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Tatone copes with loss of her horse

May 19, 2006

Jessica Tatone is carrying a heavy heart as she prepares for the barrel racing competition at the College National Finals Rodeo, set for June 11-17 in Casper, Wyo.

The University of Nevada Las Vegas senior cowgirl, a 2002 graduate of Roseburg High, was looking forward to making a run at the national championship aboard her partner, Justin, a 10-year-old quarterhorse who's been her pride and joy the past four years in the arena.

But due to a freak accident at the Clovis (Calif.) Rodeo on April 27, that's not going to happen.

Justin - a two-time West Coast Region AQHA Horse of the Year - was killed after getting spooked by the fireworks being set off during the Extreme Bulls event taking place that night. The horse was in a portable pen next to Tatone's trailer prior to the accident.

For Jessica, who turns 22 on July 22, it was a devastating blow and marked the second time in nearly five years she has lost a horse. In June 2001, four Tatone horses loaded in a trailer were killed when their Ford truck slid on wet pavement and rolled down an embankment near Sisters as they were heading to Redmond for the Oregon High School Rodeo Association State Finals.

Jessica's horse, Spicey, and Win-um, the prized horse of older sister Nataly, died at the scene.

It's still difficult for Jessica to get over her latest loss. She and Justin developed a special bond during their four years together.

"I'm doing OK. It's day by day," she said Wednesday from Las Vegas, her voice cracking with emotion at times. "(Justin) was the only one of my horses who was in my name (as owner). He was my best friend, I don't know how else to say it. I spent more time with that horse than the boyfriend I've been dating.

"I've never been around a horse with a personality like his, who was in tune with people like he was. It sounds silly, but I want to say he was compassionate. He had the most expressions and most emotion of any horse I've ever seen. It helps when other people, not just me, say how special he was."

Jessica is proud of the progress Justin made each year running the cloverleaf pattern. She said they finished first in 11 of their last 17 college rodeos. Tatone was the regular season points leader nationally and placed ninth at the College National Finals in 2005.

"It was just getting to the point where I felt like I could take him anywhere and win on him," she said. "The first couple of years I didn't know if he'd be a good barrel racing horse, but I knew he was smart and athletic. He kept getting better and better.

"I planned on rodeoing with him the next eight years. It's a strange feeling he's gone. I kind of have an identity crisis ... I don't know who I am without those plans. Everything I was going to do until September is gone."

The good news is Tatone's replacement horse for the College National Finals has a proven track record. Scooter, an 8-year-old buckskin quarterhorse, was ridden by Nataly when she won the national barrel racing title last year. Scooter is owned by Italy Spratt, their mother.

Jessica rode Scooter to victory in the UNLV rodeo last weekend, giving her the West Coast Region points title - 25 ahead of Blaire Bidwell of Feather River College. Jessica finished eighth nationally in the regular season.

Those regular season points mean nothing at the College National Finals. The one cowgirl who can make four consistent runs will come out on top.

"I'm thankful I have him (Scooter). He's a blessing," Jessica said. "He's totally different to ride on (than Justin was). He's obviously athletic and talented, but our communication is different.

"I know I have a great opportunity, because I'll be on the horse that won it last year. I'm capable of riding him to the best of my ability - it's just a matter of doing it."

While Tatone would love to come away a champion at the College National Finals and follow her sister to the winner's circle, she's keeping her final college rodeo in perspective.

"I have no expectations," she said. "I'm not putting any pressure on myself. If you'd asked me three weeks ago, I would've told you I didn't want to go. I'll be happy being there, helping my team and doing the best I can. If it doesn't work out, that's okay."

Tatone, UNLV's captain, is the West Coast Region's nominee for the Walt Garrison Award. The winner, who will be named during the CNFR, will receive $2,500 and another $2,500 will be awarded to the student's college or university.

The 11 finalists who are members of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association are nominated for the following qualities: Initiative, loyalty, tenacity, commitment, honesty, perseverance, integrity and leadership.

There's no doubt Jessica Tatone meets all those qualifications and more.

Garrison is a former fullback with the National Football League's Dallas Cowboys. He spent time on the amateur rodeo circuit during his football off-seasons and is still a spokesman for U.S. Smokeless Tobacco.


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