HEBER CITY -- It was a gamble on her part, but it paid off big-time for Timmi Ward.
Ward, the 2010 Utah High School Rodeo Association girls barrel racing champion, elected not to ride her 11-year-old gelding, Smoke, during last week's state finals.
Instead, she was mounted on her mother's horse, Sassy, a 17-year-old mare.
Splitting fourth and fifth place with 63 points going into the UHSRA State Finals, Ward, of the Bear River Rodeo Club, knew what she had to do.
"I knew I needed three clean runs. My goal was just to make the National High School Finals Rodeo," said the 18-year-old Ward, who graduated from Bear River High School on May 30.
"Last year I didn't make the finals, and I didn't like it," she said.
Ward won Saturday's short round with a 17.389-second run -- the second-fastest barrel racing run spanning seven performances -- at the Wasatch County Event Center on a windy, chilly night.
"I knew I had to have another clean run," Ward said. "I knew Sassy had it in her, it was just getting it out of her."
Ward, who has a full-ride scholarship to the College of Southern Idaho, won the barrel racing saddle with 134 points. She also was the state finals winner at 53.163 seconds on three runs.
"Last year we had bad luck with my horse, Woody. I was very thrilled to win it this year," Ward said.
Woody, a 17-year-old gelding, was a bleeder who had something wrong with his legs. He was sold to a girl in Texas about six months ago. "I miss him so much; I had him for eight years," Ward said. "He was like my best friend; I hated to see him go."
Ward's mother, Staci, bought Sassy only two months ago.
"Sassy is a sweet ride. She is an honest old horse who does what you need her to do," Ward said. "People say I have a disadvantage because Sassy is really short, but she has more heart than any horse you would want.
"We have been long trotting Sassy to get her in really good shape," she said. "I believe you win in barrel racing because of how good of condition your horse is in. Sassy was in very good shape, and we didn't make three clean runs this week without her being in such great shape."
Ward was seventh in the first round (17.994) and finished fourth in the second round (17.780 seconds).
"I was very excited to run Sassy," she said. "I had confidence she could get me through the week in good shape. I'm riding the saddle that I won here in 2010 (where Ward was the aggregate winner at 50.624 seconds on three runs)."
Ward rode Smoke at all of the 2011-12 qualifying rodeos she competed in.
"Sassy is so much like Woody. It made it easier for me," she said. "I just wanted to give Smoke a break before I start rodeoing next week."
Ward has 12 barrel horses at her home, with most of them being colts.
She is undecided on whether to run Sassy or Smoke at the 64th annual NHSFR on July 15-21 at the Sweetwater Events Complex in Rock Springs, Wyo.
"I won the state title as a sophomore and the only difference is my horse," Ward said. "I really can't compare the two state titles; I love them both. I've been very blessed, especially after the car wreck we were in. I'm a very lucky girl to still be here. I couldn't ask for it to end any better."
En route to the Utah High School Rodeo Association State Finals from Riverside, Timmi and Staci were involved in a head-on automobile collision on June 7, 2009, near Smith & Edwards in Farr West. A truck, traveling northbound, crossed the median after overcorrecting following a lane change, striking Ward's southbound car on Interstate 15 near mile marker 349.
Timmi suffered a broken femur in her left leg; Staci broke her right arm and right ankle.