By Jolee Jordan
Denver, Colorado—It’s been just over three years since Christine Laughlin made her first appearance at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) and it has no doubt felt like a long road to get back to rodeo’s Super Bowl in Las Vegas for the cowgirl; she has finished inside the top 30 twice in the last three years, coming oh so close to a second qualification as only the top 15 money earners each year earn a spot at the Finals.
But one road that was not long for the Pueblo, Colorado cowgirl was the one that brought her to the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, stop one in her quest to compete inside the Thomas & Mack once again. In fact, it’s less than two hours from her home to the Denver Coliseum, home of the rodeo since 1952.
The National Western is set up as a two go round event with competitors taking their long round runs in back-to-back preliminary performances. At the conclusion of the 19th performance on Saturday night, January 20, the original field of 110 barrel racers was pared down to the fastest 12 on two runs for the Championship Finals.
On her first trip to Vegas, Laughlin relied heavily upon her lightning quick grey gelding Six Pack but she’s added another bullet to her gun in the last year in the form of the nine year old sorrel mare Jessi who is registered Jess Undeniable.
Laughlin took the reins from Kelley Schnaufer last summer and has quickly built a solid partnership with the speedy horse who is owned by close friends Jack and Patsy Vanwey. Vanwey also helped train Six Pack and has been a mentor to Laughlin throughout her career.
“Jack did an amazing job training her and Kelley did a great job seasoning her,” Laughlin noted. In fact, Schnaufer qualified to compete at the Calgary Stampede aboard Jessi, advancing all the way to the Final round there and finishing 29th in the 2016 WPRA World standings.
Laughlin and Jessi were on a tear toward the end of the 2017 season, winning Phillipsburg (Kan.) and Amarillo (Texas), finishing third in Stephenville (Texas) and making the short go in Dodge City (Kan.).
Kicking off 2018 inside her home circuit, Laughlin took her first two rounds at Denver on the final Saturday, part of a wicked fast group that sent four ladies to the finals including Kylie Weast, who won the second round with the rodeo’s fastest run of 15.10 seconds on Saturday night.
Weast—whose sister is 2003 WPRA World Champion Janae Ward—rode her great upcoming superstar Reddy who is just six years old. She qualified to the Finals ranked first in the average, the first lady to surpass Cayla Small during the duration of the rodeo.
The traveling duo of Tammy Fischer and 2017 WNFR qualifier and current WPRA World number one Taci Bettis both advanced to the finals from the Saturday group along with Laughlin, who shared seventh in round one to come back third, just .18 seconds behind Weast.
The first go round win was claimed on Friday night by new WNFR-arena record holder Hailey Kinsel and her freaky-fast palomino mare Sister. The pair scampered through the pattern in a blistering 15.18 seconds for the win.
Former WNFR cowgirl Carley Richardson returned to Denver aboard a new mount, the horse she calls Money, and picked up a big win in the unsanctioned Colorado vs. the World event on the Saturday before the National Western Rodeo kicks off. She came back two weeks later and also punched her ticket into the finals of the rodeo after competing in the Friday night-Saturday morning set of barrel racers.
The final 12 to battle for the title here came into the final round with just .38 seconds separating Weast in the number one spot from Tiany Schuster, who won out in a tie breaker for 12th.
Per WPRA rules, short go rounds are randomly drawn for competition order and Richardson drew out first with Laughlin right behind her. The pair on their fast sorrels set a high bar for the competition with Richardson stopping the clock at 15.32 and Laughlin on her heels at 15.35 seconds.
Laughlin took the early lead for the average on three at 46.24 while Richardson’s time was 46.28.
2017 Badlands Circuit Finals Champ Nikki Hansen ran third, posting a time of 15.63 on her gelding Sky, while fellow Badlands cowgirl Lisa Lockhart followed on Louie. That dynamic pair did what everyone expects, putting together a flawless run of 15.34 seconds to slip in between Richardson and Laughlin in the round.
Lockhart’s average time of 46.41 put her just .17 seconds behind Laughlin.
Cayla Small and her horse Gator have battled through injuries—both human and equine—to return to the arena together and put together a pair of runs in the first two performances here that were tough to beat. A little bad luck caught up with them again in the short go, putting them out of the average money in what became an incredibly tight barrel race.
Schuster came behind Small in the draw; she and Show Mance put up 15.43 seconds to slide behind Lockhart in the average. Fischer and Ziva were next, putting 15.44 on the board to tie Schuster up.
