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April 18, 2014

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Kats Goes Cowboy: Catching up with a millionaire barrel racer

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Christopher DeVargas

WPRA barrel racing’s top rider, Sherry Cervi, takes the stage during the National Finals Rodeo welcome reception at South Point on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010.

Among all those dozens of cowboys onstage are just a few women, and the most famous of the bunch is easy to spot. She is introduced in line with the first nine National Finals Rodeo contestants, the season leaders in their respective event standings entering the 2010 NFR at Thomas & Mack Center.

Sherry Cervi, a 35-year-old barrel racer from Marana, Ariz. (just outside Tucson), is that woman, outnumbered by a whole lot in this male-dominated sport. Looking at the lineup, you are compelled to ask the tall blonde … ever had any hassles or unwanted overtures from these young bucks?

Cervi at the 2005 NFR

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Fans of all ages watch their favorite competitor take the stage during the National Finals Rodeo welcome reception at South Point on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010.

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The 2010 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo contestants onstage during the NFR welcome reception at South Point on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010.

NFR Welcome Reception

A statue of Benny Binion, a key figure in bringing the National Finals Rodeo to Las Vegas, stands at the entrance to the NFR welcome reception at South Point on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010. Launch slideshow »

“No,” Cervi says, laughing. “We’re all friends in the rodeo culture. This is a big family, and there are a lot of good people in the rodeo.”

They are perfect gentlemen, then?

“I don’t know if they’re perfect, but …” Cervi says, laughing a little more. Then she says, “I have to take these off,” and pulls away her black heels. Not boots, regular heels, which drop her 3 inches down normal height of 5-foot-9. This is the rare event when the female contestants are out of their traditional jeans-and-boots attire they wear while competing.

Cervi is a looming figure in the sport and will almost certainly become the first woman to ever earn $2 million in career prize money at this year’s NFR. She picked up just under $7,000 for qualifying for this year’s event, and each night’s go-round winner wins a little less than $17,000 every night for 10 nights. Cervi could finish no lower than fifth each night -- which would be far below her lofty standards -- and still surpass that mark.

Thus, it was no surprise when one of the event’s loudest ovations was for Cervi as her name was announced in a ballroom filled with about 1,500 NFR fans and just about that many hats.

The rest of our give-and-take, which unfolded outside Tuesday night’s PRCA ProRodeo Welcome Reception at South Point, where rodeo is not just a sport -- it’s a way of life:

Can you pinpoint the moment you wanted to be a barrel racer?

“I’ve been around horses my whole life. My parents rodeo-ed, and I just always wanted to be a barrel racer and been fortunate enough to have good horses and have been able to make a good living at it.”

Was there any other sport, when you were growing up, that you were passionate about?

“No. I played basketball, but … I, you know, knew that I was never going on past high school. So I was never going to work as hard at it as I did rodeo.”

You’re about to surpass $2 million in your career. What are you doing with all this money?

“(Laughs) I don’t know, I wish I had it in a bank account. Wish I could say I had $2 million right now. But I’ve been able to build a house and do things that I want to do.

The NFR brings a lot of business and energy to Las Vegas and changes the culture of our city for a couple of weeks. What do you think about the event being held here, as it affects the sport’s image?

“I think it’s a good partnership because there is so much money in Las Vegas. Our (prize) money has gone up. The fans love coming to Vegas and get to watch the rodeo. As a contestant, it’s fun to come to Las Vegas. For me, it’s not very far from home. I love it. The town is great to the contestants and the casinos give us rooms, and I think it’s a great match.”

Being first to do anything in a sport is a big accomplishment, and you’re about to be the first to make $2 million in your event. Is that daunting to you?

“I don’t really think about it. I mean, I have been doing it awhile, and it is a lot of events. I’ve been competing professionally since 1994, so I’ve been doing it a while and have not thought about the achievement that much, really.”

It takes a lot of work to win that money in this sport, doesn’t it?

“Yes, it takes years. That’s what’s unfortunate about rodeo. We work just as hard as a football player or a baseball player, but it’s easier, for the fans, to go buy a football or a baseball to learn how to play football or baseball. It’s a lot easier to do that then go out and buy a horse and understand how much hard work it takes to really get to this level.”

Maybe, to increase interest, they can post barrel racing in our sports books. Get some legal betting action going.

“Oh, there is a fantasy rodeo.”

What?

“Oh, they have one -- they do.” (Indeed, click here for the Pro Fantasy Rodeo official Web site.)

Have you been able to do anything for entertainment since you’ve been in Las Vegas?

“I saw ‘Le Reve’ and really liked it. I saw ‘Love’ last year, and I really liked that. But once the rodeo starts, you don’t have much time for stuff like that.”

What’s next for you?

“I don’t know, I foresee myself always being involved with horses on some level. I don’t know how long I’ll stay with it at this level. I’ve been very blessed.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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