By Jolee Jordan
Las Vegas, Nevada—While spending any time at all in Las Vegas can be cause for missed sleep, WPRA barrel racer Tillar Murray had an entirely different reason for being a bit sleep deprived during her time in the City of Lights.
Murray was scheduled to compete during the Elks Helldorado Days Rodeo during the second performance on Saturday afternoon, May 13. Only problem was the University of Texas-Austin sophomore was scheduled to make a business presentation as part of her finals week curriculum at 2 p.m., that same day.
“It was kind of stressful,” admits Murray, who is enrolled in the honors programs for Liberal Arts and Business and eyeing a major either in accounting or business information systems. “I made my business presentation at two and caught a plane at three.”
“My flight landed in Las Vegas at 4:30 and the rodeo started at 4:30.”
Murray relied upon hauling partner Josee Groves, who had her horses at Las Vegas Village and ready to compete. Groves has been taking care of things for Murray during this busy spring run, keeping the horses in California while Murray flies back and forth between rodeos and her classes in Austin.
“She’s been a huge blessing to our family,” notes Murray. “She took the horses from Logandale out to Erin Ricotti’s place for those rodeos in California. She’s doing a better job keeping them tuned up than I could! She’s awesome.”
Murray also thanked Ricotti, who has been along to help since Murray purchased Royal Star Commander a little over a year ago. Ricotti had piloted the talented gelding during his derby years and first year of rodeoing.
“It’s a huge relief to have a great place to keep the horses, where they can be comfortable and get to rest instead of being on the road someplace,” Murray says.
“I’m so grateful for both of them.” Murray also thanked her mentor, Martha Wright, who has kept her seasoned pro, Tic Tac (Lil Gracie Dude) while she is finishing school, keeping him tuned up for the Texas circuit rodeos.
While Commander carried Murray to her biggest career win at Cheyenne Frontier Days last July and Tic Tac earned her an All American ProRodeo Series title, it was another sorrel gelding who took the load during Murray’s first appearance on the Las Vegas Strip for Helldorado.
“I bought Dan from Mark Bugni about three weeks before Houston,” Murray says of the six year old Dirty Dan Stinson, who is by Eddie Stinson out of Miss Lano Jewell. Eddie Stinson is a son of Dash Ta Fame and also the sire of Ivy Conrado’s CFour Tibbie Stinson, the 2016 Helldorado Days Champion.
Murray took the reins from Bugni’s mother, Lynn Hastings, who had been campaigning the gelding at jackpots after a successful futurity season with Bugni himself.
“The first rodeo I took him to was Houston—and it was his first rodeo ever,” laughs Murray. “He just handled it real well.” In fact, the young horse even earned Murray a check inside NRG Stadium.
Murray has found success easy with her new mount, calling it a testimony to Bugni’s training.
“He is such a calm horse, he never spooks at anything,” she says. “He acts like he’s been hauled for ten years.”
“My dad took Commander in with us [at Houston] because you can’t leave him alone and he was acting worse than the young one. I was thinking, ‘Commander, you’re supposed to be the babysitter!’”
After deciding to give Commander a few weeks off, Murray has focused on getting her timing together with Dan, running him in Red Bluff, Lakeside and Las Vegas.
“They are complete opposites,” notes Murray of Dan and Commander. “Dan is ratey and he is so easy to ride. He is always looking to turn. Commander is such a free runner and you have to ask for the turn with him. Our runs are never that pretty but he is so fast.”
In Las Vegas, Murray found herself a bit scattered as she prepared to compete.
“I was just glad I made it, first of all,” she laughs. “Then I looked at the arena and it was much smaller than I had expected. I had never ran Dan with the walls so tight before and I was just hoping he wasn’t too ratey.”
A Las Vegas tradition since 1934, the Elks Helldorado Days was originally devised as an entertainment outlet for workers and visitors to the Hoover Dam during its construction. After missing a few years due to waning sponsorship and interest, the festival was revived in 2005 in time for Las Vegas’ 100th anniversary with help from the Las Vegas Centennial Commission (LVCC).
Beginning in 2016, the event has been produced by the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) in conjunction with the Elks and LVCC and has included traditional fare like the rodeo, parade, carnival and Whiskerino Contest as well as the PBR’s Last Cowboy Standing, a major stop on their annual tour.
It’s new location at Las Vegas Village puts it right on the Strip with iconic landmarks in the backdrop like the Mandalay Bay and Luxor’s great pyramid.
“It’s a really cool set up, being right on the Strip,” says Murray, echoing the sentiments of many of her fellow Helldorado Days competitors. “The ground was good and honestly, it’s now one of my favorite rodeos.”
Facing down a lightning quick 14.56 posted by Nicole Riggle during Friday’s slack, Murray and Dan scampered through the pattern in the shadows of the giant casinos. When she came back across the line, her time of 14.54 seconds was just enough to grab the lead.
“It was just one of those really fun runs where everything comes together,” says Murray, who is sponsored by Oxy-Gen and Myristol PRO.
Murray’s time held up through the onslaught of top barrel racers who competed on Sunday for the win. She earned $2,722 for a two-week total to start May off with $5,303.
Riggle finished second in an incredibly tight barrel race. With 12 monies paid out, the time difference from top to bottom was just .23 seconds.
Murray had little time to celebrate her victory. She quickly boarded another plane to get home in time for another final exam on Monday. She officially finished classes for the semester on Tuesday, leaving her free to go on the rodeo trail in earnest.
Already ranked ninth in the WPRA World standings with just over $40,000 won in 28 rodeos, Murray is well positioned to make a run for her first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) this season after finishing 22nd a year ago with limited hauling.
The cowgirl who is a native of Fort Worth is hopeful for her season, noting that both Commander and Dan are good outside and she hopes to split the summer runs between them, possibly putting them into two different rigs to cover more ground.
“Josee will stay with us and my parents will come out as well, so we may go with two rigs; we don’t really have a plan yet,” she says.
If everything continues according to plan, Murray may again find herself juggling college finals and runs in the City of Lights come December.
1. Tillar Murray, 14.54, Dirty Dan Stinson, $2,722
2. Nicole Riggle, 14.56, Shoeless Joe Biankus, $2,314
3. Kellie Collier, 14.65, Streakin Easy April, $1,906
4. Kali Parker, 14.67, Tuneful, $1,633
5. Gaylene Buff, 14.68, $1,361
6. Timi Lickley, 14.69, $953
7. Barbara Johnson, 14.72, Playguns Fame, $681
8. Taylor Langdon, 14.73, Vegas Firefighter, $544
9. Taylor Jacob, 14.74, Honor Thy Frenchman, $476
10. Jessica Telford, 14.75, $408
11. Rachel Rule, 14.76, A Red Streak, $340
12. Kailey Mitton, 14.77, $272