Shelley Murphy and Flick

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No barrel racer is supposed to qualify for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in her first full-time season, on a $6,000 rope horse, in the midst of personal tragedy.

But, taking a page straight from the book of fairy tales, Shelley Murphy has done it-plus piled on a national championship and top-five ranking.

She picked up Mighty Classy Flight, now 13, a few years ago as a scrawny little rope horse that had been trained on the barrels but wouldn't make a clean run. Bred Easy Jet and Truly Truckle on top and Three Ohs on the bottom side, "Flick" required a few buckets of blood, sweat and tears before he freed up, but Murphy filled her permit on him in 2006 as her circuit's Rookie of the Year.

Flick became unbeatable in Big Sky country, where his and Murphy's breakaway and barrel racing earnings brought in the 2007 Northern Rodeo Association all-around championship. And on the PRCA cloverleaf, their record-setting $20,554 in Montana alone got them into this season's winter rodeos. Venturing south this winter for the first time, Murphy hit costly barrels except at Fort Worth, where she was second.

She'd turned it around in March at the DNCFR when, the morning after Murphy won the first round, she was told her father, Scott Perrigo, had died in a car accident. Remembering how proud he'd always been of her feats in the arena, Murphy decided he would want her to stay and "win for Daddy." She left Pocatello with a new arena record, an order for a Dodge truck, byes into the first two Ariat Playoffs, and $13,797.

Then it was on to California, where Murphy's only goal was to have a good time. She placed at San Francisco and Clovis and won Red Bluff to bank a cool $10,228. On May 2, she quit her full-time job managing the health insurance plan for the Montana University system (Shelley's husband, Matt, also works for the state), and continued to marvel at her success.

"When they called and invited me to Cloverdale, I was like, 'You want me? Little old Nobody from Montana?'" she said.

Over the Fourth of July, Murphy won $15,238 as the runner-up at Greeley, Colo., and St. Paul, Ore., then won Nampa, Idaho and Hermiston, Ore., before sweeping the first two Ariat playoffs in Caldwell, Idaho, and Puyallup, Wash.

Flick's pattern has been to win big when he makes back-to-back runs, such as at Fort Worth, Pocatello, and Caldwell. The big-hearted brown son of Freedom Flyer doesn't get short; he just tries harder. Not only that, but he raced through this season with virtually no veterinary maintenance. As for Murphy, she had a little help from Oxy-Gen, Cowgirl Tuff Co., Charlie 1 Horse Hats, Montana Silversmiths, Star Performance Hitch, US Smokeless Tobacco and Nickels Casino.

It's been such a mind-blowing year for Murphy-from losing her father to switching careers and hitting six figures-that more than once she's pinched herself and asked, "Is this really my life happening?"

Her biggest performance is yet to come in the Thomas and Mack Center, where one thing is sure-her father's spirit will have the best seat in the house. Murphy has a legitimate shot at a world title, but a chapter from her own version of Murphy 's Law says that no matter what happens, she's determined to enjoy the ride.

"I said right from the start that if I made the Finals by a dollar in the 15th hole, I'd be good," she said. "The rest is gravy."

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Winning Puyallup, Washington
On this first barrel at Puyallup, you can tell I'm a little bent forward, and that's so I'll be with Flick when he leaves the barrel on his next stride. In a tighter pen, being left behind at the end of a turn is costly not only in time, but in the chance you may hit the next barrel because your horse is ready and you're not.

I'm not really impressed with my inside hand because it's coming over the barrel instead of back to my belt buckle, which is putting more pressure on his outside rein. I probably got in a hurry trying to be fast rather than correct. In a really tight situation or if your run in is real straight to first, this could cause you to tip the first barrel as you leave it. I got lucky here.

The weight in my stirrups is keeping me centered and helping Flick stay balanced. You can tell I'm looking to where I want my horse to run to and he's headed that direction.

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Winning Caldwell, Idaho
This is a really fun picture with all the color; plus I have to think that a lot of things went right based on positions.

Notice in this picture (taken at the second barrel) that I'm sitting straight up and perpendicular to the ground, rather than leaning away from my horse. Because of my good body position, my feet are carrying most of the weight of my body, keeping me really centered and helping Flick stay balanced in his turn.

You can't see my inside hand, but you can tell that the outside rein is loose and I'm asking Flick to turn with that inside rein. I'm encouraging him to keep driving by smooching to him-see how his inside ear is listening to me? Also, he's really buried up in this sandy dirt

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Winning the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo
This was the run that broke the arena record. My body position is upright and centered, which gives Flick the balance to keep his pivot foot underneath him. You can't see it very well, but his inside hind foot is coming forward as he plants that driver deep underneath so he can push off on his next stride.

There's slack in my outside rein that allows Flick to keep his head more free through his turn, and his body is round to the barrels which, in a tight pen like this, helps keep the barrels up. I should be looking for my third barrel, but instead am watching to make sure I'm going clean. Sometimes, though, watching a barrel will cause you to hit it, because your hands go where you look and your horse goes where your hands go.

I don't usually bump Flick headed into his second barrel, but I'm actually saying "whoa" here instead of smooching. That's odd in a tight pen, but he was running so hard in Pocatello that I was making sure he was going to bury up and turn. And he did.