Courtesy the Wrangler Network
Apparently, the Extraco Events Center in Waco, Texas, has no respect for experience. For the past two years, the All American Pro Rodeo Series Finals, which is hosted by the Heart O’Texas Fair at the Extraco Events Center in Waco, has been won by a WPRA rookie barrel racer; in 2013, it was Victoria Williams and a year ago, the title went to Georgia with Sarah Rose McDonald.
The title in 2015 is staying right home in Texas but has once again been taken by a rookie cowgirl.
Tillar Murray grew up in Dallas riding on her grandparents ranch for fun before moving west to Fort Worth and really getting serious about her barrel racing. She embarked on her rookie year in 2015 with the idea to get some experience on the road before beginning college at the University of Texas in Austin.
“I had no expectations,” says Murray, who originally planned to wait until after college to buy her WPRA card but changed her mind due to the age of her horse. Tic Tac, a 2000 sorrel solid, is by Smart Lil Crimson out of Gracies Doll, is 15 this year. “I never thought I would end up going as much as I did or doing as well as I did.”
In fact, Murray claimed a huge victory at the Dodge City Round-Up in August just before ending her summer to get back to school. She finished 41st in the 2015 WPRA World standings with just over $31,000 won.
Murray entered the All American Finals, held just up the road from her new home in Austin, and drew Pool B, the middle set of the preliminary competition. Only 30 cowgirls qualified to compete in Waco and they were divided into three pools of competition. After two runs, the top three money winners from each pool moved on to the semi-finals.
Murray won the first go of her pool but hit a barrel in round two.
“Barrel racing is like that, the ups and downs,” she notes. “I was so upset that I hit that barrel and didn’t think I would advance.”
In fact, as her mother would soon tell her, she did move on to Saturday’s semi-final round.
Joining the qualified competitors in the final night’s action were three ladies from the final pool, held Thursday and Friday nights, October 15-16. The rookie theme held up in Pool C with leading 2015 rookie Jackie Ganter winning the opening round.
The second night went to a veteran, two-time World Champion Brittany Pozzi, who posted the fastest run of the rodeo at 15.93 for the win. Joining the pair in the semi-finals was newly crowned Badlands Circuit champion Calyssa Thomas, who also broke the 16-second barrier in round two to win second.
On the final night, each of the nine qualifiers from pool competition were given one run with the four fastest moving on to the finals held immediately after the semi-finals.
Pool A competitor Lisa Thornton led things off but hit a costly barrel. Three-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo cowgirl Michele McLeod followed and set the pace at 16.26 seconds. McLeod would get bumped on the very next rider, who happened to be her daughter Katelyn, another rookie. The younger McLeod’s 16.08 looked to be solid for advancement.
Andrea Cline came next but also suffered from penalty blues and then Murray punched her spot with a 16.19 as the next runner. All eyes were on Pozzi as the cowgirl with the hot hand but she would also tip a can and put herself out of contention.
Thomas continued her very hot streak with another sub-16 second run, a 15.97 that went to the lead and guaranteed her place in the finals with just two ladies left to run.
Ganter matched McLeod’s 16.26 and Florida cowgirl Megan Swint posted a 16.01, meaning Murray had snuck into the finals with a 16.19 to sit in the fourth and final qualified spot.
The four cowgirls had little time to catch their breath with the next round coming quickly.
“I was a little worried,” says Murray. “I had never run back-to-back like that. I was texting Martha [Wright, one of her mentors], saying ‘what do I do? Do I unsaddle?’ All these questions.”
Ready or not, the final round began. As the fourth qualifier into the finals, Murray was the first gunner in the final round.
“I decided I needed to just go for it,” she says. “I wasn’t sure that I had a chance against the those other girls . . . they are so tough.”
Tic Tac seemed to know the moment was big and posted the duo’s best time of the rodeo, a 15.95 second effort that set a high bar for the ladies to come. McLeod and Swint tied up with back-to-back runs of 16.11 seconds, leaving just one lady who could break the rookie cycle in Waco.
But a barrel came down for Thomas, putting the title squarely in the hands of the UT freshman.
“This win is so special to me because I haven’t felt like I’ve been riding good since I came to school and haven’t had my horse with me,” she says. “Not being able to practice has been a hard adjustment and really frustrating.”
Murray gave thanks to both Ed and Martha Wright for their help in tuning her horse and giving her advice and to her family too for helping her keep a positive outlook.
But the biggest praise goes to Tic Tac.
“He means the world to me. He’s what every girl dreams about,” she says. “He’s been such a blessing to me.”