Two-time World Champion Barrel Racer Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi said goodbye to her great gelding Yeah Hes Firen, known near and far as “Duke,” on December 23 at the age of 18. The flashy palomino gelding carried Brittany to the 2009 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Championship and at least seven of her 15 National Finals Rodeo qualifications.
“He’s a legend and always will be,” Brittany from her home in Lampasas, Texas. “When I was running him, social media wasn’t what it is now. The public in general only got to see him on TV at the NFR. I don’t think they got to comprehend his greatness. His dominance was just incredible.”
Yeah Hes Firen was bred by Phyllis Wells of Harrah, Oklahoma. He was by her homebred stallion Alive N Firen, a son of Fire Water Flit out of the Bugs Alive In 75, Thoroughbred mare WhichWitch S Witch. His dam was the double-bred Jet Deck mare Splendid Discovery, by the Easy Jet stallion Shoot Yeah.
Latricia Mundorf, then Duke, had ridden an Alive N Firen for a friend. Taken with the mare’s talent, she contacted Phyllis and her husband Tommy about prospects. She came home with a gangly, big-headed gelding she called “Ardy,” which was short for aardvark.
“He was not a pretty 2-year-old,” said Latricia. “He was fat and looked good, but he had that big ol’ head and little 2-year-old body. I’d later joke with Brittany saying, ‘Oh, you won by a nose!’”
Latricia said the gelding was “a hot mess” from the beginning. He never felt very “broke” to ride and he pranced everywhere.
“He was a hot mess from the get-go,” she said. “He was a teddy bear on the ground, but he pranced when he was 2 before he ever saw a barrel. From Day 1 though, he wanted to run barrels.”
She said the most difficult thing about Ardy was his tendency to hang his hip to the inside when going to the right.
“Doing anything to the right, he really stuck his hip to the inside,” she explained. “I would kick him in the flank going to the first barrel so I could get it behind me instead of beside me.”
Ardy made his debut at the 2006 Barrel Futurities of America Juvenile Futurity and placed deep in the average.
“He wasn’t really good at the first futurities and then I just decided that I was just going to try to go fast,” Latricia said. “I wasn’t going to worry about keeping him quiet. I wasn’t going to worry about him hanging his hip. I was just going to go fast because I knew he was going to turn his barrels.”
Ardy won the San Antonio Futurity and never looked back. Brittany, who was working her way to her first world championship with Sixth Vision (“Stitch”), was intrigued by the gelding.
“He was a beautiful color yellow with the whitest mane and tail,” said Brittany. “His tail drug the ground. He was a flashy horse. He was an eye-catcher.
“His flashy way of turning a barrel and his flashy color caught my eye. He wasn’t always a futurity winner but he always placed and he was very consistent. I liked the way he turned because he would stand up, and I was like, ‘Oh man, he’ll make a rodeo horse!’ When they stand up in a turn like that, they’ll make a rodeo horse.”
When Brittany first inquired about the gelding, Latricia told her she was waiting to hear back on a prior offer. When that buyer didn’t respond in the given timeline, Brittany got her chance at the Speedhorse Futurity in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2007.
“I told her I’ll vet check him tomorrow,” Brittany said. “She said, ‘Don’t you want to ride him?’ I said, ‘No, not really. I’ve seen you warm him up; I don’t want to ride him.’ We vetted him and the rest is kind of history.”
Ardy, now called “Duke,” would win nearly $50,000 his futurity year. He won the Fiddler’s Turkey Run Futurity with Brittany before she handed his reins to Sabra O’Quinn who ran him at the BFA World Championship Futurity while she was in Las Vegas for the NFR.
He made his pro rodeo debut at Goliad, Texas, just down the road from Brittany’s hometown of Victoria. His run in slack garnered his first pro rodeo check.
Although promising in his debut, Duke had a soft tissue injury that kept him on injured reserve for a time while Brittany continued to ride Stitch and other horses that would later influence her breeding program.
In 2009, Duke’s prowess as a rodeo horse would soon eclipse that of his stablemate Stitch.
“He just won first so much,” Brittany said. “Stitch was a great horse, but when people think about me, they think about Duke because he was big and flashy and won first … a lot.”
In his career, Duke had an amazing four wins at the California Rodeo in Salinas. He won the San Angelo (Texas) Stock Show & Rodeo three times. He had two wins a piece at the National Western in Denver (Colorado), National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City (Oklahoma), Red Bluff Roundup in California, Clark County Rodeo in Logandale (Nevada), and Elizabeth Stampede in Colorado.