Bettis ran right behind her hauling partner and mentor and just bettered her time with a 15.39 second effort on her great horse Smash. She jumped to third in the average behind Laughlin and Richardson, who had just four more cowgirls to sweat through.
Young gun Haley Wolfe took her mare Mia to a tie with Bettis at 15.39 seconds to move ahead of Schuster and Fischer.
Laughlin’s biggest obstacle to the win was Weast and Reddy, who came into the finals in first place and ran tenth on the ground. The pair posted a 15.56 second time, falling two one hundredths short of Laughlin and staying ahead of Richardson by the same margin.
Turquoise Circuit champ Lori Todd and Mountain States Circuit Finals qualifier Wendy McKee brought the National Western to a close with their runs. Todd ran a 15.51 while McKee brought down the house with a 15.37 from 12th out aboard her horse Snoop.
When the dust had finally settled, the short round paid out four monies with just five one hundredths of a second separating all four ladies. The average was double close too with Laughlin hanging on to the win ahead of Weast and Richardson. In fact, the top five spots were only nine one-hundredths apart on the clock.
“Great weekend at the National Western Stock show in Denver!” Laughlin posted to her Facebook page. “Jessi had three consistent runs ... winning the average!! Super proud of her.”
“A great start to 2018... road to the NFR!”
Laughlin picked up $8,756 toward the 2018 WPRA World standings while Weast won nearly as much at $7,889. Just like the times, the money won was spread out evenly amongst the top winners with four ladies earning more than $5,000 while in the Mile High City.
Bettis will continue to lead the WPRA World standings while Weast and Richardson simply added to their already cushy spots in the standings. Laughlin will make her first 2018 appearance inside the top 15, a position she plans to hold for the next nine months until the regular season ends.
1. Hailey Kinsel, DM Sisters Hayday, 15.18, $3,451
2. Jennifer Barrett, Beduinos Prospector, 15.28, $2,958
3. Liz Herrin, Bogies Lil Mikey, 15.31, $2,465
4. Taci Bettis, Bogie is a Smash, 15.38, $2,137
5. Cayla Small, Shameon U, 15.39, $1,644
6. KL Spratt, KK Cash Colours, 15.40, $1,315
7. Carley Richardson, Flit Money/Christine Laughlin, Jess Undeniable, 15.45, $822
9. Kathy Grimes, KG Justiceweexpected, 15.46, $493
10. Lori Todd, Wranglers Bedrock, 15.48, $329
1 Kylie Weast, Hell on the Red, 15.10, $3,451
2. Small/Haley Wolfe, Mia Fabulous Fame, 15.37, $2,712
4. Tiany Schuster, Show Mance, 15.39, $2,137
5. Wendy McKee, Little Snoop Dog/Laughlin, 15.44, $1,479
7. Michelle Darling, Morning Traffic, 15.45, $986
8. Lisa Lockhart, An Okie with Cash, 15.46, $657
9. Bobbi Grann, DMO Dashin Honey, 15.48, $493
10. Nikki Hansen, Sky High Guy/Kelly Bruner, Suzytresseis/Cassidy Kruse, Guys Dashing Girl, 15.49, $110
1. Richardson, 15.32, $2,557
2. Lockhart, 15.34, $1,917
3. Laughlin, 15.35, $1,278
4. McKee, 15.37, $639
1. Laughlin, 46.24, $5,177
2. Weast, 46.26, $4,438
3. Richardson, 46.28, $3,698
4. Bettis, 46.29, $3,205
5. McKee, 46.33, $2,465
6. Lockhart, 46.41, $1,972
7. Wolfe, 46.45, $1,479
8. Schuster, 46.51, $863
9. Tammy Fischer, LK Sheza Hayday, 46.51, $863
10. Todd, 46.56, $493
Total Money Won
Small Still Leads the Average
Denver, Colorado—The National Western Stock Show and Rodeo began more than one hundred years ago as a means for western growers to establish a big market center in the West thereby saving money on the high expense of shipping east. Organizers planned the event for January so that it would fall after the fall harvest but before spring calving began and Denver businesses eagerly signed on to support the new endeavor to help drum up sales during the slow post-Christmas season.
More than a century later, the National Western is still a huge livestock show and its rodeo is one of the best on the pro rodeo schedule. A good showing in Denver can often springboard a competitor into the season and launch them to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR).
Every contestant entered in the WPRA barrel race competes in two preliminary rounds before the field is established for the short round on Sunday, January 21. Only the fastest 12 from the two-run average will move on to compete for the championship on the rodeo’s final day.
