At 62, Kathy Petska is a California Circuit Barrel Racing Legend Who’s Never Slowed Down

Kathy Petska's unique style and approach to barrel racing has helped her remain a strong force into her 60s.
Kathy Petska barrel racing
Kathy Petska , Red Bluff Roundup | 2019 | Hubbell Rodeo Photos

It’s telling, about barrel racing legend Kathy Petska, that she has no idea how many times she’s won the California Circuit.

It’s also telling that, last year, she chose not to go to the NFR Open—stating she loves her horse too much to make him run in the Colorado Springs mud.  

That horse, at 15, is still a world-beater. But Dineromademefamous (“Jeffrey”) also got her through thyroid cancer a few years ago. He helped her through the deaths of both her father and brother within 15 months of each other. And he’s getting her through the full-time care of her mother now, who’s suffering the effects of those losses. 

“Jeffrey is why I could get out of bed,” Petska said. “No one gets it. But my friend Sue [Smith], who was holding him for me in San Diego, laughed when I came back and said, ‘that horse was watching you and whinnying for you!’” 

Petska herself, 62, is no less a unicorn than her horse. Like Smith, she stomps girls decades younger in the barrel pen. And she makes her horses herself. She also trained 14-year-old Bet On This Lion from a foal–a mare that’s running just as tough as Jeffrey.   

Petska’s Roots

Growing up in Oklahoma, Kathy’s dad owned a sale barn and she always had horses. But as a young woman, she drove a cement truck for a living. It wasn’t until she met and married Monty Joe Petska back in 1989 that she got serious about training. After all, his sister-in-law Gail Petska is a two-time world champion barrel racer. 

“I picked up a lot from the Petska family, and when I was younger, I rode with (NFR qualifier) Pam Ross,” Kathy said. “But Monty’s daddy worked in the mines and trained barrel racing and calf roping horses – he trained the horse Jimmie Munroe won the world on. Mostly, too, my husband always roped on my horses. That’s what really helped me, because that teaches them to rate.” 

Jeffrey’s Roots

In fact, she and Monty Joe raised Jeffrey, but she never stepped onto the colt until he was 5. He’s just a handful. He could jump out from underneath her or bite her at any moment. So, they roped on him first. Kathy truly feels that a horse needs to stick that leg up under itself to get around a steer, and it’s the same to get around a barrel.  

Jeffrey’s origins are ironic. Years ago during a foray in Texas, Kathy was sitting on a Dash Ta Fame/Lanes Leinster mare that she didn’t own when it inexplicably flipped over, breaking Kathy’s leg. Afterward, Petskas decided to accept a free breeding of the mare to Dinero. 

“I remember laying in that hospital and hearing them tell me, ‘We’re going to give you a baby out of that mare that took you out!”   

Kathy Petska

On the Road

But here we are. People have encouraged her to go ahead down the road. She has the horses. But she’s never been interested in running down that alley in Las Vegas.  

“Monty’s been to the NFR 14 times, so 10 or 11 years with me, and I feel like I’ve been there,” she said. “I have fun staying in my circuit.” 

That includes being invited to the inaugural San Diego Rodeo this January. Backed by Outriders concert promoters, the San Diego Padres, and C5 Rodeo, it was the first-ever rodeo at the Padres’ Petco Park.  

“We stayed out at the Del Mar fairgrounds, which is gorgeous, and those people rolled out the red carpet,” said Petska. “The ground was great. Even Monty, who’s been in the Thomas and Mack all those times, said when he walked out into that baseball stadium with me, it was unreal.” 

The audience loved it, and she said organizers were talking about producing another in Phoenix and one in New York later in the year. Kathy won $14,063 for third in the baseball stadium behind the champ–her friend Smith. 

“I’ve gotten a lot of help from Sue,” Petska said. “If I have a problem, she’s the first one I’m on the phone with. She was born and raised in San Diego, so that was fun!” 

Unlike Smith, however, Petska has never really gotten into futurities.  

Petska’s Training Philosophy

“I just can’t get colts ready in time,” she said. “I go slow. We rope off them. But every horse I have, I could send to you, and you could crawl on his back and probably outrun me. Anybody can ride my horses.” 

She actually took Jeffrey to a few futurities, but “he had the potential to really blow himself up,” she said. Petska drew him out of the last round of an early futurity, went home and he was roped on, maybe taken to a couple of jackpots. The next year, he was great. 

“Cory [Petska] taught Monty that you cannot get mad at those Dinero horses,” Kathy recalled. “If you get mad, you’d better go to the house and have a glass of tea. Then, it’ll be a better horse in the long run. Because in the wrong hands, those horses can have that fire taken out of them.” 

As much as she credits her husband with help training, she won’t take much, herself. She likes to quote her dad’s friend, the late Benny Guitrone – an NRCHA Hall-of-Famer who always insisted that it’s good horses that make good trainers. 

Kathy and Monty Joe have made a living horseback by staying frugal, investing wisely, and making and selling horses. She said they were still in a Capri camper when everyone was buying living-quarters trailers. And while Kathy’s enjoyed traveling with barrel racers after years of buddying with her husband, she misses team roping and might crack her heading horse back out. 

It’s that carefree attitude, surely, that sends her to the pay window over and over. Petska likes to joke that the cancer scar on her throat is from that time her husband tried to kill her. And she’s liable to check the weather report before deciding whether to drive east and run for that $25,000 at the NFR Open in July. She recently chatted about that with Smith, a fellow cancer survivor, and they decided they’re just fine staying home and riding colts.  

“Every time I throw a leg over my horse, there’s no pressure on me to win,” explained Petska. “That’s a big deal. It’s hard to win when you really want to win. This is about fun, and my husband reminds me of that every time.”