Just a small sample of Duke’s wins include Tucson, Arizona; El Paso, Texas; Livermore and Santa Maria, California; Molalla and St. Paul, Oregon; Cody, Casper and Sheridan, Wyoming; Belle Fourche, South Dakota; Spanish Fork, Utah; Fort Smith, Arkansas; Missoula, Montana; North Platte, Nebraska; Pocatello, Idaho; Puyallup, Washington and Ponoka, Alberta along with many other Canadian rodeos.
“He had so many favorite rodeos,” said Brittany. “He did have his arenas that he absolutely loved. There weren’t many places that he didn’t love.”
For all that he had won for her, Brittany says what amazed her the most about Duke was his comeback from a nearly career-ending deep digital flexor tendon injury.
Right before the 2013 NFR, Duke was injured at the Elite barrel race in Waco, Texas. Brittany tried for two years to rehab the injury but finally turned him out to pasture on a friend’s ranch. After the 2017 NFR, Brittany got a surprise video from her friend. Duke was running, turning, playing hard and miraculously sound.
With the go ahead from her longtime veterinarian Marty Tanner, Brittany slowly brought Duke back to running shape. In the summer of 2018, Duke won Missoula, Puyallup and Salinas for the fourth time.
“I had tears of joy,” Brittany said, recalling her last Salinas championship on Duke. “That moment was indescribable. Winning second at Ellensburg, doing well at Puyallup…it was all so much fun.”
His last year on the road was 2019 when he contributed more than $10,000 to Brittany’s 14th NFR qualification.
Duke had developed a cicatrix, inflammation and scarring of upper airway structures from a yet to be determined source, which affected his breathing. That coupled with a bad slip at Ellensburg made Brittany retire her great gelding for good.
“When he got hurt (and retired the first time), it wasn’t on either one of our terms,” she said. “With these horses, you never know what their last run is going to be, but when I retired him the second time, it was easier accepting it because we got to stop when we wanted to stop. The first time was so abrupt, but this was on our terms.”
Although no official records were kept during the first portion of Duke’s rodeo career, he won well over $1 million in the arena.
The Duke & His Duchess
Brittany called him Duke because of Latricia, but the name suited him in many ways. He was larger than life, much like the Duke of the silver screen, John Wayne.
Rodeo announcer Bob Tallman would later call them to the arena as the Duke and his duchess, but in reality, Duke made Brittany a queen in the barrel racing industry.
Latricia had warned Brittany that Duke’s frenzied warm up would one day bleed over into his pattern, but it never did. She said Brittany’s willingness to let Duke be Duke is what made them a great team.
“Nobody else would have just left him alone,” Latricia said. “Everyone else would have tried to fix him. You could darn sure ruin him but you couldn’t fix him. She didn’t try to change anything. She just ran him and believed in him.”
Brittany said she never messed with his warm up because Duke always worked his pattern.
“It never affected his run, so I let him be him. Now, you better watch out in the warmup pen. I literally jumped on him and tried to lope a circle or two both ways. The great thing about him though, even as hot as he was, you could park him. If you got him somewhere and just stopped, he would just stand there and put his head down and chill, but when you took that first step away he became a psychopath,” she chuckled.
Duke’s hotness was never an issue in the rodeo seasoning process either. She never encountered any conditions or setups that took him off his game.
“It never phased him,” Brittany said. “He never once got scared or ducked. He was super confident from day one, even though he pranced everywhere we went. It didn’t matter where we were, if he saw three barrels, it was game on!”
Latricia said that Duke’s uniqueness taught her a lot as a trainer.
“He was just special,” she said. “He taught me that they don’t all have to fit in that mold of how we’re told they’re supposed to do it. You know how the book says they’re supposed to prepare for the turn and turn a barrel – he did none of that, but it worked.”
While she may have been the one to teach Duke the barrels, Latricia said it was Brittany that made him a legend.
Duke’s impact on Brittany cannot be overstated. Although their styles may be different, there are glimpses of Duke’s effective, efficient style in many of the horses that Brittany has trained, regardless of their bloodlines.
“He was such a winner and I think that rolled over into me and made me,” said Brittany. “I was so confident on that horse. He was such a goob and so fun to be around. He never made a mistake. He just made the same exact run every time. It was amazing how that horse could switch ends at a dead run. He wasn’t the fastest horse I’ve ever ridden in a straight line, but in a turn…he never had to slow down. The feel of that horse is indescribable, and I’ve never felt that on anything else.”