Life is good for Sherry Cervi these days.
The top-ranked barrel racer has put together a stellar Wrangler National Finals Rodeo so far, placing in all six rounds and earning a rodeo-high $70,413. The Marana, Ariz., cowgirl won the first two rounds and has extended her world standings lead over reigning World Champion Mary Walker to $37,145.
She also leads the average standings (Walker is seventh) and is in the driver’s seat – so to speak – to win her fourth world championship. Cervi’s plan is to stay grounded, not get ahead of herself and keep the hammer down through the final four rounds as she chases another gold buckle.
“It’s been good so far, but it’s by no means over,” she told me before finishing fourth in Round 6. “I’ve had a really great year and am just glad to be back here to compete. I’m going to try and keep winning as much money as I can.
“It’s a tough barrel race, and there are 15 horses here that can win a round at any time.”
Cervi’s horse, an 11-year-old palomino mare named Stingray, has been tearing up the cloverleaf pattern inside the Thomas & Mack Center. The duo’s slowest time has been 13.87 seconds, and they’ve left every barrel standing.
Cervi is thrilled with how Stingray is performing so far, and considering she rode the mare to the 2010 world title, her confidence is high.
“She’s really special,” Cervi said. “She’s real confident, she knows her job and loves her job. All of the great barrel horses have to love their job and have a lot of heart, and I feel like she does.”
Cervi knew she had something special in the horse early on.
“When she was younger, I futuritied her as a 5-year-old, and she was nice,” Cervi said. “I took her to Houston and won a round on her. She was inconsistent, but I knew she had ‘it.’
“Then, in 2009 when I got here to the Finals, she had such a great year that I thought, ‘I can maybe win a gold buckle on this horse.’”
They won the gold buckle the following year, giving Cervi three total and championships that were 15 years apart. Cervi has put together one of the most impressive barrel racing resumes of all time.
She joined the WPRA in 1986 as an 11-year-old and claimed her first title in 1995 on a horse named Troubles at the ripe old age of 20. Cervi followed that with another gold buckle performance in 1999 on Hawk and qualified for the Wrangler NFR the next two years, but then went through a trying time.
In September 2001, her husband Mike Cervi Jr. was killed in a plane crash. She made the Finals just three of the next seven years, and the grind of constant travel – coupled with her immense loss – weighed heavily on her.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to keep a good attitude going down the road,” she said. “You’re away from your family, you drive a lot and are by yourself. I think that’s what separates some people from going home or sticking it out and having a great year or winning gold buckles.
“If you can ride the bad spill-out, it’ll pay off in the end. Because, it’s going to happen in rodeo. It’s part of it. It’s definitely worth hanging in there and sticking it out.”
Thanks to Stingray, she’s qualified for the Las Vegas finale every year since 2009 and once again has been a major force in the sport. Along with her world championship in 2010, Cervi also passed Charmayne James as the top money-winning barrel racer of all time that year.
She’s pushed her career money total past $2.6 million at this year’s Wrangler NFR and is enjoying every minute of her experience.
“I feel like I’ve got a good horse, and I want to give her an opportunity to show everybody what I feel she can do,” Cervi said. “I love competing, and so far it’s been making me a really good living. It’s one of those years that don’t come (very often), so I’m going to enjoy it.”
Winning three world titles on different horses is a heck of an achievement, but perhaps even more impressive is the 38-year-old’s longevity in the sport. Being a major player nearly 20 years after you break out in a sport is a lofty accomplishment.
I asked Cervi what she thought the key was to her longevity.
“I think never to lose that mental attitude that this is what you want to do,” she said. “When you start getting to where you’re not really wanting it and are going through the motions, you lose that drive and the will to be the best you can. I didn’t make it here a couple years, and sitting here in the stands will motivate a person.
“It was like, ‘Wow, I need to work harder to be able to get back here.’”
If Cervi is able to hang onto her lead and secure gold buckle No. 4, she will be in rare company in barrel racing history. James’ 11 world titles leads the way, and Cervi would join James, Billie McBride (1955-58) and Kristie Peterson (1994, 1996-98) as just the fourth barrel racer to win at least four world titles.
She won’t let herself think about all that just yet, though.
“Those are great people to be in company with, but I don’t want to think that far ahead yet,” Cervi said. “I definitely want to try and finish the great year I’ve had, be smart, stay focused, keep doing my job and let my horse do her job.”
Cervi is realistic about her sport and knows everything could end tomorrow, as is always a danger in the professional sports realm. Because of that, she’s going to cherish her time making runs in the Thomas & Mack Center.
“The last few years I’ve been coming (to the Wrangler NFR), I tell myself, ‘This could be it,’” Cervi said. “You never know, and you may not have that horse to get back here, because in barrel racing it takes such a special horse to get here. I tell myself that, even though I’m tired and I have a lot of obligations, I’d rather be here fulfilling them than sitting at home or sitting in the stands. So, I’m going to appreciate it.
“It’s easy to get here and think, ‘Oh, it’s easy, and I’ll be here forever.’ But you won’t, and they will have it without you.”