Jones is among about 400 people who signed up for one of the hardest-riding competitions at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, said Bruce McCarty, horse show director. Developed in the first half of the last century as a rodeo opportunity for women, barrel racing was recognized with a national association in 1948. As the prize purses got bigger, men who had been training barrel horses from the get-go got interested in competing.
The timed sport is unlike some other rodeo events in that it has nothing to do with ranch work, McCarty said. The riders bring their mounts out of the gate at a full gallop, make a circle around one barrel, race to another and circle it, then do the same around a third before running the arena’s length at full speed back into the gate. Touching a barrel doesn’t hurt anything, but five seconds is added to the horse’s time for each one that’s knocked over.
“It’s just a fun way to find out whose horse is faster,” McCarty said. “But some futurities now pay a quarter-million dollars to the winner.”
The winner after Tuesday’s 6 p.m. finals in John Justin Arena will race off with $4,100 from the $20,000 purse that pays in 10 places. That’s the kind of money that lured Doug Smith, 54, of Ward, Ark., away from training horses in other styles and into barrel racing.
“I’ve been barrel racing since I was 16,” Smith said. “When the dollars got right, I quit training other horses and stuck with barrels and poles.”
In Monday afternoon’s senior class — horses have to be 6 or older — Smith was racing a 6-year-old bay mare named Roses For Ragtime that he bred, raised and trained for Kristi Schiller at the Schiller Ranch in College Station.
Roses bumped the first barrel just a little too hard, and it fell, giving the horse a 20.44 time.
“The ground just kind of went out from under her, because she was running so hard,” Smith said. “When you’re at this level of competition, you can’t hold back, and she knows that.”
A lot of “try” is the mark of a good barrel racing horse, said Kelly Yates, 56, of Pueblo, Colo.
“You need athletic ability, fast feet and a lot of try,” Yates said. “That means they like to do it and enjoy this job.”
There’s no denying that everyone in barrel racing enjoys it, said Raymond Toole, 68, an AQHA and APHA event judge from Kentucky who was keeping track of entries Monday. But nothing about being a guy gives one an advantage over the women.
“I raced barrels and poles when I was in my 20s,” Toole said. “By the time I was 30, I was getting too heavy to compete.”
Indeed, young Paige Jones, whose mom, Kay, said weighs 70 pounds soaking wet, got a 15.7 in her first go-round and stood a good chance of being among the 65 who advance to the final.
“So far, the cutoff is 16.1,” Kay Jones said. “But we’ve got the amateurs and juniors to get through tomorrow.”
Sitting lighter in the saddle is an advantage, but it isn’t everything, McCarty said. The barrel rider who won the last two National Finals Rodeos was a woman, McCarty said.
That was Sherry Cervi, 38, of Marana, Ariz., who has been around rodeo since she was born and started winning championships in 1994.
“You still have to have horsemanship skills.” McCarty said.