Rookie Moves: The Resistol Rookie of the Year Legacy 

The second Rookie Roundup presented by Resistol kicks off on April 28 in Fort Worth—learn the history behind the coveted Resistol Rookie title in WPRA barrel racing.
Taci Bettis turns a barrel at the NFR.
Taci Bettis, 2017 Resistol Rookie of the Year, at the 2017 NFR. Image by Hubbell Rodeo Photos.

On April 28-29, 2023 Cowtown Coliseum will host the second annual The Cowboy Channel Rookie Roundup Presented by Resistol, bringing back the first of its kind event soley for ProRodeo Rookies. The WPRA’s barrel racing rookies will be there battling for points including the top two current contenders for the title, Kalli McCall and Rainey Skelton.

The Resistol Rookie of the Year title has been recognized for WPRA barrel racers in their first season as a professional since 1967, the first year that barrel racing was included in the National Finals Rodeo. 

Why is the Resistol Rookie title so prestigious?

For one, everyone only gets one chance to win it. Secondly, winning the rookie championship is usually a precursor to further success as a pro—in fact, of the 56 ladies to earn the title in barrel racing, 40 have competed at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) at least once in their careers (34 during their rookie campaigns) and five have WPRA World Championships to their credit.

Here are some more interesting facts about the WPRA’s Rookies of the Year:

Raising the Bar — Rookie Barrel Racing Records Fall

Fort Worth, Texas, teenager Bayleigh Choate shocked the veterans of the sport by earning more than any other WPRA barrel racer during the Fourth of July run in 2022. Then, she went on to compete at the 2022 NFR, finishing second in the aggregate on 10 runs.

Her $182,971 in earnings on the year also surpassed the previous rookie season earnings record.

Choate eclipsed the previous mark by just over $18,000, which had been held by Jackie Ganter during her fabulous rookie season in 2015. Ganter also holds a unique piece of history as the only former WPRA Junior World Champion to go on to claim Resistol Rookie of the Year.

Of course, growing rodeo purses have meant falling earnings records across the sport of ProRodeo in recent years (as evidenced by the fact that the six best rookie seasons have happened in the last nine years) but rookies today have less access to major rodeos, particularly those in the winter months, than rookies of years ago due to the increase of limits and advent of tournament style rodeos.

Top 10 WPRA Rookie Seasons

1. $182,971 by Bayleigh Choate, 2022 

2. $164,780 by Jackie Ganter, 2015 

3. $164,484 by Taylor (Jacob) Hanchey, 2013 

4. $162,446 by Taci Bettis, 2017

5. $133,699 by Cayla (Melby) Small, 2016 

6. $89,003 by Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi, 2003

7. $88,148 by Vickie Carter, 2015 to finish second to Ganter

8. $77, 569 by Taycie Matthews, 2022 to finish second to Choate

9. $72,300 by Carly Taylor, 2019

10. $64,914 by Gloria Freeman, 2000

Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi, the leader of the Pack from the Start.

Though many rookies have found their way to rodeo’s championship event, Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi was the first to go into NFR as number one, a record still unmatched. Tonozzi won $12,925 at the Pace Picante ProRodeo Classic in Dallas on the final weekend to jump to the lead in the standings with $79,061 for the regular season. 

It’s worth noting that her rookie year, 2003, was also the year of the 50 rodeo max count for all competitors and Pozzi filled her permit in the spring then ran out to the lead in just 48 rodeos. By comparison, without limitation, Choate competed in 90 a year ago and Ganter at 101—in fact, the smallest winning total in past decade has been 38 rodeos by Paige Jones in the COVID affected 2020. 

1987—A whole hoard of rookies in Vegas

The 1987 NFR deserves a mention as a full third of the field were rookies that year. 

“It was awful, threatening the whole time,” Lana Merrick joked. Merrick entered her first NFR second in the WPRA World Standings but her great horse, Scoti Flit Bar, suffered an injury during the pre-NFR practice. 

With daily reassurance from her veterinarian that no further damage would be done, she competed, winning a go round to hold off a strong challenge from Canadian cowgirl Trish Brown. Brown earned more than $18,000 to move from 15th to 6th in the standings, leaving Merrick just $2,730 ahead for the Rookie title.

“We didn’t quite have the NFR we hoped for but we won a round and had a decent NFR,” Merrick said, noting that without a back-up horse, she was ready to turn out and head home without Dr. Beeman’s continued affirmations. 

In the end, Scoti pulled out the win. 

“I was really proud of him.”

Merrick’s rookie season started off rocky when her superstar derby horse actually ran off at Odessa.

