By Cassie Gasvoda

When it comes to barrel racing, two things immediately come to most people’s minds: cowgirls and rodeos. Ladies riding some of the world’s fastest, most athletic horses enter the arena at a run, then turn three barrels as quickly as possible in a cloverleaf pattern before heading back down the alley at a dead sprint. There are no points for style; it all comes down to the fastest time (registered by an electronic eye) and leaving all three barrels standing to avoid a penalty.

If watching barrel racing is exciting, then actually participating is an adrenaline rush. For starry eyed young girls watching, it can spark dreams of running down the alley at the Thomas and Mack in Las Vegas at the National Finals Rodeo on their own special horse. But rodeo is a notoriously difficult and expensive hobby to break into. For someone just learning, it can be extremely costly and intimidating. Paying entry fees to run in front of a large crowd as a beginner where you may be up against professionals isn’t a good recipe for landing in the top spots that pay money.

So where does someone interested in barrel racing, without the commitment of rodeo, go to just have fun and learn? For those near Great Falls, the answer is the JJK Jackpot series held at the King’s Arena. Barrel racing jackpots are very different from rodeos. For one thing, they are strictly a barrel racing competition. There is no roping or roughstock involved. For another, competition is not restricted to any age or gender.

“Any boy, girl, man, or woman of any age can compete,” says Juli Jo Knudesen Kelly, producer of the JJK races. “There is generally a PeeWee division [6 and under], Youth [18 and under], and an Open [any age]. All ability levels are encouraged to compete.”

On a good day, a JJK Jackpot may see as many as 150 Open entries, with riders ranging from beginners to rodeo level competitors. At first glance, it may look like only a handful of the fastest runners are going to place and win any money, while everyone else simply donated to the pot. But at a jackpot, everyone has a chance to win money, because they use what is known as the “D System.”

“It’s a handicapping system used so that every level of rider has an opportunity to win money,” explains Knudsen Kelly.

Most races are set up with a 4D format, meaning there are four divisions in which runners can place and win money. Divisions are based off of the fastest run of the race, usually using a half second, full second split. For example, if the fastest run of the race is a 15, the divisions would be broken down as follows:

1D =fastest time of the day 15.0
2D =fastest horse that is equal to or slower than 15.5 (half second from the 1D time)
3D =fastest horse that is equal to or slower than 16.0 (half second from the 2D time)
4D =fastest horse that is equal to or slower than 17.0 (1 full second from the 3D time)

The fastest time is First Place in the 1D, and usually the top three to four places in each division earn money.

When asked how she would describe a typical race, Knudsen Kelly says, “They are competitive, but laid back and fun. I’ve had many people over the years tell me how much they appreciate the upbeat, friendly environment. Seeing people improve and gain confidence makes it very worthwhile.”

Races are held from March into November, as weather allows, giving competitors lots of opportunities to learn, train, have fun, and possibly win money and prizes. To enter a race, competitors simply fill out a form and pay a small entry fee, which goes into the “pot.” At the end of the race, when the winners are calculated, a portion of the pot gets held back by the producer to pay for putting on the event, and the rest gets divided up among the winners.

For more information and a schedule of events, like and follow JJK Barrel Racing, LLC on Facebook or visit jjkbarrelracing.com.