Originally created 10/31/06

Young champion returns to defend her title



They shocked everyone in attendance at last year's National Barrel Horse Association World Championships.

Sarah McDonald, of Brunswick, Ga., and GC Highly Motivated pulled off the upset victory in the finals of the Open division. So what was the big celebration afterward?

She and her family stopped at Huddle House in Waynesboro.

It was a modest celebration. And the return to Augusta was just as humble Monday.

McDonald and her horse walked out of James Brown Arena after a disappointing run in the Sweepstakes. The pair will officially defend the title today in the Open first go-round.

"It feels good to know you won it last year," the 14-year-old McDonald said. "Everybody thinks you need to do good every time."

McDonald, who began riding horses at age 4, became the first Georgian to win the NBHA Open finals since the inception of the world championships in 1993. She and GC Highly Motivated marked 14.051 - the fastest time of the six-day show - and watched the remaining 131 riders fall short. Senior champion Chuck Tolbert came the closest, marking a time of 14.069.

"There were a lot of horses left to run," she said. "I was kind of watching. Sometimes, I wouldn't watch the good horses."

McDonald's run was something out of a fairy-tale movie after a shaky week. She and her mount skipped the Sweepstakes and then ran over a barrel in their first go-round. Then they squeaked into the championship round with an average second-go run.

In the finals, the pair finally clicked.

"You've got a lot of these barrel racers who've been riding all their lives who haven't won a national championship," said McDonald's father, Mike. "And it won't be easy to do it again. ... That was the right run at the right time."

Sarah and her horse entered this week with little fanfare. They own no major victories in 2006. And GC Highly Motivated, a 9-year-old gelding, has been battling leg soreness in recent months. Mike said the horse is not yet 100 percent.

Add the fact that no Open champion has ever repeated. It's a tall order for Sarah, a ninth-grader at Heritage Christian Academy in Brunswick. She'll attempt to qualify two horses - Sarah's also riding Sippin Moonshine - to the finals today.

She and her family will travel back to Brunswick later today, and she'll go to school Wednesday. If Sarah comes up short trying to win a second national championship, she still can look ahead to playing on her school's basketball team.

No matter how she fares this week, she'll always have that 2005 title.

"That's a once-in-a-lifetime thing to do," Mike said. "And she did it at an early age."

Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or chris.gay@augustachronicle.com.

TREATS, TREATS

What: NBHA's Trick or Trot


Where: James Brown Arena


When: 7 p.m.


Cost: Free


Note: Children can trick or treat at the door and at vendors throughout the arena. National Barrel Horse Association World Championships contestants, family members and horses will compete in the costume contest. Rodeo clown Robbie Hodges also will perform.