For Mary Burger, age truly is just a number.
The 68-year-old from Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, is an age-defying barrel racer who may further etch her name in the record books of professional rodeo with the start of the sport's world championship on Thursday. Burger -- who became rodeo's oldest world champion at age 58 with her gold buckle in 2006 -- is back atop the Women's Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) standings heading into the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which features seven different events and runs through Dec. 10 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
She will be one of 15 barrel racers competing in the $10 million rodeo, riding her horse in a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels placed strategically in a dirt-filled arena to see who can clock the fastest time. The cowgirl with the best time each night earns $26,231 -- the top eight places get paid -- and the barrel racer with the most money combined from the regular season and the Wrangler NFR after Round 10 earns the title of world champion.
Burger rode her 7-year-old buckskin gelding, Mo, to a WPRA-record $190,977 in regular-season earnings this year and enters Round 1 on Thursday night with a $74,590 lead over second-place Jackie Ganter as the odds-on favorite to win another world championship. It has been a dreamlike season for Burger, especially considering she didn't know how much she and her somewhat "green" horse would be on the road in 2016.
"I was just planning on going to whatever rodeos we wanted to go to, and I just wanted to go to Houston and some of the [indoor] rodeos," said Burger, who is competing in her first Wrangler NFR since 2009. "When Houston turned out real good, it just made it doable to make it [to Las Vegas] this year."
Burger and Mo raced their way to victory at RodeoHouston in March, earning a $54,750 check that put them atop the world standings. Then, in mid-July, the dynamic duo hit it big again by winning the Calgary Stampede north of the border for $122,000, $72,000 of which counted for the WPRA's ProRodeo standings.
Burger's final tally set a new regular-season record for barrel racing and has her poised to extend the age record she already set for rodeo world champions. And when you consider that Burger got Mo, an unknown and unproven commodity, in a trade for another horse, her 2016 campaign is even more impressive.
She had an idea the horse was special, but his youth and playful attitude still had her wondering.
"It was always in the back of my mind, but you just never know," Burger said of Mo's potential. "I knew he had all the ability in the world to run with the best of them, but he's kind of an immature horse. He likes to just be a horse sometimes.
"He's been getting a lot better, and I knew he had the ability all along. It just all fell together for us."
Not only is she leading the barrel racing standings, but Burger will be wearing the coveted No. 1 back number in Las Vegas, an honor reserved for the Wrangler NFR contestant who wins the most money during the regular season. It's only the third time a woman has achieved that feat in the 58 years of the "Super Bowl of Rodeo," which has 120 competitors (women compete in barrel racing, while men participate in bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping and bull riding). Burger joins 11-time world champion Charmayne James (1987) and four-time world champion Sherry Cervi (1995) with that distinction.
"I guess they won't ever forget me that way, will they?" Burger said. "Sometimes, you might make the NFR once and nobody knows who you are, but with the No. 1 spot, I guess they won't forget me."
Her accomplishments have not gone unnoticed by her peers.
"I think it's awesome, and she's had a great year," said Cervi, who enters the 10-day rodeo at No. 12 in the standings. "To be able to wear the No. 1 back number, I think it's really cool and is an honor. She's a good person, too, and represents the barrel racers well."
Burger won her 2006 title on two-time American Quarter Horse Association/WPRA Horse of the Year Fred, and this year's world title would be the first for her and Mo. As a woman who won her world championships on multiple horses, Cervi knows how tough that is to accomplish on different mounts.
"She's a great hand [horsewoman] and has ridden numerous horses in her career," Cervi said. "To come back and have a chance to win a gold buckle is pretty exciting. She's trained a lot of great horses. The barrel racers who have competed in the futurity, horse show and jackpot worlds know who Mary Burger is because she's been competitive for a very long time."
But with round winners earning so much each night and up to $67,000 for winning the 10-round aggregate, Burger's lead isn't exactly insurmountable. She'll have a target on her back as she takes on 14 other talented barrel racers and their trusty equine athletes in a race against the clock at the $10 million rodeo.
Her defense of the top spot may be tougher than Burger would like, as Mo -- who finished second in the AQHA/WPRA Barrel Horse of the Year voting -- is recovering from a sore deep flexor tendon. Burger had him in physical therapy treatments throughout November and feels good about his rehabilitation.
She is taking some backup horses to Las Vegas as a contingency plan, but she hopes to ride Mo as long as he feels good enough to go.
"I think he's going to make it," Burger said just before Thanksgiving. "He's getting to where he's pretty sound, and it's just a matter of if he gets sore. If he gets sore, I'll have to go to a backup.
"I'm really pleased with how he's doing, but he hasn't made any runs since the middle of October. So, we're hoping that he does well and is healthy enough to keep on running."
Burger and Mo racked up their impressive money total in just 64 rodeos, 36 fewer than Ganter, thanks to the pair of big wins. The "quality over quantity" approach worked, and now Burger has a chance to take home another gold buckle.
That's not a normal goal for a grandmother her age, but Mo's talent and success, combined with Burger's innate desire to compete in the sport she loves, propelled her along. That internal fire and determination are what keep Burger going as she approaches 70.
"This is just what I love to do," she said. "Other than working on the ranch and keeping that in order, this is my life. I guess it's just all I know how to do."
Burger also knows how to teach the sport to others and is a world-class mentor for her 10-year-old granddaughter, Kaden.
"She's been going to Little Britches [Association] rodeos, and we've got her a nice barrel horse and a really nice pole [bending] horse," said Burger, who competed alongside her daughter-in-law, P.J., at the 2009 Wrangler NFR. "She's having a good time and doing really well, and I'm a proud grandma."
If Burger wins the gold buckle, her granddaughter could perhaps wear it as she progresses in the sport.
"It would just be a dream come true," Burger said. "To win as much as I've won this year, it'd just be a great way to end an awesome year. It'd be icing on the cake."