It took about $48,000 to earn a barrel racing berth in last year's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and most of the cowgirls had to compete in 50 to 70 rodeos to rustle up enough cash to qualify for the Las Ve gas championships.
But Lind say Sears of Ropesville, a former Texas Tech competitor, has all but clin ch ed a spot in this year's NFR in December after earning $61,500 at the Houston stock show last weekend.
"It's a very hard road to the NFR, and knowing that I've got it made in March is a big relief," said Sears, 27, a two-time National Finals qualifier. "It's a feeling that I've never had before. Now I can relax a little."
The $61,500 was the largest paycheck ever awarded at a regular-season show that counts toward qualifying for the NFR. It surpassed the previous record of $60,000 earned by 2007 Houston champion barrel racer Codi Baucom.
And all of the champions in Houston can thank the rodeo's organizers for cutting an unusual deal with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association last year that allowed all of the $50,000 final-round prize money to count toward a world title.
At this year's Houston rodeo, which concluded its 19-day run on March 22, Sears won $11,500 in the preliminary rounds to go with the $50,000 for turning in the fastest final-round time aboard her prize horse Martha at Reliant Stadium.
Sears' victory sends a clear message that she's the one to beat in the 2008. She came pretty close in 2007 after getting on a roll late in the year and finishing second in the world standings with $230,796.
With recent earnings of more than $85,000, Sears leads the world title race, but she plans to give Martha some time off and will use the prized mount only at select rodeos the rest of the season.
"Basically, my goal is to look after my horse, to be selective where I go and keep her healthy," Sears said. "From now on, Martha is going to less rodeos and I'm going to save her."
The Walker County Fair and Rodeo in Huntsville is one of those little rodeos that could.
It could easily be a run-of-the-mill, community rodeo that draws weekend cowboys who compete on the regional level.
But fans in the Huntsville area are fortunate to have an innovative organizing committee that devises clever methods to attract many of the world's top competitors. One unusual feature of the rodeo, which ran March 28-29, is that many of the Profes sional Rodeo Cowboys Association's top timed-event competitors were entered in tie-down roping, steer wrestling and team roping. That's because the organizing committee contributes twice as much added money in the three timed events as it does in the three roughstock events of bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding.
That was an attractive draw for competitors such as six-time world tie-down roping champion Roy Cooper and four-time world team roping champion Allen Bach.
Roughstock fans also got to see world-class cowboys be cause the committee hired stock contractor Stace Smith of Athens, who has been named the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's Stock Contractor of the Year the past four years.
Smith has a loyal following among roughstock riders because he supplies the kind of broncs and bulls that can help a cowboy finish in the money.
? Brett Hoffman is a rodeo columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He can be reached at email@example.com.