The Road to the NFR Narrows in Final Week, Bubble Race Tightens
Colorado Springs, Colorado—For nearly 360 days, professional rodeo barrel racers have traversed the United States and Canada, competing in arenas large and small, earning precious dollars in the WPRA World standings in an attempt to be one of the 15 best at season’s end and earn a trip to compete in the 2017 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) in Las Vegas.
They’ve pumped tons of gas into their trucks, spent hours behind the wheel listening to music, books, news . . . anything to keep them awake. They’ve blasted the AC and the heater.
They’ve eaten way too much fast food while maintaining a strict, healthy diet for their horses.
They’ve rubbed ligaments on legs, doctored cuts and scrapes, stood exhausted, lead rope in hand while farriers carefully work on their horses’ feet.
Some have boarded airplanes, meeting friends and family in far flung places to step on a second horse to multiply their chances to earn money in a single weekend.
Now, just five days—a mere 120 hours—remain in this pro rodeo regular season but there is no time for rest, no time to be weary of the road. All that remains is a handful of runs and a bunch of miles until Saturday night when the season finally ends and the field for the 2017 WNFR will be finalized.
The Race Continues
For the first time in some years, there are several ladies still in the running for a spot in Vegas. Ivy Conrado and Kimmie Wall are on the right side of the bubble as the final week begins, ranked 14th and 15th, respectively. Both ladies are seeking their second consecutive trips to the WNFR.
Outside looking in are Sherry Cervi (16th), Emily Miller (17th), Jana Bean (18th), Jackie Ganter (19th) and Ari-Anna Flynn (20th). Miller and Flynn are in search of their first WNFR berths while Bean would be in for the fourth time, Ganter for the third and Cervi for a record breaking 20th qualification.
This group has been trading positions for the past month, each having her good weeks and bad, to keep the group tight. Wall sits in the target spot right now having won $73,820.
A year ago, Amberleigh Moore finished the season ranked 15th after winning a record setting $79,068, the highest amount it has ever taken to get a WPRA barrel racer to the Finals. That mark may be challenged this week.
Thirteenth ranked Kellie Collier knocked herself off the bubble last week, winning the Cowboy Capital of the World PRCA Rodeo in Stephenville, Texas for $3,290. With $83,342 won this season, she has nearly $6,000 on the next closest cowgirl to her in the standings and can no doubt breathe easy this week.
If experience means anything in this position, the edge might go to Fort Hancock, Texas’ Bean. The cowgirl has been on the bubble in each of her first three WNFR seasons, only clinching her spot in the final weeks with nerves of steel, a lot of faith and super fast runs.
After a relatively quiet week in mid-September, Bean bounced back, winning the Industry Hills (CA) Charity Pro Rodeo for $1,879 aboard her tough gelding Chick and picking up another $1,231 in Amarillo (TX) at the Tri-State Fair and Rodeo on the mare, Girlfriend, owned by Julie Crews.
The $3,110 brought her back to 18th in the standings with $70,654 won this year.
Conrado was the second biggest winner last weekend. Although she did not win any rodeos, she and the tough palomino mare J-Lo took home three checks in California for $2,783 to inch away from the crowd. She’s now won $77,491 and has some breathing room on the field with $3,671 on Wall.
Wall headed to California but struggled a bit on the West Coast after a huge win the previous week in Pendleton.
“California didn’t go our way,” Wall notes, adding that bad luck seemed to keep tripping her up. “Foxy fell in Poway, really for no reason, and we had heck at San Bernardino.”
She picked up $537 in Industry to remain 15th and is happy to have a healthy horse again. Her tough mare Foxy spent much of July and early August battling illness.
“I’m just so glad she feels better,” Wall says. “Last week was a little hard on her . . . and me. Guess we both need to toughen up!”
Meanwhile, the WPRA’s all-time leading money earner, four-time WPRA World Champ Sherry Cervi gained momentum. Riding Callie duPerier-Apffel’s Dash ta Diamonds, aka Arson, Cervi picked up four checks including a win at the Andy Devine Days Rodeo in Kingman (AZ). Along with three checks from the California rodeos, she won $2,719 to move from 17th to 16th.
