By: Landon Black
Was it a new state record for the largest weeknight jackpot in California? I couldn’t find any way to verify that claim, but that was definitely the buzz and the question of the night at the Haulin’ A$$ Helmet Barrel Race put on by Lunde Enterprises this September in Norco, CA (aka Horsetown, USA). It all started with a simple idea to promote helmet wearing amongst barrel racers. Agile Sourcing Partners was the sponsor of this event, and they had a plan—offer to pay the entry fee for any barrel racer who would compete in a helmet. They approached the Lunde team with the idea, and it blossomed into an absolutely incredible barrel race. What started as an expectation of 40-50 riders, turned into 165 horses run over a 2 day period (Wed and Thur nights). After receiving over 120 pre-entries, the race had to be split into a second night due to time constraints placed on the venue by the city. The best part is, EVERY single rider competed in a helmet. Even two-time NFR qualifying barrel racer Sydni Blanchard.
Blanchard had never before competed in a helmet, but it obviously didn’t affect her one bit. She stole the show on her futurity filly, First Flash Fire, laying down an impressive 14.961 and beating the nearest competitor by over two tenths of a second. Blanchard, who was honored to win this race, admitted that she has “had injuries that wearing a helmet would have prevented and [is] glad to see the next generation adapting to the idea.” In fact, almost symbolically, the 1D and 2D winners were both former NFR qualifiers while the 3D and 4D winners were both local youth riders that regularly attend the Lunde Enterprise weekly jackpots. Former NFR qualifier Linda Vick won the 2D, sharing the 1st place stage with 3D winner Rylea Ryan, age 11 and 4D winner Laney DeNunzio, age 11. Laney’s parents Mike and Sarah DeNunzio who own American Family Feed (also one of the event’s sponsors) said on her behalf that Laney “is very proud to have won the 4D with her pony. She is grateful that she is able to be around so many cool people and awesome horses. What better way to learn and get better?” There was a good mix of young and old barrel racers at this event, from beginners all the way up to the professionals. There were several comments from parents and children, both at the race and on social media about how great it was to have the kids who have to wear helmets watch the more experienced barrel racers they look up to compete right alongside them in helmets too, including Vick who has been competing in Rodeo since the 1980’s.
When all was said and done, Agile Sourcing Partners donated well over $7,000 in cash and prizes to this event. But why did they do it? Agile as a company doesn’t really even have any connection to the rodeo world. Most of Agile’s employees who came to help at the race had never even been up close and personal with horses, with the exception of Maria Thompson. Thompson, who has ridden horses for 27 years and is an avid trail rider, has been barrel racing for 5 years. Her passion for helmets started with an accident she witnessed from about 15 feet away. The horse went down while pulling up after the run home and left the rider severely injured at no fault of her own. This was the first of way too many accidents, injuries and tragedies that have struck the horse world and helped fuel Maria’s passion for helmets. Agile is a company that believes in donations and even lets its employees choose where donations are made. So Thompson began donating, buying helmets as awards for a local gymkhana organization. Then came Fallon Taylor’s #whatthehelmet campaign. Maria calls this a “pivotal moment” comparing it to what Shaun White did for snowboarding, eliminating the stigma by showing that even the pros would compete in helmets.
Maria wanted to go bigger with her donations and try to build on what Fallon did at the 2014 NFR. She approached Jerry Lunde with the idea of sponsoring a weeknight jackpot by paying riders’ entry fees if they wore a helmet. But Jerry had his own idea—making helmets mandatory. Thompson admitted that she wasn’t sure this would pay off thinking riders would refuse. But the response was the exact opposite. The race was epic and everyone loved it! There was no more stigma about wearing a helmet and this allowed everyone to be comfortable enough to give helmets a try. Agile added an additional $1,000 to the pot, on top of paying half of every single rider’s entry fees. They sent home over 30 helmets in total as prizes, which doesn’t even count the countless number of people who went out and bought helmets to compete in before the day of the race. They also held raffles and even judged a helmet decorating contest which awarded a total of $600 in VISA gift cards to the best decorated helmets. There were helmets with feathers, helmets with unicorn horns, even helmets with flashing LED lights. Additional prizes were given away by other local sponsors including Inland Vet Supply and Water Wheel Saloon in Norco, CA.
There are already plans in the works for the next Haulin’ A$$ Helmet Race, possibly a much bigger weekend event and possibly even an annual event.