Thomas & Mack Center
By Jolee Jordan
Colorado Springs, Colorado—The first day of October is fraught with emotions for all of pro rodeo’s full time competitors. The season is done and the positions at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) are set—there are no more runs to make or miles to drive.
For the ladies of the WPRA who spent the last month on the bubble, chasing the WNFR dream, Sunday meant finally a day to rest. For some, it was filled with relief and joy; for others, it brought disappointment.
In 2017 the fans of pro barrel racing were treated to an amazing display of horsepower and riding ability, coupled beautifully with graciousness and camaraderie. While only 15 are making plans for Vegas in just over two months time, probably ten more could easily have been in those spots.
In the final week alone, the bubble cowgirls all rose to the test. Ivy Conrado grabbed a nice check in Pasadena (TX) to hold the wolves at bay. Ari-Anna Flynn won second on her two final runs in Texas, though she wasn’t able to close the gap from 20th. Likewise, Jana Bean—a veteran of previous bubble battles—went down swinging, winning Las Cruces (NM) on the final night of the season to end the last week with more than $2,000 earned.
Emily Miller sat inside the top 15 nearly all season but was derailed by horse injuries. She got back on her own steed for the final run in Kansas City and clinched a big fourth place check.
Miller might have gone on in the fight but her next event, New Braunfels, was postponed due to conditions from inclement weather. Instead, she gracefully called it a year.
Four-time WPRA World Champion Sherry Cervi was inside the fray, too. Traveling from California to Texas to Missouri in four days, she too bumped into the unfortunate postponement at New Braunfels. Unable to compete in the rescheduled performance, she went on to New Mexico instead, leaving that rodeo winning first and wondering if she could earn enough on the final day to make her record setting 20th WNFR.
But in the end, it was a gritty performance by Kimmie Wall and her tough mare Foxy that won the hour. After a hugely successful first trip to the WNFR in 2016, Wall seemed destined to return. But an illness at the worst time of the season put that trip in doubt. Instead, Wall found herself in the trenches in the final weeks. She held her breath and took a week off before the Pendleton Round-Up, rewarded for the move with a huge win to move back into the top 15.
Wall and Foxy traveled from California to Kansas City, leaving placing at the American Royal Rodeo but lower than her two closest competitors, Cervi and Miller. Her ace in the hole was the Wrangler Champions Challenge Finale in Sioux Falls, S.D.
With her entire season on the line, Wall claimed a third place check on the opening night, a $2,204 life preserver keeping her afloat in the race. Though she did not place the next night, that check along with a $270 for 9th in Kansas City secured her trip to Vegas just under $2,000 ($1,931 to be exact) ahead of the WPRA’s all-time earnings leader, Cervi.
With the close of Saturday night performance in Las Cruces, the final rodeo of the regular season which impacted the standings, Conrado and Wall could relax and rejoice, joining the field for the 2017 WNFR as the 14th and 15th ranked cowgirls.
Conrado and Wall are back for a second consecutive trip, joining other WNFR sophomores Stevi Hillman, Nellie Miller, Amberleigh Moore and Kassie Mowry.
Ranked third, Miller makes her first trip since 2010 after big wins in Ellensburg, Reno and St Paul (OR) while Mowry returns for the first time since 2005. Mowry secured her qualification with huge wins at San Angelo, Houston and Nampa to land fifth in the standings. Moore comes back to the Thomas & Mack after an incredible rookie trip in 2016 in which she and mare Paige tied the arena record in Round Eight and set a new earnings mark at $187,692. She is sitting fourth.
Hillman capped her phenomenal season with a win on Friday in South Dakota and a split of second on Saturday aboard her big bay gelding Truck. She won $6,554 on the final weekend of 2017, pushing her season total to $185,952. That is the third best regular season in WPRA history but comes in the same season as Tiany Schuster’s record smashing year so Hillman comes to Vegas ranked second.
Schuster leads a class of six WNFR rookies after earning more than a quarter of a million dollars during the 2017 season. Schuster grabbed the standings lead in late October 2016 and never relinquished it. After tying for second at the Ram National Circuit Finals in early April, Schuster broke over $100,000 and she surpassed $200,000 after winning the famed Calgary Stampede in early July. She carries a lead of $64,425 into Las Vegas.
