By Jolee Jordan
Cheyenne, Wyoming – Just qualifying to the short round of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo is actually a pretty big deal. Competitors don’t just show up and make their final run like they might at other rodeos. There is a ceremony in the morning where all finalists receive vests and are congratulated for their accomplishment. Then there’s the matter of the money.
With an added purse of $50,000 per event, and unlimited entries, the purse at Cheyenne Frontier Days is the largest of the season for a rodeo with a regular two-go and finals format. It’s not uncommon for a champion here to walk away with close to $20,000 in earnings along with a pretty nice prize line.
As the short go for the 120th Frontier Days dawned, there were three former champions in the barrel racing mix including the reigning champ, Lisa Lockhart, 2014 Champ Brenda Mays and Sherry Cervi, who won this rodeo back in 1995.
The final round order is drawn for the WPRA barrel racers and, as luck would have it, four of the top five cowgirls in the average drew the final four spots on the ground. Lockhart, who came into the finals fifth as she sought to defend her title, would finish the short go at 12th while leader Tillar Murray drew 10th and Cervi, who was second prior to the finals, drew 11th. Third ranked Sabra O’Quinn was right before Murray at ninth.
Murray had been the most consistent barrel racer over the week and a half of the rodeo, the only cowgirl to place in both the first and second go rounds. She led Cervi by almost two tenths of a second, about the same margin from Cervi to Carley Richardson and Amber Leigh Moore, who were tied for 11th as the day began.
Stevi Hillman led off the final round at the rodeo known as “the Daddy of ‘em All.” Her 18.15 was a little long on a day where nearly every barrel racer broke the eighteen second barrier including the lady that followed her, Oregon’s Amber Leigh Moore. Moore is making qualifying for short go’s at big rodeos a habit this summer and she manages to capitalize once she gets there. Riding her mare Paige, Moore stopped the clock in an impressive time of 17.50 seconds to shoot to the lead of the round and the average.
The average lead would be incredibly short lived however as clutch cowgirl Jana Bean scampered behind Moore’s tracks to the left on her own lefty called Chick. Her time of 17.51 went to second in the go but put Bean on top of the average. She was fourth prior to the finals.
Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) bound cowgirl Carley Richardson and Radio put up a 17.84 as the fourth to run and first round winner Sydni Blanchard followed with a 17.52 that put the New Mexico cowgirl second behind Bean at the time. Neither Kathy Korell-Rach nor Tyra Kane were able to move the leaderboard on their runs, bringing up the heat at the bottom of the draw.
Brenda Mays and her mare Dora were hoping for a big move like the one that put their names in the history books as Cheyenne champions in 2014 but their run of 17.85 left them a little short of the title, keeping Bean in the driver’s seat. Likewise, O’Quinn failed to catch Bean with her run of 17.92.
Then came the Fort Worth cowgirl who is just in her second year as a professional in the WPRA. Tillar Murray was a relative unknown this time last year until she climbed to the top of the best of the WPRA at the Dodge City Round-Up and followed that win with another at the All American Pro Rodeo Series in Waco, Texas in October.
Both of those wins came aboard her gelding Tic Tac but Murray was riding another sorrel in Cheyenne, the electric Royal Star Commander. Already a known commodity to fans of great barrel horses, Commander was bred by the late Ruth Haislip and his dam is Haislip’s WNFR mare Go Royal Scarlett.
On the final Sunday of the 2016 edition of “the Daddy,” Murray got the job done, stopping the clock at 17.59 seconds for 52.73 on three runs, bumping Bean from the top spot with two legends of the sport still to run.
Sherry Cervi was the Reserve Cheyenne Champion a year ago riding her great mare Stingray but in 2016 she was aboard Arson owned by reigning WPRA World Champ Callie duPerier-Apffel. Though Cervi ably jockeyed the lightning quick gelding to a time of 17.51, tied for second in the go at the time, her total on three came up just short of the title at 52.82 seconds.
Murray couldn’t breath a sign of relief with the reigning champ Lockhart still to run. Once again aboard the great Louie, Lockhart made another picture perfect run inside Frontier Park, skimming around the third can but leaving it standing to win the round from the bottom of the ground. Her time of 17.42 seconds won a big round check but failed to catch Murray for the title, landing Lockhart third at 52.85 seconds on three runs.
“It’s so incredible,” a winded Murray told Pro Rodeo Live’s Steve Kenyon moments later. “I don’t even have the words to explain the feeling.”
