In the world of sports, 15 years is an eternity.
With athletes’ careers usually spanning much less time, looking 15 years ahead is not something most of them do on a regular basis. But for barrel racer Fallon Taylor, 15 years is simply the gap between her qualifications for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
The Whitesboro, Texas, cowgirl made headlines in the 1990s when she qualified for four consecutive NFRs from 1995-98 as a wide-eyed teenager. Taylor finished as high as sixth in the world as a 13-year-old in 1995 and was 12th in her final year as a qualifier.
Being a teenager in the world’s grandest rodeo was a thrill for Taylor.
“It was awesome,” she said. “I had a different perspective than the adults who went there stressing out about different things. I was just excited to be in Vegas, to go Circus Circus and ride the big top, sign a few autographs and get on my horse.
“It was a pretty charmed life being so young and having such awesome horses.”
Opportunity knocked elsewhere for Taylor, and the vibrant teen with runway model good looks jumped at the chance to gain new experiences.
“I had always done commercial modeling here (in Texas), and I got a contract in 1998 to do some fashion and runway modeling in New York,” Taylor said. “My parents are just the coolest people in the world. They’ve always encouraged me to have these once-in-a-lifetime experiences and never let them pass me by.
“So, whether it was going to Afghanistan to visit the troops, going to New York and pursue a modeling career at 17 or moving to LA and pursue acting, they encouraged me to do it all.”
And she did. Taylor was a successful model who went on to work as an Axe Body Spray girl and appeared in television shows like “Two and a Half Men,” among others. Still, every step of the way, she found herself always pulled back to Texas and the ranch.
“When I got there (to New York), I realized how much I loved these horses and couldn’t stay away,” Taylor said. “So, even though I wasn’t in the limelight or the spotlight rodeoing, I’ve been back and forth training horses for the last 15 years actively and daily, waiting for this.”
This year in Vegas, Taylor will be aboard the 2013 AQHA/WPRA Barrel Racing Horse of the Year, Flos Heiress “Babyflo,” which just happens to be out of her two previous NFR horses – sire, Dr. Nick Bar and dam, Flowers and Money. Keeping it “in the family” with her new horse makes Taylor’s qualification even that much more special.
“She was born and raised here at the ranch and trained here, and she’s very sentimental for me and my family,” Taylor said of the 7-year-old mare. “It’s an incredible experience to be able to revisit the same rodeos and go back to the NFR, which is such a high honor, on the offspring of my great NFR horses.”
Taylor’s return to the barrel racing forefront almost never happened. In 2009, she broke her C-2 vertebrae in a horse accident that sidelined her for some time and put her future plans in the sport in doubt.
“It wasn’t a speedy recovery,” Taylor said. “It took me about a year-and-a-half to get back to where I could really be competitive again, but I’m incredibly fortunate. It makes you think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t sit at home. Maybe I should go after this thing again.’
“It’s neat to have a second chance.”
Through the support of her husband – former Dallas Cowboys kicker Delbert Alvarado who now kicks for the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League – family and friends, Taylor recovered from her injury and began bringing along a young mare.
Even though she had potential, Babyflo’s emergence was a surprise to Taylor and her family.
“She is a freak of nature,” Taylor said. “We started her on a Sunday, and by Thursday, we were loading her up and checking her into a barrel racing. She clocked in the top of the first division in the first barrel race we took her to with tons of mistakes, and I called home and told everybody this was the horse that was going to take me back.”
In 2012, Taylor and Babyflo began to gel and move up the ranks. They performed so well together that a Wrangler NFR berth even became a possibility, but the duo eventually finished 16th in the standings, just one spot from a return to Las Vegas.
For her efforts, Babyflo was named reserve Barrel Racing Horse of the Year, and Taylor knew she would soon be punching her ticket to the Finals once again.
“It was a bumpy road learning everything about her and teaching her the rodeo road, but within a year of being saddled, this mare won reserve horse of the year and put me 16th in the world,” Taylor said. “We didn’t enter to make it to the NFR last year. We entered to just kind of go, get our feet wet and come back home.
“By the end of the year, we figured out, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got a shot!’ and we scrambled to try to make it. We couldn’t believe that mare put me 16th in the world and was second for horse of the year at her very first year going to rodeos. She’s just been phenomenal from the very start.”
Qualifying for Las Vegas 15 years after her last trip there has been a surreal realization for Taylor.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “I was a little kid when I went, so it’s awesome to revisit it as an adult.”
Taylor was in Las Vegas last year to sign autographs and make appearances for sponsors, etc., and it was the first time she’d been back inside the Thomas & Mack Center since 1998. She was relieved to see the barrel racing was much like she remembered it to be.
“It looks very much the same,” Taylor said. “It’s kind of been stuck in a time warp, which I’m excited about because I’ve made more runs in that arena than probably any ProRodeo arena in my career. I’m very excited.”
Taylor isn’t sure if emotions will envelop her once she rides in the first grand entry, but she’s going to try her best to keep them at bay and focus on the task at hand.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be an emotional night,” she said. “I really want to do my horse justice by keeping my mind square and trying to not get too wrapped up in all the hoopla. I want to make some business decisions and really let people see this amazing horse I get to ride.
“I’m really going to try to keep my head out of getting really emotional about the nostalgia of going back to the NFR.”
With $100,860 in earnings this season, Taylor will enter Round 1 fifth in the standings, $46,558 behind three-time World Champion Sherry Cervi. With the average alone paying $47,776 and tons of money up for grabs, Taylor isn’t going into this year’s Finals as a contestant who’s merely happy to be there.
I asked her if chasing a world title was in her thoughts.
“You’re damn right we’re thinking about a world title,” she exclaimed. “We want to bring that gold buckle home, and we’re dang sure going to try. That’s what we’re gearing up for.
“Our horse is healthy, I’m in really great shape, we’re rested and we have support. I want to gather up some run, win some (round) buckles and ultimately that buckle on the 10th night. I know this mare will win me a world title, whether it be this year or another year. We’re going to try for sooner than later.”