At 58 years young, veteran barrel racer Mary Burger wins her first Women's Professional Rodeo Association world championship in one of the tightest races in the organization's history.
Article and photographs by Kenneth Springer, originally published in the January 2007 issue of BHN
Rare Fred, owned by Ron Martin of Seal Beach, California, and trained and ridden by Mary Burger of Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, was voted the WPRA/AQHA Horse of the Year, an honor that went well with the 2006 WPRA world championship in barrel racing. Photo by Kenneth Springer
In one of the most dramatic down-to-the-wire finishes in the history of the Women's Professional Rodeo Association, Mary Burger of Pauls Valley, Okla., took home the ultimate barrel racing title: the 2006 WPRA Barrel Racing World Championship. The win came after a grueling 10-round battle at the 2006 Wrangler "National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Nev. Burger, 58, came to the NFR in second place, $18,737 behind the leader, Brittany Pozzi, 22, of Victoria, Texas. Burger had earned $110,655 from 92 regular-season rodeos, while Pozzi had collected $129,392 in rodeo checks from 83 WPRA-approved races.
"I'm not sure the whole thing has sunk in just yet," said 2006 Women's Professional Rodeo Association World Champion Mary Burger. "It was such a thrill just to make the NFR that I don't think winning the world has really hit me."
Burger had no idea what a busy 10 days the NFR really is.
"You're busy from the time you arrive a couple of days before the rodeo until you leave to go home," commented Burger. "If l had an hour a day of free time just to sit in our rig and relax I was lucky. There are so many mandatory events to attend and things you need to get done, in addition to taking care of your horse, that every day is gone and it's time to get ready for the grand entry before you know it."
Although it was her first NFR Burger's game plan was that of a veteran of the sport. "I just wanted to make the best run I could every time, and think about them one at a time."
As for pressure, Burger doesn't let it bother her. "I get keyed up, but I don't really get nervous. Even on the last run when I knew I had to go for broke, I wasn't nervous. I just went in and rode the best I could. I always say that God has His plan and whatever happens, happens."
When Burger pulled up in the alley after the 10th round, she didn't know she'd won the world.
"I knew Fred had made one of the best runs he could make at the time we needed it the most," said Burger. "He was running hard and rimming the barrels. I didn't think I had room for my leg to clear the second barrel so I remember lifting my left leg up as we headed to the third barrel. I just went for it and everything worked."
Read "Memorable Mounts" here.
Burger is certain that having a husband, Kerry, who's a professional farrier helped her at the NFR. After the second round, when Fred seemed to be having ground trouble, Kerry changed his shoes so that Fred would have more grab. After the third round, he changed them again to something with slightly more slide.
"It's all about teamwork," said Burger regarding her march to the world championship. "Fred is a great horse, Ron Martin is a great owner and without my husband, Kerry, I couldn't go up and down the road. And then there are all the other people who keep your horse healthy so that he can perform his best. And I have to say that having Ann Thompson enter me in the rodeos all year has been a big boost. She's helped lay out our rodeo routes and done all the bookwork associated with entering, which takes a huge load off of me."
Although she was a freshman at the NFR, winning the world championship has been a long progression for Burger, who started running and winning back in her home state of Indiana. Burger earned her first of nine American Quarter Horse Association world championships in 1974 when the AQHA World Show was held in Louisville, Ky. Her first dream-maker, and the horse most responsible for allowing Burger and her husband to make a living training, competing and shoeing barrel horses was a gelding named Showum The Gold. The gelding brought Burger's name to the forefront early in his career when the pair clocked the fastest time of the 1984 Old Fort Days Futurity time trials.
The following year, a sagging economy in Indiana brought the closure of the International Harvester Plant where Kerry worked. The time was right for the Burgers, along with their two young sons, Todd and Joey, to make a big move from Indiana to Oklahoma, where they'd be closer to more barrel racing futurities and there were hundreds of barrel horses to be shod. Twenty-one years later, the Burgers know the move was divinely inspired and guided.
Despite the untimely death of Showum The Gold at age 7 from an aneurysm, just as she was preparing to make a bid for the 1987 NFR, Burger continued training winner after winner. Her consistent winning record brought her name to the short list of high money winners in the annual Barrel Horse News statistical charts. It was through reading Barrel Horse News that Ron Martin of Seal Beach, Calif., honed in on Burger as the one he wanted to place a young prospect with for barrel training. The horse was Rare Fred, the 2006 WPRA/AQHA Horse of the Year.
It was a lucky day for Martin, a personal trainer and gym owner, when he arranged a luncheon meeting with Burger during the 1998 AQHA World Show in Oklahoma City, Okla. After careful analysis, Martin, a longtime barrel racing enthusiast, had determined it was Burger whom he wanted to train a barrel horse for him.
During the course of the conversation, Burger told him it'd be a few months before she could take a colt for him, but did tell him of a sorrel gelding she'd seen and liked, the gelding was the now-10-year-old Rare Fred. Martin purchased the classy gelding, took him home to California and trail rode on him until he got the call from Burger that she had a space for him.
"One of the main reasons I was interested in having Mary ride for me was her record in the AQHA explained Martin, a native of Illinois. "She seemed to go to more AQHA Shows than the other trainers, and really wanted my horse to eventually qualify for the AQHA World Show.
The team of Burger, Martin and Rare Fred exceeded all expectations, not only winning the AQHA World Show, but also the ultimate WPRA world championship.
Read "Adaptability" here.
"It was more than a dream come true for Mary and Fred to win the world championship," said Martin. "My parents flew in from Illinois for the last three performances to watch them, and my mom had never been to Las Vegas. It was all amazing. The NFR announcers didn't say for sure that Mary had won the world, because they were waiting for it to be double-checked, and then my cell phone started ringing with friends congratulating me for Mary and Fred winning the world. because they'd seen it on live television and they'd announced it immediately. So my first confirmation that Mary had won the world was from a friend in Iowa. It was all so exciting."
Martin, like Burger, wasn't too nervous going into the last run.
"I had a strong feeling that she might pull it off, but I didn't let myself think about it," said Martin. "I have all the faith in the world in Mary and knew she'd be trying her best. And I always know that she wants to win just as much as I do. But what an honor to win the world competing against such a great group of riders and horses — it had to be one of the toughest NFR barrel races ever. And I can't begin to say how gracious everyone was to me, and it was such an honor to be around so many people that I've read about for years."
While it's been Martin's financing that has taken is horse and Burger down the road, he credits her stamina, as well as her talent as a trainer and rider, for their success.
"Mary works hard at what she does," said Martin. "Fred is a high-maintenance horse, and she works extremely hard at keeping him healthy and happy. Even when she's headed home after a long road trip of four or five weeks, she's already planning and talking about their next outing. I can tell you for sure I couldn't take the road."
No doubt the years of experience gained at futurities and AQHA World Shows played a huge part in Burger's ability to take the pressure at her first NFR and particularly helped her in the 10th round, where an inexperienced competitor might have trouble breathing, much less making the most important run of her lifetime. Dreaming big, being loyal and staying "hooked" through good and bad runs paid off for Martin. He now owns the ultimate barrel horse: WPRA world champion, AQHA world champion and AQHA Barrel Horse of the Year Rare Fred.