Zero to Celebrity in 17 Seconds
Ruth Haislip's winning NFR debut proved her horse-breeding program.
January 1, 0001
From America's Horse
Dashing down the alleyway toward the first blind turn, Ruth Haislip could feel a burst of adrenalin wash away the nervousness she’d felt seconds before as she awaited her maiden run at the 1998 National Finals Rodeo.
“Please just let me place once. I just want to place and win something,” she thought, casting her silent wish as she and her sorrel mare, Go Royal Scarlett, burst into the Thomas and Mack Arena at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
In front of more than 17,000 fans assembled for the rodeo’s year-end, championship-deciding “World Series,” “Scarlett” banked cleanly around the first barrel then pelted first-row spectators with dirt as Ruth, a veterinarian from Acampo, California, steered her across the arena to the second drum. The duo brushed the second barrel, which tottered perilously but stayed upright. A bullet dodged, they swept around the final barrel and headed home, back up the alley, out of the arena and into the warm desert evening.
Slowing her horse to a walk, Ruth checked her time: 17.04 seconds. She spotted former world champion Sherry Cervi readying her horse.
“Great job,” said Sherry in greeting.
“Was it a good run?” Ruth asked, uncertain.
“Yeah,” replied the NFR veteran.
Later, Ruth found out just how good: Scarlett had captured first place. Although there were still nine rounds left to run before the rodeo wrapped up on, Ruth felt the anxiety that had built up inside her melt like ice cream on a scorching summer’s day.
“I was just really excited, and the pressure was off after that run,” she remembers. Ruth had earned a $14,936 check and a gold-and-silver buckle. But before the celebrating began, someone from the ESPN camera crew was sent to corral the horsewoman into an on-camera appearance. The only problem: scarcely anyone knew what she looked like, nor anything about her.
“Who the hell is Ruth Haislip? What do we have on her?” asked someone in the TV crew who was hastily preparing for the interview.
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A veteran of college rodeo (she’s former Rocky Mountain Region barrel racing champ and was a member of a national championship team as an undergrad at the University of Arizona), Ruth studied veterinary medicine at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Now more than two decades later, she was an accomplished small-animal veterinarian with her own clinic and the mother of two boys. She says a bitter experience as an undergraduate at Arizona got her interested in breeding her own barrel horses.
“I bought this horse for $3,500, a lot of money for a college student. I didn’t know it, but he had a reputation for running down the fence,” she recalls. Unable to fix the horse and mad she’d been duped into buying a lemon, Ruth vowed to breed her own horses one day.
She earned her degree in veterinary medicine at CSU, graduating in 1978. That same year, her college barrel horse “Peso” broke a splint bone, putting an end to his racing. She turned her attention toward building a career and a family. But her interests never strayed far from the arena, and she want back to the rancher who had sold her Peso, Tom Wilson of Oracle, Arizona, to buy horses for her breeding program.
“Tom had a lot of old foundation bloodlines – mares with Joe Reed and Joe Hancock breeding. Anyhow, I’d done well on Peso, so I bought a full sister to him, and that’s how our breeding program began,” she says. The mare she bought, Lotta Lenya, produced four foals, each by a different stallion. Their solid performance affirmed Ruth’s belief that a quality mare is the basis for producing successful performance horses.
In choosing sires, the barrel racer says she prefers “old bloodlines.”
Lotta Lenya was bred to an own son of Rukin String, a grandson of Tonto Bars Hank; and a grandson of Three Bars (TB), very old racing bloodlines.
“These horses could run and perform. They were level-headed, not so ‘hot’ as today’s racing horses. I’d never been big on hot horses, especially for barrel racing and roping,” she says.
Tragically, Lotta Lenya died from colic. To replace her, Ruth bought a half sister, a racehorse named Wild N Groovy, in 1990. It was that mare, bred to the winning racing stallion Royal Go Go, that produced Scarlett in 1992.
