You go, Grandma: 69-year-old barrel racer chases $1 million payday at AT&T Stadium rodeo

Mary Donna Smothers, 69, will compete against an elite field of barrel racers at Sunday's third RFD-TV The American rodeo with a chance at winning $1.1 million. Photo by Lesil Groves

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By Randy Jennings , Special contributor  Dallas Morning News

 

Mary Donna Smothers is convinced a rodeo is a great way for a family to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Only in Mary Donna's family, the matriarch role is upside down. 

Instead of cheering from the AT&T Stadium stands, the 69-year-old grandmother will climb on her horse and compete against an elite field of barrel racers at the third annual RFD-TV The American rodeo with a chance at a $1.1 million payday. 

Mary Donna Smothers, 69, will compete against an elite field of barrel racers at Sunday's third RFD-TV The American rodeo with a chance at winning $1.1 million.  Photo by Lesil Groves

Mary Donna Smothers, 69, will compete against an elite field of barrel racers at Sunday's third RFD-TV The American rodeo with a chance at winning $1.1 million.

"The reason I got involved was my granddaughter Rainey," said Smothers, who resides with husband Ronnie on a South Texas ranch in Sinton. "She just turned 12, and we did it together. She came close to qualifying, too." 

The world's most lucrative one-day rodeo Sunday concludes Western Sports Weekend at AT&T Stadium. On Saturday evening, 40 elite bull riders compete in the PBR Choctaw Casino Resort Iron Cowboy. 

Automatic bids for The American go out to the top 10 in each rodeo event. The concept, brainstormed by organizer Randy Bernard, CEO of RFD-TV Events, was to pit the best in the sport against returning legends as well as those emerging from a graduated series of all-comer qualifying rodeos. 

The formula, which opened the door for Smothers and her granddaughter, has produced intriguing storylines. 

For the first two Americans, Smothers was a spectator, rooting for her son-in-law, eight-time world champion roper Rich Skelton, a recipient of one of a handful of exemption invitations for this year's event. Other invitations this year went to barrel racer Lindsay Sears, team roper Jake Barnes, tie-down roper Fred Whitfield and steer wrestler Lee Graves. 

Smothers' daughter Rhonda Skelton is also a barrel racer. Along with Mary Donna and Rainey, the "three amigos," as they call themselves, have competed together in several rodeos. 

Smothers grew up on a ranch, began barrel racing at 12 and never quit. Roping was really her specialty, but for girls who wanted to compete in rodeo, barrel racing was the only option. 

For reaching The American, Smothers credits her 12-year-old horse that is officially named Six Moon Firewater but known to her as Marty. 

"He's a great horse, and he knows his job,'' she said. "Marty takes care of me. We won't do any extra preparation. I rode him on the ranch Wednesday morning to keep his mind quiet. We'll have a couple of hours on Sunday morning to get a feel for the stadium. It is so big." 

A win in any of The American's seven rodeo events earns $100,000. A $1 million bonus can be won or shared by those that made it through the qualification process, as Smothers did, or received an exemption invitation. 

Barrel racers circle three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern. Touching a barrel is allowed, but a five-second penalty is incurred if a barrel is turned over. An electronic timer is activated when a competitor enters and leaves the course. 

In last weekend's final qualifier in Fort Worth, Smothers finished ninth with a time of 13.976 seconds. The winning time among the closely bunched competitors was 13.829. 

This year's diverse field of barrel racers includes 13-year-old McKenzie Morgan, 56 years younger than Smothers, as well as two males. Unlike most sanctioned events, The American rules do not prohibit men from competing in barrel racing. 

Lisa Lockhart, barrel racing winner in 2014 and again last year, remains the rider to beat. 

"We'll go out there and see what we can do," Smothers said. "The 20 top riders are here. It is just how the day goes. There will only be one winner. I'm excited, but I'm not nervous." 

Randy Jennings is a Grand Prairie-based freelance writer. 

Western Sports Weekend

Professional Bull Riders Association Choctaw Casino Resort Iron Cowboy

When: 5:50 p.m. Saturday 

What: 40 bull riders from the Built Ford Tough Series and BlueDEF Tour to determine which cowboy can ride the most bulls in one evening. 

Purse: $100,000 to winner 

 RFD-TV The American 

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

What: The world's richest one-day rodeo. Automatic invitations extended to the top professionals to compete against qualifiers from a series of rodeos that have a chance to earn all or part of a $1 million bonus pool with a victory in one of the seven traditional rodeo events.

Purse: $2 million, with a minimum $100,000 going to each event winner.