2016 Rookie of the Year and Wrangler NFR qualifier Cayla Small took the lead in the average on the first day of the rodeo and hasn't budged on that leaderboard since.
The first set of the National Western’s final week brought a match between the WPRA’s leading rookie contender K.L Spratt of Wyoming and record breaking cowgirl Tiany Schuster, who set an all-time regular season earnings mark last year en route to finishing third in the final WPRA World standings.
Monday night it was the red-hot rookie on top, stopping the clock at 15.40 seconds on her good mare OK. Spratt won a round of the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) in Casper, Wyoming last summer with OK and got her rookie season off with a bang last fall, picking up more than $7,600 in earnings.
On Tuesday, Spratt ran into penalty blues while the veteran took advantage as Schuster posted a 15.39 second run on her horse Show Mance. That run put her second in the second round and in a tie for fifth in the average. In 2017 Schuster tied Hailey Kinsel for second here.
Everyone entered has been chasing Small since the opening night of the rodeo but Wilderness Circuit Finals Champion barrel race Jennifer Barrett was the first to succeed in bumping her out of the top spot on the leaderboard for the first round.
Barrett and her horse Larry set a high bar in round one during the Wednesday matinee performance, posting the fastest time of the rodeo at 15.28 seconds. Unfortunately, a downed barrel kept the duo from making an appearance in Sunday’s final round.
The fast time on Wednesday night belonged to Lisa Lockhart. The 10-time WNFR competitor was consistent in her two runs on Wednesday, posting a 15.46 second run in the second round to move to fifth in the go and fifth in the two-run average.
Thursday's top run came from former College National Champion Barrel Racer Liz Herrin. Herrin and her horse Mikey stopped the clock at 15.31 seconds to move into second in the first go round.
The National Western races to its conclusion over the weekend with the final 20 contestants before the field is set for the Finals on Sunday.
Competing in the final preliminary rounds are WNFR arena record holder Hailey Kinsel, who won second in Denver a year ago en route to her first WNFR qualification, along with fellow WNFR cowgirls Sydni Blanchard, Tillar Murray, Cassidy Kruse, Carley Richardson, Jill Moody, Jackie Ganter, Tammy Fischer, Taci Bettis and Christine Laughlin. Reigning Canadian champion barrel racer Carman Pozzobon will also competed on Friday and Saturday.
1. Jennifer Barrett, Beduinos Prospector, 15.28
2. Liz Herrin, Bogies Lil Mikey, 15.31
3. Cayla Small, Shameon U, 15.39
4. KL Spratt, KK Cash Colours, 15.40
5. Kathy Grimes, KG Justiceweexpected, 15.46
6. Lori Todd, Wranglers Bedrock, 15.48
7. Sissy Winn, Flashy Red Flame/Benette Little, Ms Carrie Lou, 15.50
9. Wendy McKee, Little Snoop Dog, 15.52
10. Emily Miller, Namgis D56, 15.54
1. Small, 15.37
2. Tiany Schuster, Show Mance, 15.39
3. McKee, 15.44
4. Michelle Darling, Morning Traffic, 15.45
5. Lisa Lockhart, An Oakie With Cash, 15.46
6. Nikki Hansen (Sky High Guy)/Kelly Bruner, Suzytresseis, 15.49
8. Margo Crowther/CJ Vondette, 15.50
1. Small, 30.76
2. McKee, 30.96
3. Hansen/Todd 31.05
5. Lisa Lockhart, 31.07
6. Grimes/Schuster, 31.08
8. Ivy Conrado, 31.19
9. Jamie Hinton, OJS Tex Wood, 31.22
10. Jane Melby, Perks Pazazz , 31.23
11. Miller/Kelly Tovar, A Dash ta Glamour, 31.26
Denver, Colorado—Just days removed from the big celebrations of New Year’s Eve, Minnesota-turned-Oklahoma cowgirl Cayla Small was looking for a fresh start of her own.
After sweeping to the WPRA’s Rookie of the Year title in 2016 and scooping up her first trip to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) along the way, Small looked destined to become a perennial at rodeo’s Super Bowl after finishing seventh at the National Western Stock Show in January.
But the rodeo road is full of twists and bumps and by spring Small found herself without the services of her great horse Gator. In fact, she would be off the eight year old gelding for the rest of the season.
Though she would finish the year on other horses and still win more than $40,000, Small was missing her main dance partner.
She got him back in time to go back to Denver for the National Western Stock Show in 2018.