Like Wall, Miller has been cursed with unhealthy equine partners as she tries to close out a phenomenal season after winning the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo (RNCFR) in April.
“After Calgary, I ran at Salt Lake and he was way off the times,” she says of her gelding Pipewrench. “The next day, we were in Spanish Fork and he sat into the first turn and felt like a million bucks but then hit the front end and went to the wall.”
Knowing something was wrong with her horse, Miller went home and discovered he was suffering from painful bruised feet. After changing shoes, she ventured out in a few weeks, doing well at Dodge City.
“It worked for like three days and then he abscessed,” she says. With her back-up horse Qui Jet also on the injured list with a very deep leg cut, Miller was forced to try riding borrowed horses for several weeks.
“I’ve had so many people helping me, it’s been encouraging,” she says. Miller picked up a check in Mesquite for $101 but spent the rest of the weekend serving as a bridesmaid to a friend.
“She actually asked me in March if I was going to try to make the WNFR this year and I said, heck no,” Miller laughs. “I just got a full time job and was going to season my two horses so she asked me to be a bridesmaid for her wedding in September.”
Despite changing plans which sent Miller on the WNFR road, she kept her promise and showed up for the wedding.
“I missed the rehearsal dinner but it was much needed. We had a blast.”
Wall is now holding on to a precarious $804 lead over Cervi for 15th. Miller is $2,115 behind Wall and Bean is trailing by $3,166. Ganter is $5,061 from 15th.
Six rodeos are left on the schedule that the bubble cowgirls have entered for the final weekend. By far the most lucrative are the two stops on the Wrangler Champions Challenge (WCC) tour, both to be held in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on September 29-30—Friday and Saturday nights.
Only 11 cowgirls will compete in each stop, earning their spots either by being in the top six from the 2016 WPRA World standings or the top five from the current standings as of 14 days prior to the entries. The contestants from last year’s standings are set in the beginning of the season and have competed on the tour all year long.
Conrado, Wall and Ganter are among that group, giving them a shot at the nightly $3,944 first place check that their fellow bubble cowgirls do not get. A sweep in South Dakota would be worth $7,888.
The American Royal in Kansas City and the Pasadena (TX) Livestock Show and Rodeo are next in terms of prize money with $5,000 added committee purse and more than 60 entries each. In 2017, both rodeos paid about $2,000 to the winners.
The Young Living Last Chance PRCA Rodeo in Mona (UT) has $4,000 added money but only 25 entries while the Comal County Fair and Rodeo in New Braunfels (TX) has $2,000 added and 50 cowgirls signed up. Last year, the winner in Mona took home $967 while New Braunfels paid out $776.
Finally, the Southern New Mexico State Fair and Rodeo in Las Cruces puts up $2,000 in committee purse and drew 28 entries.
The Final Push
Without the benefit of the WCC, Cervi, Miller and Bean will likely need to log a lot of miles to have a chance to catch up and pass the other ladies. That means a big circle from south Texas for Pasadena, north to Kansas City, southwest to Las Cruces and west to Mona.
Bean fired the first shot of the week, competing on Monday night in Pasadena. She took the lead for the rodeo with a run of 15.93 seconds. Last season, Pasadena paid over $2,000 to the champ and Bean placed high here en route to her third WNFR.
The chase continues Tuesday night in Pasadena with Conrado, Cervi and Ganter on the schedule. Like Bean, Conrado picked up a good check here a year ago.
On Wednesday, Kansas City kicks off with its slack, to be held at 4 PM. Competing in slack are Wall, Cervi, Miller and Bean.
Wall rides into town with confidence as she won this rodeo last time she competed here in 2015. She placed third the year prior to that.
“I have a friend in Kansas City so we’ll stay with her and hopefully get a little rest,” Wall says. When asked if Foxy was ready for the final week, she laughed. “She better be.”
As for how she’s handling the pressure and stress of a bubble run, Wall gave credit to the relationship she has with her mare.
“I guess Foxy and I know each other so well . . . so that makes it easier.”
For Miller, the Missouri rodeo is make-or-break. She is back in the saddle on Jet, who is finally recuperated from her injuries.
