Jacob Ballard and Flashin Benjamins marked a 218 to clinch the NRHA L1 Open Futurity title.
By Kaycie Timm; Photos by Waltenberry
Jaccob Ballard dreamed of making the NRHA Futurity finals for as long as he can remember. This year, the NRHA Professional not only achieved that goal, but he came out a champion. Although 2019 marked his first time qualifying for the open finals, the young professional is no stranger to NRHA competition.
“The first time I showed a horse, I was 7 years old,” Ballard recalled. “I showed in youth until I was 17, then I turned in my non pro card.”
In January 2019, Ballard set out on his own, armed with the knowledge he’d gained working for other NRHA Professionals including Kole Price, for whom he worked from 2016 through 2018. When he chose to make that difficult transition from assistant to stand-alone professional, Ballard had no idea he’d close the year with an NRHA Futurity title. But after marking a 218 in the first section of the open finals, Ballard and Flashin Benjamins, nominated by Nicole Miller and owned by Leann Spurlock, came out at the top of the L1 Open Futurity.
A Unique Opportunity
When Spurlock approached Ballard about showing “Benji,” who’s by Gunnatrashya and out of Shiners Hot Flash, the 26-year-old professional jumped on the chance to take a horse to the Futurity. The offer’s timing left only two months for Ballard to prepare the 3-year-old to compete at the big event. However, the pair had a history together—Ballard put the first five months of training on the horse while working for Price. Finding confidence both in Price’s program, where the colt had continued his training, and in his own experience with the stallion, Ballard took on the challenge.
“It’s awesome to get this win on a horse I started,” Ballard shared. “He had a really cool feel as a 2-year-old. He was super soft in his face, and he still is. I remember stopping him when he first got sliders, and he still has that same smooth effect—now he does it for 25 feet instead of 10 or 12.”
Even with that previous experience under his belt, Ballard still had his work cut out for him to prepare Benji for the NRHA Futurity. He schooled the horse at every opportunity, even traveling to an arena at a local college to give him a show-like experience in an unfamiliar pen.
“You have to make every ride count when you only have two months,” Ballard revealed. “Every time I’d throw my leg over him, I had to figure out something about him—something new. When he figures out that everything is good if he does his job, he does a little extra for you. He really has a big heart.”
As the Futurity drew closer, Ballard hoped that heart would carry his mount through the prelims and into the finals for their chance at victory in Oklahoma City.
Marking a solid 216 in the first round of open competition, Ballard and Benji qualified for all four levels of the open semifinals. A score of 217.5 there qualified them for the L3–1 open finals, and Ballard knew they’d have to bring their A-game. As the pair ran into the Jim Norick Coliseum arena for their final shot at Futurity glory, all the pieces came together for a successful ride.
“He’s always been a huge stopper, so I knew if we could run in, get stopped, and back up, everything would be in a good place,” Ballard shared. “He turned better in the show pen than he did in the warmup arena. Once he loped off, I knew he was locked in and I could push him in his circles. By the time I got through the second lead change, I was home free. He just killed the ground like he does every time.”
Then came the true challenge: waiting until the end of the second section of the open finals to see if their score would hold the L1 lead.
At the end of the evening, Ballard’s efforts proved fruitful as he and Benji entered the arena one more time to be crowned the 2019 NRHA L1 Open Futurity champions. In addition to their L1 win, the pair also tied for fifth place in the L3 Open and ranked fourth in L2.
As he reflected on a challenging but fruitful year, Ballard was quick to recognize the importance of having a solid team behind each horse in his barn. In the case of Benji, the young professional benefitted from his relationship with not just the colt, but with his owner, too.
“I’ve known Leann [Spurlock] and Gary [Olley] for about two years,” Ballard explained. “You couldn’t ask for better owners. They always want to know what’s going on with their horse, and they’re very proactive. You can’t get to where I am without having good owners—they’re a huge part of it.”
With his first Futurity title under his belt, Ballard is moving forward with renewed drive to keep chasing his dreams. As another season of competition approaches, he’s ready to take on a new set of challenges as he continues to achieve more of his goals in the reining industry.
“It’s been a long road, but I’m excited to be where I am,” Ballard shared. “I couldn’t have done it without the support from the people around me.”