Best foot forward in Gooding

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Rodeo honored by barrel racers for having the best ground in the circuit

Michelle Darling and her horse, Martini, round a barrel during the first day of competition at the 2022 Gooding Pro Rodeo. Darling won the rodeo in an arena-record time.

GOODING, Idaho – The best racehorses in the world are adaptable, able to perform at a high level no matter the conditions.

The better the foundation, though, the better the chance to see something special on the track. In the world of rodeo, the racehorses are jockeyed by women who run their mounts through a cloverleaf pattern, showing the tremendous speed and whirlwind turning capacity of the equine stars.

The appraisal of such horses can be phenomenal, with some horses being valued in six figures. Because of that, the ladies in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association show their appreciation to rodeos that take special care of their ground by honoring them with the annual Justin Best Footing Awards.

For each of the past three years, Gooding Pro Rodeo has been recognized as having the best ground in the Wilderness Circuit, a series of rodeos primarily in Utah and southern Idaho. It’s an honor local organizers hope continues during this year’s event, set for Thursday, Aug. 17-Saturday, Aug. 19, with a special “Beauty and the Beast” performance set for Wednesday, Aug. 16. All performances take place at 8 p.m. at Andy James Arena.

“When you win an award like that the first time, it makes you feel really good about what you’re doing with your rodeo,” said Don Gill, the fair and rodeo’s manager. “You take pride in that, and you want to build on it. Now that we’ve won it three years in a row, we have set a standard that we want to reach every year. We want to have the best ground in the circuit. Heck, we want to have the best ground in rodeo.”

It shows. In 2021, Ivy Saebens rounded the pattern in 16.89 seconds to set a new arena record. Saebens, a five-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier, matched that time a year ago. It was a fascinating feat, but she finished second.

Michelle Darling of Medford, Oklahoma, posted a 16.88-second run to open the rodeo with the lead, one she didn’t relinquish. She left Gooding with a new record and a story she’ll tell for years to come.

“That was my first time there, and I was up in slack after that first night,” Darling said, referring to the extra competition that took place after the Wednesday performance and allowed for nearly 80 extra barrel racers to make runs in Gooding. “People stayed around for slack and cheered us on.

“The ground was really good. I don’t know what they did to make their ground so good, but whatever it was worked. I think what makes that rodeo special to me is the added money and good ground.”

“Added money” refers to the local dollars that are mixed with contestants’ entry fees; combined, they make up the entire purse. By winning the rodeo, Darling pocketed nearly $4,300 in this southern Idaho gem.

“My horse (Martini) really liked the ground there, because it made it really fast,” she said.

The barrel racers take a variety of details into consideration when it comes to year-end awards. As with any vote, it comes down to a majority for the decision to be made. What works for one horse and rider may not work for another. The consensus is the determining factor.

“It’s tough, because everybody is different,” Darling said. “My horse could have worked great, but consistently fast times shows us good ground. Awarding one would be from consistent, fast ground. You can recognize that when girls are clocking and outrunning their own times.” That seems to be the norm at the Gooding Pro Rodeo, and barrel racing’s best are reaping the rewards.


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