Sun Circuit’s Winning Combination Results in Record Growth

by Kristen Spinning

When Sun Circuit debuted on its March dates last year, the show was the largest it had ever been. Now that record has been smashed once again. The 2018 Sun Circuit celebrated its 45th Anniversary surpassing last year’s stellar numbers by 10%. Over 19,000 class entries encompassed  everything from jumping to roping and included a range of exhibitors from Level 1 to World Champions. In addition to AQHA classes, the show hosted NSBA, NRHA,  Versatility Ranch Horse and All-Breed and Color Breed classes.

The predictably ideal weather and the show dates certainly resonate with exhibitors. The mood over the 9 days March 3-11 was buoyant. Show Director and AzQHA CEO Doug Huls commented, “It’s really exciting to see how much it has grown the last couple of years.” Huls highlighted some other factors that exhibitors are cheering, “People really like the show schedule. Its very workable. I think that they also appreciate the number and quality of our awards.” The show also strives to exceed exhibitor expectations on every front. That includes keen insight on the types of classes and events that exhibitors want. Sun Circuit continues to expand its offerings to include more sectors of AQHA enthusiasts.

An astonishing amount of prizes, awards and give aways were distributed across all levels. A total of 34 saddles were awarded in reining, roping, cow horse, trail, pleasure, over fences, Versatility Ranch Horse and to All Around Champions. Rod Patrick Ostrich boots were awarded to 9 High Point Champions. Other prizes included buckles, trophies and cash.

The prestige and size of Sun Circuit could be intimidating. However, exhibitors, family and friends seemed unanimous in the feeling that the show was fun, the classes were great and the staff went out of of their way to be helpful. “We love the donut cart,” was frequently exclaimed each morning as free coffee and donuts were circulated around the barns and arenas.  The expansive WestWorld facilities in Scottsdale easily accommodated the increased numbers. As many as 8 arenas saw classes in a day, and an additional half dozen were available for warm-up.

The increase in entries was seen just about everywhere. The Trail pen saw huge numbers all week. A whopping 133 L2 & L3 Senior horses and another 44 Juniors navigated the Don Lehman course. On the Amateur side, 69 Select and 45 Amateurs  showed off their precision and timing. Level 1 Junior, Senior and Amateur Trail numbers were also very strong, and there was a high percentage of cross entering with NSBA across all divisions.  Western Riding is another class that saw phenomenal entires. The Senior division had 73 horses on the pattern in L2 & L3 and another 49 in the L1. Junior and Amateur numbers edged up over last year as well.

Ranch Riding, VRH Ranch Trail and Ranch on the Rail classes also showed their continued popularity with extremely large class numbers. The quality of the competition was top notch, yet the camaraderie around the arena was convivial. Sun Circuit has always drawn big numbers in Reining. This year the spins and slides were flying almost continuously in the North Hall. The Junior division showed 62 entries, while Senior showed 79 between L2 & L3.

Sun Circuit hosted the NSBA Riders Cup on March 6 & 7. A total purse of $75,000 was awarded, along with 29 beautiful silver cup trophies and NSBA medals. The annual event is awarded money in Western Pleasure, Hunter Under Saddle, Trail, Western Riding, Showmanship, Western Horsemanship, and Hunt Seat Equitation events. The large trophy cups were proudly displayed all over the barns at WestWorld after the event. Brody Galyean rode Cool Poco Dot in the All Age Limited

Non Pro Western Pleasure to score the top marks in a field of twelve. His giant smile reflected brilliantly in the large Rider’s Cup trophy as he rode out of the arena knowing he earned $1,826.15. Keeping it in the family, Kristin Galyean won the Non Pro Western Pleasure and a check for $1,007.06 riding VS Lady in Red. The pair also took the top spots in Non Pro Western Riding and Junior Western Riding, earning an additional $3,257.

Tina Volmer was delighted to find herself in the award presentations twice riding Beter Late Than Never. Tina won the All Ages Limited Non Pro Hunter Under Saddle and received $1,660.36. She followed up that win by claiming a $2,271 prize in the Non Pro Hun Seat Equitation. Thirteen showed in a tightly matched Senior Trail. When the scores were all tallied, it was Jason Martin’s ride on Heza Radical Zip, owned by Bonnie Sheren who topped the cards for $1,557. The pair switched gears and also won the trophy for Senior Western Riding, earning $1,794. Select Trail had 13 entries. Joanne Garnett received high marks for the day and added $1,217 to her earnings.

At the conclusion of the Rider’s Cup, an Exhibitor Party sponsored by Suzy Johns served up great food and libations to a large crowd. The evening’s entertainment switched gears dramatically as the NSBA brought Donkey Races to Sun Circuit. 10 teams rode in 5 heats. Hilarity ensued when some of the finest equestrians on the planet discovered their skills were no match for a bunch of recalcitrant donkeys who seemed to truly enjoy dumping their riders in the dirt.

