By: Hope Sickler
South Carolina cowgirl and notably one of the best barrel racing futurity trainers in the industry Leslie Willis had a week in Fort Smith, Arkansas that she will never forget. Willis was crowned the 2017 Fort Smith Old Fort Days Futurity Champion when she rode Ryon Rocks to victory in the championship round Saturday evening.
Ryon Rocks is a 4-year-old gelding by Louisiana Senator and out of Phoebe Ryon by Bill Ryon and out of Dashing Phoebe. Texas breeder Dale Rankin raised the talented gelding "Ryon" and Willis and her husband, Jason, bought him at the BFA Sale in December 2015.
Willis has been training futurity horses for a living for years and winning the inaugural Old Fort Days has been on her bucket list since day 1.
This was my first time to win Fort Smith and it was definitely on my bucket list," laughed Willis. "I stayed with "Ryon" at his stall until it was all over. I was excited and had tears in my eyes the entire time. It was an unbelievable moment and a dream come true!
Old Fort Days Futurity has been around for years and years and it is known as the granddaddy in the futurity world. It is only open to 4-year-old futurity horses which makes it that much more special since most futurities today are open to both 4 and 5-year-olds.
"Fort Smith is the only futurity that has never been a 5-year-old futurity. What makes it so special is it has always been that way and when other futurities were changing, Fort Smith stood their ground and insisted on staying a 4-year-old futurity."
With fierce competition Saturday night in the championship round, Willis made sure to keep herself and "Ryon" calm and focused before their run.
"He stayed calm and was focused. He was listening to me and it was then my job to put him in the correct spot, and then kick and push in other spots. I am grateful that it all worked out," Willis said. "I didn't go full-speed to the first barrel because I wanted to make sure that I got it turned. After the first barrel, I pushed him hard the rest of the way."
Certainly, a week and a moment that she will never forget, Willis is incredibly grateful for the horses that she gets to train and jockey and is quick to give her four-legged partners all the credit.