Riders will round the final turn Wednesday night in a tight race that has spanned nearly two months.
The first-ever barrel racing and pole bending buckle series sponsored by the town of Payson began June 4 and has engaged contenders from 7 p.m. to as late as 1 a.m. every Wednesday since.
Current standings reflect the results of eight nights of competition and the superb horsemanship of four competitors in particular.
A recent birthday girl, 13-year-old Amber Marshall has dominated the 12-and-under racing bracket on her horse, A.J. She leads her nearest competitor by 12 points in pole bending and 15 in barrel racing, and all but has her two buckles in the bag.
"I'm proud," Marshall said. "(It's hard) just having a clean run and just hoping that I do good and my horse stays consistent ... I'm just happy that my horse is doing good."
Charlene Hunt of the Payson Parks and Recreation Department and series organizer said the 12-and-under competitors have been the most fun to watch.
"The best part (of the series) would probably be the little kids out here practicing on their horses," she said. "Some kids are even 3 years old."
Hunt referred to the youngest rider in the series, 3-year-old Kara Ward, who for the first time barrel raced her horse without the help of a guide last Wednesday.
"It's funny," Marshall said of her youngest challenger. "I love watching little kids ride. They're so cute."
Neck and neck
The most arduous struggle in the entire series has been in the 17-and-under bracket, whose two top combatants are four years apart in age.
The constant back-and-forth battle for first place between 13-year-old Jordynn Runzo and 17-year-old Ramsey Milam has set the bar for next year's competition. Runzo is currently in the lead for both barrel racing and pole bending, but Milam is on her heels, trailing by only a few points in both contests.
"It just feels great," Runzo said of leading the competition at so young an age. "I don't know how to explain it. I'm so grateful that I have such a wonderful horse."
Runzo, who has only been riding her 9-year-old horse Arapaho for three years, said the series has been a "dream come true" for her.
"Barrel racing and pole bending are my favorite things ever to do," she said. "I love riding my horse and running with him. It's the greatest thing ever."
Milam, who races on 10-year-old Chia, said she does not resent the fact that Runzo is leading the race.
"I'm not disappointed," she said. "I feel better because my horse is doing better (than before) and I haven't been hitting barrels."
Milam was optimistic that she would catch Runzo and take either of her leads Wednesday night.
"There's always a chance that she can hit a barrel," she said. "She's real consistent and she hardly ever hits barrels. She's got a good horse, but there's always that chance that she'll hit one."
Raising the bar
Shelbi Parker, 19, has not left much room for the other 18-and-over bracket racers to catch up to her phenomenal leads in both barrel racing and pole bending.
Her barrel racing score thus far is 41, 19 points ahead of her nearest rival. Her 15-point lead in pole bending, though less pronounced, still makes her the favorite for the Wednesday night buckle.
"I kind of feel bad," she said. "I wasn't there to win both of them (buckles) ... I kind of wanted to share them."
Parker said she credits her horse, 12-year-old Razor, with her impressive scores.
"My horse does it all; I just sit on it," she said.
She added that competitions like the buckle series are demanding.
"It's a lot more than just going out there and riding," she said. "You have to be dedicated and practice."
Parker, who lives in Phoenix, said she is as dedicated as racers come because she travels so far about twice a week to keep up her racing skills.
When the competition comes to a close Wednesday night, Hunt said winners will be awarded their buckles after each match. Racers who place in second through fifth or who will have attended all nine editions of the series also will receive prizes.
12 and under pole bending
1. Amber Marshall 42
2. Randi Brown 30
3. Candace Bullard 20
4. Emma Randall 17
5. Cierra Tidwell 14
6. Skye McNeeley 13, Taylor Randall 13
7. Destiny Wagenknect 9
8. Kelsey Tidwell 8
12 and under barrel racing
1. Amber Marshall 43
2. Randi Brown 28
3. Candace Bullard 26
4. Amanda Haworth 20
5. Emma Randall 15, Skye McNeeley 15
6. Bailey Randall 12, Cierra Tidwell 12
7. Destiny Wagenknect 8
17 and under pole bending
1. Jordynn Runzo 37
2. Ramsey Milam 33
3. KC Waterman 20
4. Lindi Parker 15, Sami Novak 15
5. Tiffany Klemstine 13, Jamie Ewing 13
6. Annie Klemstine 12
7. Breiann Miller 10
17 and under barrel racing
1. Jordynn Runzo 35
2. Ramsey Milam 32
3. Jamie Ewing 16
4. Sami Novak 15, Breiann Miller 15
5. KC Waterman 14
6. Lindi Parker 12
7. Jessie Brown/Boss 11
8. Annie Klemstine 10, Anna Noe 10
18 and over pole bending
1. Shelbi Parker 42
2. Joanna Lee 27
3. Lara Baker 26
4. Margaret Parker 14, Paula Waterman 14
5. April Barner 11, Leslie Thompson 11
6. Amy Willis 10
18 and over barrel racing
1. Shelbi Parker 41
2. Joanna Lee 22
3. Lara Baker 17
4. Margaret Parker 16
5. Paula Waterman 15
6. Amy Willis 14
7. Leslie Thompson 11
8. Falicia D'Addabbo 9