Murray actually took a break from barrel racing earlier this year, hit hard by the death of Ed Wright, a man she calls “my hero and my grandpa.” A mentor for many barrel racers including Murray, Wright passed away in March.
“I called him for everything,” she told Kenyon. “He and Martha have done everything in the world for me and he always had so much faith in me.”
Murray finished her freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin and regrouped with Tic Tac and Commander, whom she added to her stable in January after the gelding helped Deb Guelly make the WNFR in 2015.
Once back on the road, Murray has found her way to the pay window often aboard both horses, finishing 10th in money won over the Fourth of July and placing at such tough rodeos as Vernal, Spanish Fork and Sheridan before arriving at “the Daddy.”
Ranked 28th prior to Cheyenne, Murray didn’t have a trip to Las Vegas for the WNFR on her goals; in fact, she was just hoping to win enough to get qualified for the big winter rodeos with limited entries.
After banking $16,417 at Cheyenne, Murray may need to change that plan. The cowgirl will likely land inside the top 20 of the WPRA World standings for the first time with just two months left of the season.
“It’s an amazing rodeo,” she told Kenyon. “The committee is phenomenal, all the volunteers . . . they make it so special for us.”
Murray has had help with Commander off-and-on this summer from Erin Ricotti, who ran the gelding as a derby horse, setting a new arena record at the Barrel Futurities of America in Oklahoma City.
“Erin’s been here helping me and we came up with a game plan this morning,” she said. “After the second round, we were just going to tighten up the turns a little.”
“It didn’t really happen,” she laughed. “It was a little rough. Honestly, I was so nervous, I was just trying to stay on but he’s such a freak . . . he just runs so fast.”
In fact, the second round and finals were the first performances that Murray has ran Commander all summer, choosing Tic Tac for those runs before Cheyenne.
She had high praise for the ground at Frontier Park as well.
“The ground is so consistent. They do an awesome job; it’s so hard in an outdoor arena over the course of a week but I know the barrel racers are grateful for that.”
For Cervi and Bean, the big money won in Cheyenne helps pull both off the bubble for the moment. The WNFR veterans came to Wyoming ranked 14th and 17th respectively, but both earned more than $13,000. Lockhart too will move up a spot or two in the standings.
Meanwhile, along with Murray, Moore and Blanchard will also move into contention for the WNFR, making for an exciting finish to the 2016 season.
1. Sydni Blanchard, Famous Heartbreaker, 17.46, $6,212
2. Tillar Murray, Royal Star Commander, 17.56, $5,324
3. Mary Burger, Sadiesfamouslastwords, 17.69, $4,437
4. Mary Walker, Perculatin, 17.70, $3,845
5. Lisa Lockhart, An Oakie with Cash, 17.71, $2,662
6. Kelly Tovar, BB French Fooledya, 17.71, $2,662
7. Jana Griemsman, Chase It With Brandy, 17.73, $1,775
8. Kelly Yates, Fiestanozshezfamous, 17.74, $1,183
9. Jane Melby, Brookstone Jo, 17.78, $739
10. Megan Swint, Bar Bee Stealing Sue, 17.78, $739
1. Jana Bean, Dashing Klee, 17.16, $6,212
2. Kathy Korell-Rach, Smoke N Sunshine, 17.29, $5,324
3. Sherry Cervi, Dash ta Diamonds, 17.42, $4,437
4. Sabra O’Quinn, Wonders Oro, 17.43, $3,845
5. Amber Leigh Moore, CP Dark Moon, 17.45, $2,958
6. Tyra Kane, Sheza Blazin Move, 17.46, $2,366
7. Murray, 17.58, $1,775
8. Kelly Kennedy-Joseph, Dashers Hot Panajet, 17.60, $1,035
9. Romany Gordon, Ozzy, 17.60, $1,035
10. Stevi Hillman, Cuatro Fame, 17.62, $592
1. Lockhart, 17.42, $4,601
2. Moore, 17.50, $3,451
3. Cervi, 17.51, $1,725
4. Bean, 17.51, $1,725
1. Murray, 52.73, $9,318
2. Cervi, 52.82, $7,987
3. Lockhart, 52.85, $6,655
4. Bean, 52.90, $5,768
5. Blanchard, 53.05, $4,437
6. Moore, 53.09, $3,550
7. O’Quinn, 53.29, $2,662
8. Kane, 53.30, $1,775
9. Mays, 53.36, $1,331
10. Richardson, 53.43, $887
Total Money Won
Jane Melby, $739
Courtesy of WPRA