Although the rodeo season was backed up to October 1 some years ago, giving contestants a three months jump on the new season, the National Western is still considered the official kick-off of the new year as the first of the very lucrative winter stock show rodeos. It is not unusual for the winner here to end their season in December at the WNFR just as Kellie Collier did a year ago.
One hundred and ten ladies get a chance at the $35,250 committee added purse here. Each competes in two qualifying rounds, held during back-to-back performances and the fastest 12 on two runs advance to the Finals held Sunday, January 21st. The champion will be crowned based on the three-run average time.
Small and her mother Jane Melby, a two-time qualifier to the WNFR herself, competed in the opening set of the National Western on Thursday night, January 11 and again Friday afternoon, January 12.
Small dominated the set, running a 15.39 in the first round, almost exactly the time she posted in the first round in 2017. It was an emotional run for the cowgirl, back in the saddle aboard Gator once again.
The pair was perfectly in sync the next day as well despite the time away from their partnership. Taking even more time off the clock, their second round run was golden at 15.37 seconds.
With a two-run total of 30.76, Small led the average by nearly three tenths over Kathy Grimes, the Washington veterinarian who just finished her first WNFR trip a month ago. Keeping it in the family, Melby ran out to third in the average aboard the speedy black mare Pazazz.
Small easily survived the second set of cowgirls who competed on Friday night and Saturday morning. The top competitor from that set was 2017 Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo Champion Emily Miller. Miller rode Foxy, a sister to her RNCFR champion gelding Pipewrench, to land in the money in early going of round one while finishing fourth in the average following her group.
Badlands Circuit Finals Champion Nikki Hansen and Turquoise Circuit Champion Lori Todd galloped into the money during the Saturday afternoon and evening performances. Todd rode her horse Wrangler to a 15.48 second run, good enough for third in the first go, to take the top honors in the matinee performance. On Saturday night, Hansen and Sky tied up with 2017 WPRA World Finals Champ Kelly Bruner and Suzy for the top run of the night at 15.49 seconds.
With two run average times of 31.05, Hansen and Todd slotted into a tie for second behind Small for the time being.
Sunday’s performance brought another comeback story to the Denver Coliseum. Craig, Colorado cowgirl Wendy McKee and her horse Snoop have been a team for six years on and off with time off due to injuries to both of them; together they have won two Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo series season titles and qualified to the Mountain States Circuit Finals Rodeo.
McKee and Snoop returned to health in time to move everybody on the leaderboard except Small with the two runs on Sunday, stopping the clock in 15.52 and 15.44, respectively, to sit sixth in round one, second in round two and second in the average, two tenths behind Small.
The National Western continues on Monday. Among the scheduled competitors are two-time WNFR qualifier and local cowgirl Ivy Conrado from just up the road in Hudson along with record breaker Tiany Schuster, who finished third in 2017 after smashing the regular season earnings record. Stevi Hillman is also scheduled for the Monday and Tuesday performances.
Competing later in the week are two-time World Champion Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi and WNFR competitors Jana Bean, Lisa Lockhart, Shelly Anzick, Shali Lord, Carlee Pierce-Otero, Jean Winters, Terri Kaye Kirkland and Trula Churchill along with the reigning NWSS Champion Kellie Collier, who will attempt to defend her title beginning Wednesday afternoon.
1. Cayla Small, Shameon U, 15.39
2. Kathy Grimes, KG Justiceweexpected, 15.46
3. Lori Todd, Wranglers Bedrock, 15.48
4. Sissy Winn, Flashy Red Flame/Benette Little, Ms Carrie Lou, 15.50
6. Wendy McKee, Little Snoop Dog, 15.52
7. Emily Miller, Namgis D56, 15.54
8. Nikki Hansen, Sky High Guy, 15.56
9. Jane Melby, Perks Pazazz, 15.60
10. Jamie Hinton, OJS Tex Wood, 15.65
1. Small, 15.37
2. McKee, 15.44
3. Hansen/Kelly Bruner, Suzytresseis, 15.49
5. Darby Fox, Easy French Alibi/Nicole Waggoner, Sumfunsin/ Holly Wright, 15.52
8. Todd/Fallon Taylor, Flos Heiress/Hinton, 15.57
1. Small, 30.76
2. McKee, 30.96
3. Hansen/Todd 31.05
5. Grimes, 31.08
6. Hinton, 31.22
7. Melby, 31.23
8. Miller/Kelly Tovar, A Dash ta Glamour, 31.26
10. Kim Schulze, 31.32
11. Winn, 31.41
12. Wright, 31.45