Saige Smith knows what it takes to win in the Wrangler Rodeo Arena. The high school sophomore from Touchet, Washington, won the short go-round of senior barrel racing at last year’s Junior World Finals in Las Vegas.
But Smith surprised even herself Tuesday.
Competing in the inaugural Kelly Kaminski Run for Vegas pole bending event, Smith and Cupcake, her 10-year-old sorrel mare, completed the course in 13.911 seconds to win the first round.
“That first run was actually the fastest run me and this mare had ever run in our lives,” Smith said Thursday after her second run. “That was a surprise to me, too, completely.”
Adding to Smith’s surprise is the fact that she and Cupcake have only been running poles for a little more than a year. A freshman at the time, Smith wanted to add another discipline to her rodeo resume. Her choice proved to be a natural for Cupcake.
“Me and her started to do poles and I discovered that she was pretty good at it,” Smith said. “When I was just working her at home I had an idea that she was smooth, but I never really know until we started clocking her. She’s just phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for a better partner.
“So I decided to try and qualify for this and she has blown me away.”
Cupcake’s natural ability in pole bending was instrumental in Smith returning to Vegas for the third year in a row.
A bone bruise sidelined Cupcake – her registered name is Datsa Lita Playmate – for six months and had Smith scrambling to qualify for the Junior World Finals.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to make it back here,” Smith said. “We went to a barrel qualifier in Salinas (California), but that was her first time back and we didn’t qualify there. So we went to the last qualifier they had in Moses Lake, Washington, on Labor Day weekend and that’s when we qualified.”
Smith isn’t the only cowgirls who has benefited from the addition of pole bending to this year’s Junior World Finals. And event organizer Kelly Kaminski couldn’t be happier to see poles on the schedule.
“Poles are close to my heart,” said Kaminski. “If you want to be a better barrel racer run poles as well because it teaches you so much horsemanship.”
Kaminski knows all about the relationship between barrel racing and pole bending. She was a two-time world champion barrel racer who was also ranked in the Top 10 in the world in pole bending. Now she gets to share that love of the sport with the contestants.
“A great pole run is beautiful to watch,” she said. “It’s more about staying in the middle of your saddle and helping with that rhythm, and there’s so much timing involved. It’s a beautiful sport.
“And if you have a horse that runs barrels and poles it teaches them to hold that shoulder up and to be more square in their turns. It’s like cross training.
“The kids are really excited about it and I just think it’s going to continue to grow,” Kaminski added. “Plus, it gives our girls a shot at the all-around because it adds another speed event. I’m just glad we can bring it to the forefront.”
While Smith didn’t qualify in barrels this year, she’s glad that Cupcake gets to show off her ability in the poles.
“Honestly, I think she’s got natural ability,” Smith said. “She moves her hips in a way that she is able to clear the poles and she can do it so fast. I take no credit; I think it’s all her.”