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September 25, 2008 3:00 am

McCullough mustang and rider hit the big time

Written by Tribune Staff

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Nicole Baggs of Cody and her McCullough Peaks' mustang, Dallas, will compete in the National Barrel Horse Association's World Championships next month. Horse and rider worked hard to get there, but Baggs credits all the hard work to Dallas. Tribune photo by Gib Mathers

In October, Nicole Baggs, 31, of Cody will ride her McCullough Peaks' mustang, Dallas, at the National Barrel Horse Association's World Championships.

Baggs calls it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“I think she (Dallas) will quite possibly be the first mustang to compete in this event,” said Patricia Hatle, range and wild horse specialist for the

Cody Bureau of Land Management, who manages the McCullough Peaks herd.

The competition, in Augusta, Ga., will require Baggs and Dallas to make two barrel race runs in opposite directions. If she qualifies for finals, Baggs will make a final run. At stake is $350,000 in prizes and cash for 10 places in each of the four divisions.

The mustang-and-rider team won the event last year at district finals, Baggs said. By qualifying in her division in October, Baggs earned her place in the championships.

The finals will be fierce — last year 169 riders competed in four divisions.

Dallas stands a notch over 14 hands, but height isn't all its cracked up to be. And, at 15, Dallas may not be the most fleet-footed horse either, but she's got plenty of heart.

“She's not the fastest horse out there, but she gives it her all,” Baggs said.

Horse and rider train at least five days a week.

“I have been practicing a lot at the Boot and Bottle Riding Club,” Baggs said.

Baggs and Dallas have been partners since the horse was 2 years old. Dallas was adopted from the McCullough Peaks wild horse herd. Baggs father, Mark Wortham, bought Dallas from a previous owner.

At the time, Dallas was only halter-broken. Baggs took the reins, and the two became a team.

Since then, the black-and-white paint has gone on trail rides, pack trains, accompanied the Royal Riders in parades and cut barrels.

A Western-style ballet

Watching Baggs and Dallas' lightning fluidity resembles a Western-style ballet.

At the start, Dallas' rear end sinks as she thrusts from the ground to squeeze a little extra horsepower from her flank. Her hooves pound the ground — thump, thump thump. Quick as a cat, she circles a barrel, then hits the straightaway like a black-and-white rocket.

Baggs hugs the horse with her legs.

“Hup, hup,” she says.

Baggs uses voice commands and her knees to guide her beautiful, speedy mount, but after years together, each intuits what the other wants, thinks.

After the practice run, Dallas is panting, her neck slick with sweat.

Dallas is fast, and there is no doubt she's a swell horse, but Baggs is no slouch either — she's an accomplished rider, an obvious barrel-racing requisite. Still, Baggs remains self-effacing, attributing her success and spot in the championships to the horse she loves.

“She worked at it,” Baggs said. “She's earned it.”

Getting ready for competition

At the October championships, Baggs and Dallas will have at least two family members in the cheering section — Baggs' twin sister, Nannette Wortham, who competed in the 2003 championships and her father, who will take turns with Baggs driving to Georgia.

Baggs and her husband, Jason, have two sons, Taylor, 2-1/2 years old, and Lance, 4 months.

Baggs is trying to raise money for her trip with a drawing for a whole pig, cut, cured and wrapped.

Tickets cost $5, and the winning ticket will be drawn at Cody Meat Oct. 20.

Baggs also is looking for more sponsors. She can be reached at 307-899-4254 or by writing to her at P.O. Box 1773, Cody, WY 82414.

More information on the National Barrel Horse Association competition can be found at www.nbha.com.