“Like no-time, ran off,” she laughed. “We came from the derbies and he wasn’t used to the big rodeos. When the band struck up there at Odessa, they hit the drums and he grabbed his tail and that was it!”

Big winter rodeos like Houston were challenging but provided invaluable seasoning and by mid-summer, Merrick had hit her stride, setting arena records at Omaha and Ellensburg. Still, the Rookie title was not on her mind when she first purchased her card.

“When we stepped into the pros, I was just hoping I was right that he was capable of running with them,” she admitted. Of course, times were different then and Merrick said she wasn’t even aware of the rookie race brewing until late into the fall.

“We didn’t have the media like now, I remember you had to call the office [for results and standings] and they were always a couple of weeks behind,” she said. “You had no idea what anyone else was doing so you didn’t know if you needed to go harder.”

Luckily, Scoti excelled in the large arenas in the Northwest and the weather was much cooler than home in Oklahoma so Merrick stayed on the road, earning valuable dollars that helped seal the championship following the final round of the NFR.

“That final round, the person closest to me [Brown] had a nice run and mine was just decent and we were all there just counting it down,” she said. “My Dad was with me there and he kept saying, ‘you’re ok.’”

Ten days after refusing to take the rookie saddle and awards at the WPRA’s NFR kick-off awards luncheon for fear of jinxing herself and the large lead she’d built, Merrick was able to claim all the spoils and still remains proud of the accomplishment.

“I’ve very proud of winning Rookie of the Year,” she said. “It’s such an honor and you only get one chance at it.”

Merrick finished that season fourth in the WPRA World Standings behind legends Charmayne James, Marlene Eddleman and Deb Mohon with Brown sixth. 

Behind them were Kappy Nelson (10th), Gail Beebe (12th) and Nancy Wells (13th), finishing out the fullest rookie field at the NFR.

Scoti would go straight from that NFR into surgery, making an amazing return to top form to  qualify again in 1989; unfortunately, Merrick lost the gelding too soon to a rare blood disease. Today, the WPRA’s Rising Star award is given by Merrick in Scoti’s memory to recognize the achievements of a horse making its first NFR appearance.

Despite the days of worry for her horse, Merrick still enjoyed being part of the historical field of rookies in 1987.

“It was a fun time for sure.”

1991 — Another Rookie Resurgence

Although the five rookies at the NFR in 1987 is believed to be the most competing in the championship event in a single season, the feat was almost matched just four years later in 1991 when four rookies qualified.  Donna Kennedy claimed top honors that year after earning $42,078 for the year, just about $3,400 ahead of Lita Scott-Price. Montana cowgirls Shelley Bird-Matthews and Mary Salmond rounded out the quartet.

A Rookie without Disadvantage

Patti Mack-Prather may have been Rookie of the Year in 1967 but she had an advantage that season that no other rookie has had—every barrel racer at the 1967 NFR was experiencing what competing at rodeo’s SuperBowl felt like for the first time as it was the first year for WPRA barrel racing to be included with all the events. Mack-Prather finished fifth in the World that year.

First Time is the Charm

Four WPRA members have earned the coveted WPRA World Championship during their inaugural season as a professional. Ann Lewis won her title posthumously in 1968 while teenager Jackie Jo Perrin shocked the world with her title at the sudden death NFR in 1977—that win came after a final weekend win at the Cow Palace secured the Rookie title following the regular season. Perrin went on to win three rounds at the NFR to cinch the world title with $3,610 won at the Finals.

Lynn McKenzie and Magnolia Missile won the 1978 World title in their first ProRodeo season (see #7 below).

The last rookie to win a world title in barrel racing is the legendary Charmayne James, who took her first of ten straight championships during her rookie year in 1984.

A Rare Feat

Lynn McKenzie holds a unique record for rookies. Though she did not win Rookie of the Year in 1978—that title went to regular season champion Carol Goostree—McKenzie was crowned the WPRA World Champion after earning the title in the sudden death format at that year’s NFR. Incidently, Goostree won the world title a year later in 1979.

The Race within the Race

There have been numerous seasons where the rookie of the year title was determined at the NFR with more than one rookie qualified to the Finals. The most recent was 2015 when Jackie Ganter set what was then the earnings record as she held off the challenge by Vickie Carter during ten runs at the NFR. 

Prior to that, the last time at least two rookies made the NFR was when Peyton Raney and Nina Binder famously traded the lead with go round wins at their first NFR in 1997. Riding the legendary Hot Shot, who would go on to carry Janet Stover to a WPRA World title, Raney came out on top by just about $9,000.

Age is Just a Number

LeeAnn Rust proved that fact with her Rookie of the Year title in 2011. She was 53 years old during her inaugural season and would go on to qualify to the NFR the following year.