The Smart Boons Fence Challenge is always a crowd pleasing spectacle of equine athleticism. Smart Boons owners, Eric and Wendy Dunn added $20,000 to the pot and 100% of the entry fees were added back. Twenty of the top cow horses in the nation and their riders put on a fantastic show for the enthusiastic crowd. The energy of the event was contagious as spectators whooped and hollered with each turn of the cow.  Scores were held to the end, so the excitement continued to build. Corey Cushing was EmCee for the evening, interviewing each breathless rider after their performance.  After several heart thumping runs, Phil Ralls loped in on the flashy roan stallion, Call Me Mitch, owned by Estelle Roitblatt. The pair dominated their cow, diving into the stops, and turning with ease. It was clear they were going to be tough to beat. The crowd also cheered wildly for BJ Avila who was fast and fearless on Dera Cat owned by Rainlynn LLC. Cushing turned over his microphone and hopped aboard Sonita Lena Rey owned by Sheri Jamieson. They too turned in an exciting performance. All 20 exhibitors returns to the arena for scores and awards. Cushing’s run scored a 151, settling them into 3rd place. That earned a check for $3,825. Avila marked a 153 winning a check for $5,100. But it was Ralls and Mitch who edged out the pack with a 154, winning them a check for $6,375 and a beautiful custom Preston Williams Hardware trophy buckle. The pair combined that score with points earned in cutting, steer stopping and cow horse to claim the Golden Cowboy Award and an additional $2,250.

The Cinch Timed Event Challenge Roping has become a favorite event at Sun Circuit. Andrew Sharp rode Two Jack Benito Bar to take the Open heading with a payout of $1,470. Zane Bruce and Bar B picked up the second hole for $1,102. Then Zane came back in the heeling to win it for an additional $1,623. Dakota Kirchenschlager had two Armenia Quarter Horses mounts in the heeling and placed 2nd and 3rd for $2,244, On the Non Pro side, Garrett Hershberger rode Mom’s Hail Cat to have the fastest heading score to win $1,687. Cinco Cucharadas got Seth Jordan in place the fastest to take the top spot in the heeling, earning $ 1385.50.  Chantz Stewart picked up the 2nd and 3rd holes on Shining Cielo and Oakies Wild William to earn a total of $1,915. Ropers also had a shot at cash in the Sun Circuit Roping Futurity. Clay Logan rode Bets Gin to take the Championship in the Heading, winning $3,600 and a Bob’s Custom Saddle. On the Heeling side, it was JD Yates aboard DT Shine Blue Brandy who put together the best 3 goes to earn $3,654 and a Bob’s Custom Saddle.

Rogers Heaven Sent Ranch sponsored the Junior and Senior Bridle Spectaculars again this year which combine scores from cutting and cow horse. $2,500 was added to both divisions, with $1,250 going to the champion. The Junior Spectacular went to Dotted Lights with Tucker Clark aboard, while Smoking Red Pepper and Shadd Parkinson had the highest total score in the Senior. The Amateurs had their own Spectaculars. Lindsey Marie James received the highest combined score in cutting and cow horse to win $500, and Becky Stockett racked up the points in cutting and boxing to win $500.

Sun circuit offered a full slate of Versatility Ranch Horse classes during the first weekend for both AQHA and All Breed. The classes enjoyed very enthusiastic participation with large numbers, especially among amateurs. A Scottsdale Performance Saddle was awarded to the All Breed Amateur Champion Dana Avila, while Bob Grant won the saddle for VRH All Breed Open.

Exhibitors didn’t always have to place first in a class to be a winner at Sun Circuit. Over $55,000 in give aways kept the fun and excitement going from start to finish.. AzQHA president Michelle Pearson and Dale Litton of the  Prize Patrol relentlessly criss-crossed the WestWorld grounds ensuring everyone, at every level and discipline, had a shot at winning something. Give aways came in many forms. The “Word of the Day” netted savvy exhibitors gift certificates from vendors, buckets of supplements and even jewelry. Being in the right place at the right time with the right trivia answer rewarded numerous people with gift certificates for hats, boots and more. The most talked about give aways involved the fun challenges that tested exhibitor skills not often seen at a horse show: bareback mounting for youth halter, back, turn and two-point for equitation, a long trot race in ranch riding, a boot scramble while leading your horse, relay races and more entertained everyone. The infamous bouncy horses returned, proving once again that reiners and cow horse riders just aren’t that good at bouncing across the arena. The Mimosa Jump Off Challenge was eagerly anticipated by the hunters. Some of them certainly practiced after last year. Riders cantered over a fence holding a flute of champagne and OJ. The one with most left in their glass took home a 50” TV.

Two new challenges debuted this year. The Sun Circuit’s Got Talent turned the mike over to intrepid singers during the Seven Bar Lunch Party. Marcella Rierson wowed the crowd and won herself a $1,200 custom silver headstall. Playing up Scottsdale’s perfect weather, the ‘I Left This To Come To Sun Circuit’ Challenge encouraged exhibitors and their families to post their worst weather from back home on Facebook. Many truly nasty winter weather stories were shared. A team of Arizona judges rated them for the biggest yuck factor. Tracy Ingraham left 29 below zero with wind and snow to enjoy the show. If that wasn’t winning enough, she also was treated to a $1,500 Cavalia Odysseo Prize Pack including 4 VIP tickets and limo ride.

A show this size is not only about fun and prizes. A great deal of effort and planning goes into the logistics to make it run smoothly. AzQHA is determined to keep Sun Circuit  and the AZ Fall Championship on the leading edge of show technology. To that end, a new software system was in use for scribing, tabulating and transmitting data. Scribes carried tablets which communicated with the announcer and show office. Gate people could verify entires, add or scratch easily. The system enabled quick tabulation and results announcements which moved the schedule along well. Huls was frank about the roll out, “Overall, it was a good first step. I think it worked well in many ways.” He conceded,  “We had a few glitches at the end and there were some things that we had to reconfigure. We are working hard to refine the system so that we can deliver a great experience to exhibitors.” Huls anticipates that the improvements will be ready for the Fall Show.

A proven formula for success combined with a determination to constantly improve ensures Sun Circuit will remain one of those shows around which everyone plans their annual show calendar. For 2019, the show will run March 2-10. You can be certain there will be even more events than ever.