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Barrel racer Carter, Blaze fulfill WNFR dreams

When Vickie Carter rode into the arena at the Thomas & Mack Center on Thursday night, she made her official debut at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. It was yet another milestone in what’s been an incredible journey for the 60-year-old rookie barrel racer.

Yes, you read that correctly: a 60-year-old rookie.

And as amazing as that may sound, it’s but a small part of a touching, heart-wrenching and inspirational story in which Carter is living a dream while fulfilling the dreams of a rising young star in the world of barrel racing.

A few years ago, Rachel Hendrix was making all the right moves on an amazing horse, Blaze Ta Win. She was likely well on her way to the crowning achievement in her sport: a berth in the WNFR. Hendrix had won the Nevada high school barrel racing title and taken fourth in the National High School Finals Rodeo. By January 2014, a few months after graduating from Fallon High School, the 18-year-old college student was looking to compete full-time on the Women’s Pro Rodeo Association circuit.

But on Jan. 26, 2014, Hendrix died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping in the living quarters of her horse trailer. It was a tragedy that should never befall parents. Yet shortly thereafter, in an effort to pick up the pieces, Clay and Annette Hendrix sought out a dear family friend, someone who had coached Rachel, someone whose son had rodeoed with Rachel: Vickie Carter.

“At first, they asked me to put on a memorial barrel race for Rachel,” Carter said. “Then they said they wanted me to run Blaze in that race.”

Carter first needed to get better acquainted with the horse — something that went exceedingly well.

“I broke the arena record the first time I rode him, at St. George, Utah,” said Carter, who lives in Milford, Utah.

The memorial race didn’t go quite as well, she said, but that didn’t stop Clay and Annette from persisting to keep Carter in the saddle with Blaze.

“They asked if I’d like to ride him, and I said I’d be interested,” Carter said. “I said, ‘Let me take a year to get with him and see how it goes, and we’ll see where we’re at.’ And we were doing really well. So last October (2014), I got my tour card, then took third at Billings, Mont.

“So we said we’d go until the Fourth of July,” a time of year often referred to as Cowboy Christmas, because there are several lucrative rodeos going on. “And I just kept climbing in the standings.”

However, rodeo is a tremendous grind even for the youngest competitors. Long drives, long days and nights of waiting to ride, followed by more long drives. By the end of July, Carter was struggling to battle the fatigue.

“I was really tired,” she said. “And I had friend say, ‘If you think you’re tired now, wait ’til September.”

Part of the problem was that Carter was also handling much of her scheduling, picking events, doing paperwork, submitting entry fees and the like. So she made a move that helped take that off her plate, bringing in Ann Thompson, an expert at those matters for many contestants.

“That’s when Ann sent me to the northwest, and I had a really good run,” Carter said. “Ann said, ‘If you really want to go the Finals, you’re staying on the road for the next two months.’ Friends would sometimes drive with me, but a lot of times, I was alone. It was tough.”

But she kept finishing in the money and kept grinding.

“If you really want to do it, you have to hit four to five rodeos a week. You’re either driving or riding,” Carter said.

As the regular season was coming to a close, in the final week of September, Carter was pushing hard to finish among the top 15 money winners to earn that WNFR berth. She had four rodeos on the docket: Kansas City, Omaha, Apache, Okla., and Stephenville, Texas.

“I had a three-day break, then went to Kansas City. I was sitting 13th in the world standings, but I knew I really needed to put a run down there,” said Carter, who did just that by taking second. “That was the game-changer. That’s what clinched it for me.”

Good thing, too, because the next few days were dicey. The water pump on her truck blew in Omaha, forcing her to miss the Apache rodeo, and she had to hitch a ride with a friend to make Stephenville, where she cashed to finish a whirlwind week aboard her speedy steed.

“He’s just so fast and so quick, he turns so hard,” Carter said of Blaze. “It’s fun. It’s just unbelievable.”

Carter stayed in 13th, ending the regular season with $62,768, about $3,300 above the cut line as she earned that trip to Las Vegas and the WNFR.

“I’m just in awe, I guess,” Carter said. “For the longest time, I’d just have to pinch myself. It’s something a girl dreams about from the time she’s a kid. I thought I was done and wouldn’t have that chance.”

But she knows how that chance came about, which breaks her heart.

“The hardest thing for me is to have all this success, when Clay and Annette lost Rachel,” Carter said. “They’ve come out and backed me, tried to help me out there. I know it’s hard for them. How could they not wish it was Rachel?”

Carter said she knows Rachel is there in spirit.

“I feel her presence a lot. I know she’s there,” Carter said. “I believe that when you find a penny, that’s an angel talking to you. So whenever I find a penny, I put it in my pocket for my next run. I know Rachel has helped. And I’ve got a lot of other people supporting me.”

Most notably, parents who are watching their daughter’s dream ride on.

“They’re unbelievable people, and that horse is so talented. I’m just fortunate I’m the one who got chosen.”

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