Having established a practice in California, Ruth came to know some of the outstanding barrel racers in her area. Among them was Marilyn Camarillo, a seven-time NFR qualifier. They’ve become close friends, and once had a partnership in the stallion AR Star, a stakes-winning son of Shawne Bug.
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Marilyn can’t really say how many years they’ve know one another, reckoning it in the fashion one might expect from a lifelong horsewoman: “I’ve known her through six horses – all good horses, but none as good as Scarlett. This horse wins. She’s fast. I can’t really say what separates a great horse from the rest – we’re talking hundredths-of-a-second difference. People’s nose hairs are longer. But with Scarlett, you can just feel it.”
Marilyn plays a key role in developing prospective barrel horses with the Haislips. Ruth’s husband, Jim, who works as an equine physical therapist, starts the young horses. Marilyn puts the speed into them, and Ruth seasons the horses and enters the competitions. She calls Marilyn “the unsung hero” of her success, acknowledging her partner’s key contribution to readying her horses for the rodeo arena.
Having 11-time world champion Charmayne James as a friend helped Ruth cope with the hyper-reality of running neck-and-neck with the nation’s best barrel racers last year. Although she’d been a member of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association since 1974, Ruth earned just a fraction of her 1998 earnings in her pro career (most of her previous success was in futurities and amateur rodeos). All that changed when she began campaigning Scarlett, and at first, Ruth found it all a little hard to accept.
“I remember at Reno, we were walking around. And there was Martha Josey, Fallon Taylor, Charmayne. And I looked at them and said, ‘What am I doing here? Look who I’m running with.’ And Charmayne assured me that it was fine, It was pretty awesome, though,” Ruth says.
Indeed it was. Reno was the breakthrough rodeo that got Ruth thinking about the National Finals. In the championship-deciding final round, she topped the entire field. Her combined times from the rodeo earned her second place overall, and she left town with $6,979. The win gave her the momentum she needed to keep competing, and it put in her mind the possibility of qualifying for the NFR.
“Before Reno, my game plan hadn’t been to qualify for the Finals. But after winning so much, I felt that maybe we had a shot,” she says. She and Scarlett had to hustle; the season was half over. They crammed in as many rodeos as they could, going to as many as three rodeos a weekend in the fall. Luck was in their favor.
“Scarlett was very consistent,” says Ruth. “I placed at 85 or 90 percent of the rodeos. Not always first place, but after Reno, I believe there were only five rodeos I failed to place at. And that despite the fact she was only 5, and she was making mistakes.”
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By November, Ruth had yet to crack the top 15, and her last shot at the National Finals came down to the season-ending Cow Palace rodeo in San Francisco. There, the duo placed second in a round a fourth overall – good for a $2,835 check and the last qualifying spot for the NFR. Only $218 separated her from Amiee Richards, who finished 16th for the year.
A lone buckle would be all the precious metal Ruth would claim at the National Finals, but she went on to collect paychecks in nine of 10 rounds. In the fourth and ninth rounds, Scarlett garnered second-place honors, finishing just behind Janet Stover’s red-hot gelding in one round and losing to her friend Charmayne in the other. When it all wrapped up, Ruth had finished second overall, her time on 10 runs just four-tenths of a second behind that of world champion Kristie Peterson’s horse, French Flash Hawk, aka “Bozo,” who won the rodeo in the arena-record time of 141.58 seconds.
Ruth’s consistency was handily rewarded. With the day-money she’d won for each round plus a $26,847 “average” check for that second-place finish, Ruth banked a total of $81,791 at her first NRF. Only Kristie, who won $99,091, and Janet, who finished first an astounding five times, managed to top the NFR newcomer in money won. The whopping sum lifted Ruth from 15th place in the world standings going into the rodeo to fourth place at season’s end behind Sherry, Janet and Kristie.
One might say Ruth proved that she – and the little mare that she bred – can travel with some pretty fast company.