Joining Schuster in their inaugural WNFR’s are Dr. Kathy Grimes (6th), Hailey Kinsel (7th), Taci Bettis (8th), Tillar Murray (12th) and Kellie Collier (13th). Grimes is a veterinarian who has specialized in embryo transfers during her career and raised both her horses, Izzy and Ruby; she streaked to her first WNFR after finishing second at major winter rodeos in Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston.
Kinsel capped her breakout season, in which she won the non-sanctioned The American for a share of $1 million in February and the College National Finals Rodeo in June by winning a gold medal at the Komatsu Equipment Days of '47 Cowboy Games & Rodeo in Salt Lake City and $50,000.
Bettis is a rookie in 2017 and clinched the title with the close of the regular season. She and her horse Smash won Buc Days in Corpus Christi in the spring and went on a tear over the summer after winning the final round at the Reno Rodeo. Bettis finished the regular season with just over $97,000 after placing both nights at her first Wrangler Champions Challenge events in Sioux Falls.
Murray and Collier used solid, steady performances all year to punch their tickets. Murray won Helldorado Days in Las Vegas in May, Wainwright, Alberta in June and the New Mexico State Fair Rodeo in Albuquerque in September. Meanwhile, Collier started 2017 with a bang winning Denver in January and her final rodeo of the year in Stephenville in September.
New Mexico cowgirl Sydni Blanchard returns to the Finals ranked 11th after a three year absence, making her third qualification. Blanchard broke the bubble in mid-August after winning Canby (OR), Baker (MT), Douglas (WY), Hastings (NE) and Kennewick (WA) for a $22,000 two-week run.
The 2017 field is relatively new in WNFR experience with 21 qualifications amongst the thirteen ladies already mentioned. The two remaining top that number with 22 trips to Vegas between them.
Brittany Pozzi-Tonozzi is returning for her 11th WNFR and first since 2013. The two-time World Champ and two-time WNFR average winner will be in Vegas with her good mares Steeley and Mona. Steeley competed here a year ago with Jana Bean.
Pozzi-Tonozzi will bring along daughter Tinlee who was born in March as she hopes to become the third WPRA cowgirl to break $2 million in career earnings. She is just about $16,000 from that mark after winning second and first at the two South Dakota stops on the WCC Tour for $6,960. She finishes the regular season with nearly $93,000 and sits tenth.
Lisa Lockhart returns for her 11th consecutive WNFR as the reigning average champ there. Riding both the great Louie and her young mare Rosa this season, Lockhart used a mid-summer push to get back to Las Vegas highlighted by wins in Lawton (OK)—where she set a new arena record—and Great Falls (MT). She is currently ninth in the WPRA World standings.
Pozzi-Tonozzi and Lockhart move into a tie for third most WNFR qualifications in history joining Jimmie Munroe, Martha Josey, Deb Mohon and Sammie Thurman Brackenbury and trailing only Sherry Johnson, Kay Blandford and Mildred Farris (12 each) and Charmayne James and Sherry Cervi (19 each).
The 2017 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo begins at the Thomas & Mack on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on December 7, continuing for 10 days and paying out over $1 million per event.
For more information on the 2017 WNFR and the WPRA barrel racing contestants, stay tuned to www.wpra.com.
2017 WPRA Pro Rodeo standings
Unofficial standings as of Oct. 2, 2017
*Denotes 2016 WPRA World Champion
1. Tiany SchusterKrum, Texas$250,378
2. Stevi HillmanWeatherford, Texas$185,952
3. Nellie MillerCottonwood, Calif.$130,537
4. Amberleigh MooreSalem, Ore.$120,806
5. Kassie MowryDublin, Texas$115,163
6. Kathy GrimesMedical Lake, Wash.$111,785
7. Hailey KinselCotulla, Texas$98,707
8. Taci Bettis (R)Round Top, Texas$97,023
9. Lisa LockhartOelrichs, S.D.$96,454
10. Brittany Pozzi TonozziVictoria, Texas$92,930
11. Sydni BlanchardAlbuquerque, N.M.$91,362
12. Tillar MurrayFort Worth, Texas$86,020
13. Kellie CollierHereford, Texas$83,338
14. Ivy ConradoHudson, Colo.$78,181
15. Kimmie WallRoosevelt, Utah$76,294
16. Sherry CerviMarana, Ariz.$74,363
17. Emily MillerWeatherford, Okla.$72,876
18. Jana BeanFt. Hancock, Texas$72,692
19. Jackie GanterAbilene, Texas$68,759
20. Ari-Anna FlynnCharleston, Ark.$64,894