Running a 3-year-old barrel horse down the alleyway is a delicate art, and Leslie Willis is a master sculptor in the juvenile industry. Willis captured her third Super Stakes championship at the 2021 Barrel Futurities of America (BFA) World Championships in Guthrie, Okla. aboard Im Gunnin For Ya, a 2018 gelding by Furyofthewind. He is out of Senorita Seis, a daughter of Tres Seis, and turned in a blistering time of 15.370 with Willis. Barrel Racing Magazine sat down with the North Carolina native as she shared her five steps for winning big money on juvenile horses.
Step 1. Find a colt that you like.
The first step for winning is picking out your champion. Some may be tempted to find a horse with popular bloodlines or a lower price tag rather than picking a partner that compliments their riding style and ability. Willis prefers a horse that has running bloodlines and knows how to go fast, so she picks many prospects off the Quarter Horse racetracks.
“They suit me. I struggle with the ones who don’t know how to run,” she said.
As for Im Gunnin For Ya, Willis credits Trey Ellis for helping her purchase the colt. Ellis was training the 2018 gelding for a racing career and had a hunch he would fit Willis’s program.
Picking a Super Stakes mount applies even more pressure because there is only one shot at the check for each rider.
“We work 10 to 15 horses to be the following year’s crop, and it seems like one or two always rise like cream to the top that become my main focus. I picked him (Im Gunnin For Ya) because he was consistent, I thought he was a placer. Another reason is all of the connections that are tied to that horse,” Willis explained of how she broke down her 2021 pick.
The connections that Willis referred to are with the Copper Springs team. Willis has competed in the Copper Springs Ranch slot for many years, and Im Gunnin For Ya’s dam is housed at the ranch. The 2021 BFA marked the first year that the Copper Springs Ranch team had the opportunity to witness Willis’s win in person.
Step 2. Keep their mind right.
Some horses may not be cut out for the high pressure and bright lights of competition during their futurity year, so Willis is careful not to push them too far or sacrifice their mental health. For the ones that look like they will be able to handle competition, she has a few tricks to make the transition from at-home training to on-the-road competition a little easier.
Willis notes that many horses handle a day trip away from the house well but can fall apart when they stay overnight away from home. To prepare her colts for larger events, Willis hauls them to indoor arenas and stalls them for at least one night. She also exhibitions the horses multiple days in a row at larger races so that they get a feel for making multiple runs in one location and get accustomed to various crowd sizes, banners, and other distractions.
Im Gunnin For Ya had struggled during his BFA exhibitions, so Willis made sure to regain his focus during the open arena time.
“I wanted him to really focus on his pattern and his barrels. I didn’t run him through, but I did gallop him through, make my turns, and make him pay attention to me,” she explained. “Then I let him look around and tried to make him as comfortable in that pen as possible.”
Step 3: Have a supportive team.
Falling ill during the BFA event could have taken many riders out of contention, but Willis had a trusted team in place that had her back. Jason Willis, Leslie’s husband, stepped up to help her prepare her horses. Stephanie and Brent Wheeler also stepped in to help throughout the week.
It is also vital to have a team of equine professionals in your corner. Willis emphasizes that if she is struggling with a horse, she may seek out the opinions of multiple veterinarians to give the horse the best chance at healing. Farriers and chiropractors are also important pieces to add to your circle.
Avoiding pride and being willing to ask industry professionals for help if you are struggling with your horse can also help give you the best chance at success. Willis is also quick to thank her sponsors, Classic Equine and Cox Vet Lab for their products that keep her horses feeling and working great.
Step 4: Learn to control your thoughts.
“There’s no secret. I enjoy the slot races because it just comes down to whoever’s day it is. It’s a fun race because you don’t worry about the average or any other factors, you just push the gas pedal and hope it works out,” Willis said of the key to strategizing for high-stakes races.
When Kassie Mowry clocked a 15.490 aboard Force The Goodbye, many Super Stakes contestants thought they were running for second-place money. However, Willis put aside her reservations and focused on doing the best for Im Gunnin For Ya.
“It’s more about focusing on the horse and keeping him quiet, calm, and collected. I just let my nerves go out the door,” she said. “I really focus on what it takes to make them pay attention and what I can do to keep them calm. I don’t have time to get nervous.”
Step 5: Don’t take yourself too seriously.
From the outside looking in, the futurity circle may appear to be filled to the brim with cutthroat competitors. However, Willis shares some behind-the-scenes moments that show the community feel at the futurities.
“They had a bet that if Ty (Marks) was in the top 12, he got to shave Scott Duke’s head. Scott is the owner of the horse Ty was riding. Brian Wheeler said, ‘If I’m in the top five, I’ll swim the lake at Lazy E.’ They gave Jason, my husband a hard time. He agreed that if I won the Super Stakes, he would backstroke in the middle of the pond,” Willis said. “It couldn’t have gone any better for our group of friends out there.”
When the dust settled, Wheeler finished fifth aboard Stoli My Firewater and cashed a check for $14,000, and Ty Marks captured $11,000 for finishing in the No. 7 position aboard Shakemup Frenchboy, so all bets were won on the part of the riders. “It was a fun week. One that our group will remember and cherish forever,” she added. She also included that the staff at the Lazy E and other competitors were having a great time keeping tabs on the bet status as it progressed. “I think they were more excited about Jason swimming than anything,” she laughed.