“I actually turned out at Pasadena on Monday night, got Pipewrench home and settled [from the rehab facility where he has been swimming] and trying to get focused and ready with Jet,” Miller notes. “That should be a good pen for her.”
“Kansas City has the most money and is a circuit rodeo for me so I’m focused on that,” Miller says. She’s entered at New Braunfels, Las Cruces and Mona but said she feels she has to do well in Kansas City to have a realistic chance. “If we jump out and do really well, we’ll head out, otherwise, I’m going to call it a year.”
On Thursday, Cervi heads back south to New Braunfels, as does Miller possibly.
Friday gets busy with Conrado, Wall and Ganter in action in Sioux Falls. A tough field of cowgirls whose spots in Vegas are already assured will play spoiler as Tiany Schuster looks to add to her record setting year and Stevi Hillman continues to win on a torrid pace.
That performance can be seen live on ProRodeoTV.com, the PRCA’s just launched live video streaming service. The Friday performance is free to view but the site will require a subscription in the future.
Meanwhile, Cervi and Miller move on to Las Cruces and Bean takes her chances in Mona.
Cervi has done well in Las Cruces in recent history, formerly the site of the Turquoise Circuit Finals Rodeo. Cervi and Arson actually won the rodeo a year ago after placing in two go rounds.
“I’ve actually been to all of these rodeos before but it’s been awhile on some of them,” Cervi says, adding that New Braunfels has been held in the new season in recent years. “I’ve never been to Mona, so that’ll be new to me.”
Ganter makes a trip south to Kansas City on Saturday afternoon for the 2 PM performance while Conrado is scheduled for Saturday morning slack in New Braunfels.
On the final night of the 2017 season, Conrado, Wall and Ganter get take two in Sioux Falls, Cervi and Miller are in Mona while Bean heads south to Las Cruces.
Keeping It Positive
Miller pulled an all-night drive from the Pendleton Round-Up ten days ago to Albuquerque, saying that experience “tested my determination to rodeo!” Monday morning, she’ll be back at work where she is a dental hygienist.
“My boss has been super lenient [through all of this],” she laughs. Although she could possibly pull a run or two on Pipewrench, who has been in rehab swimming, she decided his health was worth more to her. “He’s seven . . . he’ll definitely have another rodeo to run.”
“It’s intense,” Miller says of the chase, giving credit to each of the lady’s battling to the end. “Everybody has been so positive.”
“This is definitely the closest race I remember being involved in,” says Cervi, noting that one year she had to do well at the Tour Finale event in Dallas to make the WNFR at season’s end. “Luckily I did. Basically, we’re all in the same boat. We have to win. We’re fighting for every dollar. We’re running out of rodeos, so you have to do your best every run.”
Like most of the cowgirls on the bubble, Cervi has help behind the scenes as she’ll drive to each of her remaining five stops.
“Cory’s with me,” she notes of her husband, Cory Petska, currently number one in the PRCA’s World standings for heelers. “He’s not entered anywhere and is just helping me. I wouldn’t be able to do it by myself.”
Wall had daughter Brylee with her for the California run and made a quick stop at home before heading east.
“I decided to pull Brylee out of school to go to California and Trav [her husband] is with me now,” she explains. “I think I needed my family close to me these last two weeks to remind me why we started rodeoing in the beginning — because we love it.”
For her part, Bean took to Facebook to explain the emotions of being on the bubble.
“I am so humbled and thankful to be in the sport of rodeo! First of all I want to thank everyone who has helped me and supported me through this journey. I cannot tell you how much it means to me,” she wrote. “Second, I want to say that our sport has to be the only one that when there's 5 people on the bubble that we can all cheer and pull for the other one and remain friends and competitors. No matter what these next 7 days bring, I am truly blessed with an amazing family, great friends and a BIG God. Good luck to everyone fighting for our NFR dream! We are blessed!”
Ganter likewise used social media to express her thoughts on the coming week.
“Who is meant to make it will succeed with the runs they need to make, who is not meant to make it will find greater purpose come December” she posted. ”I believe it is out of our hands, good luck & God Bless friends.”
“I know it’s been exciting to watch,” Cervi noted wryly. “It is cool that so many still have a chance. I guess we’ll know Saturday.”