"It's just another rodeo," former World Champion Steer Wrestler Byron Walker told me Thursday night. "It's just a great big one."
The Ennis, Texas rodeo star was fielding requests from friends, neighbors and acquaintances for access, tickets, and who-what-where with the adept skill of a country star's road manager. Was he nervous for his wife, barrel racer Mary Walker?
"They're about to kick this thing off, and this is it," he quipped, minutes before the first National Anthem was sung. "The hoopla is over, banquets are over, the awards are over, the pretty clothes are over. Now it's time."
So where was his wife?
Barrel racers aren't known to primp, but there was some serious primping going on behind the chute at Las Vegas's Thomas & Mack Center arena. For the first time, the top 15 barrel racers in the world had extra cash to run for.
But the only way to win is to look the part: Nail it in the dressing room.
The Women's Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) $5,000 Jerry Ann Taylor Award is named for a daring trick rider who will be remembered as someone who brought style, glamor and spirit to the rodeo arena.
Following her death in February, 2012, a fund was started to reward cowgirls who carry on Taylor's sense of style. The WPRA and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame collaborated to offer the new cash award at the 2012 Wrangler NFR as well as the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo Finals in Texas.
A $5,000 cash award will be given to the Best Dressed Barrel Racer at both rodeos.
After each night's WNFR performance, barrel racing fans and television viewers are invited to go to the WPRA web site and cast a vote for the barrel racer who, in their opinion, is following in Jerry Ann's steps with a cowgirl sense of style!
Here's the link: http://www.wpra.com/nfr_vote_2012_success15.asp
Scroll to the photo of the rider you'd like to see win the award, enter your email address (you can only vote once), and you're set!
Then you can sit back and look forward to what the rider have hanging in those garment bags to wear tonight! And tomorrow night! And the night after that!
Update: Maybe Byron Hunter's cool, calm road manager impersonation wasn't an act. Mary Walker won the first night's barrels with the scorching score of 13.75 on the leggy American Quarter Horse Association Barrel Racing Horse of the Year, Perculatin.
At 53, Walker is a rookie at the giant 10-day rodeo and cowboy-style takeover of Las Vegas. Her personal-best year follows a personal-worst year: in 2011, her son was killed in a truck accident while hauling horses, and Walker, who also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, crushed her pelvis and broke two vertebrae when Latte went down at a barrel, leading to months of hospitalization, surgery, wheelchairs and physical therapy.
Walker and her husband have launched the Reagon Walker Foundation in memory of their son; it will benefit rodeo riders in search of college scholarships.
Mary was one of the last riders to go; Latte's long stride and floating balance weren't hampered by the late ground. The win earned her $18,257, and moved her up to second in the world standings.
Add the $5,000 fashion award check to the total if one rider won all ten NFR barrel rounds: according to the WPRA, she would take home an incredible paycheck of $234,393.01. How's that for motivation?
"You cannot imagine how good that feels," Walker told Ted Hardin in a WPRA interview. "You always think about winning the round at the biggest rodeos. You don't really think about winning the round at the NFR being your first time, and being at the end of the ground. I'm just amazed and so excited."
Mary gave credit to her horse in the interview: "It doesn't matter to him if it's top of the ground or bottom of the ground," she said. "Latte, when you watch him run, he's very smooth and long-strided so he doesn't look like he's doing a lot out there. Then when you hear his time, you're just amazed. He's ready to go all the time, and he loves doing it.
"This year he has taken care of me, and I am just so dedicated to him."
Mary looked the part, too, wearing a vintage-style sweetheart-of-the-rodeo-style black cowgirl shirt and matching black hat.
The Wrangler NFR is broadcast on GAC, available on dish networks.
Read more about Mary on the NFR Insider web site: The Amazing Mary Walker