There shouldn’t have been any nerves. After all, Kathy Grimes had done this so many times before.
The 52-year-old barrel racer from Medical Lake has been honing her horse-riding skills and competing in rodeos across the country for years.
Despite her long history in the spotlight, Grimes couldn’t help but feel anxious, because this wasn’t just any rodeo that she had seen in the past – this was the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. This was the last stop for the top competitors of the season to go head-to-head on a national stage in Las Vegas.
It was Grimes’ first trip to the NFR, which ran Dec. 7-16. Her first ride on Dec. 7 brought about a few unwanted nerves while waiting offstage before her run in the national spotlight.
“We’ve barrel raced hundreds of times and my horse and I, I mean we’re a great team, but at the same time, you’re just like, ‘Gosh, I hope we know how to do this when we run in there,’” Grimes said. “But of course once you get started and take off, everything comes back to memory.”
Grimes and her mare Justiceweexpected “Issy” finished their opening race with a time of 13.85 seconds, good enough for fourth place and an $11,000 reward.
Three nights later, Grimes and 10-year-old Issy finished fifth with a time of 13.73 seconds, earning her another $6,769.23. She posted her fastest time of 13.68 in the third round on Dec. 9, which earned her an eighth-place finish for the night, but no reward.
On the seventh night, Issy hit a barrel, which added five seconds onto Grimes’ final time. She and Issy finished last that night, posting a time of 19.17 seconds.
In the final round on Dec. 16, Grimes and Issy posted 13.97 seconds, a ninth-place finish.
“It was a grueling marathon,” Grimes said. “I’m sure for the horses (it was) physically and mentally exhausting for them.”
Grimes’ busiest month last season was in February, when she traveled to Texas for a series of rodeo appearances. Those trips didn’t equate to the exhausting grind at the NFR. Grimes raced Issy about 10 times in the entire month of February, but the mare was expected to run the same number of races in 10 consecutive nights.
Grimes decided to take Issy off two races at the NFR and she switched to her second horse, Blazin Nine Oh “Ruby”, in the eighth round on Dec. 14. The seven-year-old mare, who doesn’t run quite as fast as Issy and is usually worked in bigger pens, hit a barrel in her first run out. She finished the round at 18.97 seconds.
The next night, Ruby avoided the barrels. Grimes posted 14.05 seconds, finishing ninth in Ruby’s last run in the rodeo before Issy took over in the final round the next night. The finish put Grimes back in the average at seventh place overall in the competition to earn nearly $11,500.
Her finish also earned her a 12th-place ranking in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association’s 2017 world standings.
“I learned a lot this time, and I really hope I get to go again so that I can utilize some of the experience I got there,” Grimes said.
During the 2017 season, which ran from Oct. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30, 2017, Grimes earned roughly $111,000. Her earnings moved her to sixth in the world rankings for barrel racers ahead of the season finale – good enough to fill one of the 15 spots for barrel racers at the NFR.
It was a long season for Grimes and her pair of four-legged athletes. She, Issy and Ruby were on the road for the majority of the year, traveling roughly 40,000 miles to competitions mostly in the South.
“The first couple years she went down there, it wasn’t great,” said Kayla Jones, a Medical Lake native who stood behind Grimes at the NFR and helped care for her horses throughout the 10-day competition. “It was a learning curve. When you go down to those areas where girls literally barrel race every day, it’s a lot different.”
But this year, something clicked. Near the beginning of February, Grimes took Issy to Fort Worth, Texas, to race in the World’s Original Indoor Rodeo for the third time in her career. Grimes was the runner-up in that showing also, which earned her nearly $14,000.
Grimes took Issy to the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. The pair took second place and earned $24,000 for the finish.
At the end of the month, Grimes headed east to compete in RodeoHouston. She gave Issy some time off and rode Ruby instead. Grimes finished second again and took home $28,000.
Grimes returned to the snow in Medical Lake on Wednesday after being on the road for more than a month. She’ll head back to the South in mid-January to prepare for competitions in the same trio of rodeos in Texas that she ran in February.
Grimes usually makes her way back to Medical Lake in April, when she helps her husband care for their 30-plus horses on their ranch.
When she’s not competing, Grimes puts her experience as a veterinarian to work. She runs her Nine-Oh Barrel Horses business, which includes breeding, raising and training her horses to become top-of-the-line barrel racers.
“Her life’s work has been to create these barrel horses, and to improve every year and every set of horses she’s had,” Jones said.
Breeding winners is Grimes’ passion outside the rodeo. She sells most of the babies after a few years on her ranch to people looking for strong competitors. It’s her way of continuing a legacy of winners, which includes Issy and Ruby.
“It’s such an exhilarating feeling when you have been able to train this horse. And we’re talking 100ths of seconds make the difference between first and last, or not even getting a check,” Grimes said. “To be able to fine-tune your timing with the horse and how they work, they’re just so amazing. I can’t imagine my life without horses.”
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