Saddle up

Barrel racers, team ropers gathering at Exhibition Park

They've waited two months for this, forced to rejig the schedule due to the wildfire situation in August.

All that smoke spoiled the show for barrel racers and team ropers who entered in the BC Northern Exhibition, but it's game on this weekend.

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They'll be coming out of the woodwork from B.C. and Alberta to Exhibition Park with horses in tow, knowing local sponsors have kicked in some significant prize money. The barrel racers have a $6,000 added purse, over and above what they'll raise through entry fees, while the team ropers will have $9,000 to add to the pot, which makes it the second-richest team roping event in B.C. this year.

"We had to cancel because the horses couldn't breathe properly if they exercised in all that smoke so we put it off and decided to go for the gusto and have the final roping and barrel racing of the year with some added money in it," said barrel racing draw organizer Nora Walach. "We planned it for this weekend and we couldn't ask for better weather."

It appears Mother Nature will cooperate, at least for today, with mostly sunny skies and a high of 12 C expected. Periods of rain and a high of 8 C are expected for Sunday, which might make the arena a bit slippery for Day 2 of the team roping.

The quickest barrel racer in the open class will likely leave the arena with a $1,000 cheque, not bad for 15 seconds of work. That's not counting the hundreds of hours it takes to train a horse to run the barrels. The junior (16-and-under) and senior (55-and-over) age categories will each have $250 added to the purse, while the three peewees (11-and-under) entered will have $100 added.

One to watch is four-year-old peewee racer Paisley Schick, who started racing barrels when she was three.

"She's just so tiny and she sparkles when she rides," said Wallach. "There's tons of kids and they come to penning events all the time during the winter and they do big ropings in the winter also."

For this event only, anybody can enter the open regardless of their age, so some of the younger riders will enter two classes. The open class has 72 entries and the four quickest will receive payouts. Wallach said the pros who plan their calendar around events like the BCNE won't be here this weekend but there will still be plenty of talented riders in the field.

Chelsea Wallach, Samantha Wilton and Codi Malton, all of Prince George, are among the entries in the open class. Malton is also in the junior competition and could push seasoned competitors Fallon Jones and Nevada Jones for the title. Local riders Bailey Larson, Wynter Payjack, Katie Hall, Lyndsay Houchin and Lainy Proctor are also competing as juniors.

The dirt at Exhibition Park is pristine and should provide superb footing for the animals. New ground was trucked in this year and the organizers spent time Friday picking up rocks in the alleyway that leads to the arena to make the ground even more conducive to fast times.

The one-day barrel racing event starts at 10 a.m. today and will wrap up around noon, followed immediately by the team ropers, who will be on for about four hours. Sunday's roping runs from 10 a.m. to about 3 p.m.

Carl Hyde, who stuck his hand up to take on the team roping organizing duties, will also compete this weekend. He's got a ringer for a partner in the open event - his son-in-law Murdock Keith of Clyde, Alta., a two-time qualifier for the Canadian Finals Rodeo. Keith will be roping the head and Hyde will be chasing after the heels. Hyde will also be heeling with his 12-year-old granddaughter, Nevada Keith, who will be roping heads in Sunday's competition.

Each roper can enter as a member of as many as four teams, with 100 teams expected in the open division today. To try to even the competition, each roper is assigned a number according to ability (1-9 for headers, 1-10 for heelers) and that handicap system will come into effect Sunday in the Number 11 team roping competition. In that event, the combined ratings of the two riders cannot exceed 11. Hyde is expecting as many as 200 entries in that.

The open event will have $4,000 added to the purse, while the No. 11 event has $5,000 added.

"We've got a bunch of ropers coming from Alberta and a bunch coming from Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Merritt, Kamloops, Ashcroft and Cache Creek," said Hyde. "There's going to be some pretty high-profile ropers here, some pretty handy guys."

The livestock is making the trek from Quesnel and there should be plenty to choose from for the ropers with 70 head of Longhorn cows available to be sent out of the chutes.

Hyde said there's renewed interest in the Prince George Rodeo Association team roping club, which he said should boost participation in their winter practice sessions and competitions at the Livestock Arena. Newcomers to the sport can practice their roping skills with a Heel-O-Matic roping dummy, which resembles a cow with horns that kicks up its heels as it follows a predictable path in the arena.

"We've had a lot off success with it in the last two years," said Hyde.

Hyde said Murdock Keith will be coming back to Prince George in November to teach a roping school.

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