimes, 56.88, $716
10. Melby, 57.56, $477
Total Money Won
1. Miller, $12,277
2. Bettis, $6,877
3. Blanchard, $4,932
4. McLeod Sprague, $4,445
5. Grimes, $4,375
6. Jacob, $3,500
7. Richardson, $3,499
8. Small, $3,483
9. Barrett, $2,864
10. Melby, $2,863
11. Dice, $2,307
12. Tovar, $1,697
13. Schuster, $1,591
14. Walker, $1,512
15. Conrado, $1,114
16. Moore, $955
Courtesy of WPRA