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Three barrels, two hearts, one championship

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Hannah Alves and Cricket have dreamlike first IBRA season

By John Herndon

Imagine a rookie learning the game teaming with an aging, overweight teammate suffering from arthritis to win a state championship.

Far-fetched?

Don’t tell Hannah Alves.

The Anderson County Middle School student entered the final weekend of the 2009 barrel racing season in second place, just 32 points behind the state leader in the Division 3 standings.

Hannah took the lead with a second-place finish at Carrollton Friday night, then won her race in Lewisburg, Ohio on Saturday.

Hannah took the lead with a second-place finish Friday night at Carrollton, but her time Sunday of 18.307 dropped her into second place by one one-hundredth of a second, where she finished with 91 points.

She finished her season as High Point Champion of Kentucky with 1,405 points in the 3-D Youth Division.

She will begin the new IBRA season Aug. 1 in Shepherdsville, and compete Aug. 22 in the IBRA state finals at Madison County Fairgrounds Indoor Arena in Richmond.

Not bad for a rookie who did not even take up the sport and join the tour until midway through the season. And Alves, 11, has been tearing up the rodeo circuit riding her mare, Cricket, who is eight years her senior.

But this is no ordinary tandem.

“Just watch them,” says Hannah’s father, Roy Alves, as he breaks into a huge smile.

Navigating a makeshift ring on the family’s small Anderson County farm, Hannah and Cricket circle the three barrels almost effortlessly, then make a mad dash for where the finish line would be.

“They just know each other,”Alves says. “I played football. My boys played football and baseball. It’s just like any team. Hannah Grace and that horse just know each other.”

Ironically, it was a matchup that almost did not come about.

It all started when Roy and his wife, Stephanie Alves, decided to give their daughter an unforgettable present at a surprise party for her 10th birthday.

“We both have seen girls go in wrong directions and we know between those years of 10 and 17 are really tough,” Roy recalls. “We went on and done this hoping Hannah would latch on.”

Roy used some connections made through Anderson County Bearcat baseball to find that first horse, named Stormy. The relationship was like a relaxing breeze. “Hannah fell in love with her like Stephanie and I had hoped,” Roy says.

The family started showing Stormy at Mt. Eden and Waddy, but Hannah’s grandfather, Kenneth Peach, felt she needed a different horse to have more success. He offered his own horse, Princess.

Roy bought the horse from his father-in-law and enlisted the help of Shayara Cox, a local teen, to teach the ins and outs of horses and horsemanship. “Shayara is the lady,” Roy says. “This would not have happened without her.”

Or without a chance encounter with the barrels.

“Hannah was at Mt. Eden on a Saturday night with Princess and Stormy and ran a barrel race and poles during the competition classes and fell in love with it,” Roy remembers.

“It’s really fast,” Hannah says. “I like it fast.”

“She said, ‘Dad, I don’t have to worry about the judge not paying attention to me,’” Roy recalls.

Hannah was hooked, but there was one problem: She had Tennessee Walking Horses, great for shows, but not for speed. She needed a quarter horse.

Shayara Cox’s mother, Tina, knew of an older quarter horse that could be Hannah’s for the taking. It was Cricket.

But Roy told his daughter that they did not need three horses. If Cricket came aboard, Hannah’s birthday present had to go.

“I didn’t want to get rid of Stormy,” Hannah says.

“I learned something that day from my daughter,” Roy says, “so I ended up taking her anyway.”

With Shayara Cox’s help, Hannah grew into Cricket and on Jan. 17, she entered her first International Barrel Racing Association race at Hodge Arena in Versailles. She and Cricket teamed up for a time of 18.253 seconds, still their best time in 23 races.

It might have been like starting the Kentucky Derby when the rest of the field has already run a half-mile, since the IBRA season runs from Aug. 1 to July 31.

Undaunted, Hannah and Cricket won first place four times and second on six others. Their consistency guaranteed them second place in the standings and put them in striking distance of the top heading into the final weekend of the season. Clean runs mean just as much as sheer speed in the sport.

“I saw what kind of rider she could be one time when they hit a barrel and Hannah reached over to grab it before it hit the ground,” Roy said.

The move is legal in barrel racing, as long as it comes before the barrel hits the ground.

That Cricket and Hannah are a team cannot be questioned. Hannah obviously has some riding skills to go with an animal that responds to her. The horse stands calmly as the 11-year-old cleans her hooves and grooms her. “Hannah does all the work,” her father says. “We pull up to a show and get the grill ready. Hannah gets her horse out of the trailer and does all the work. I do check her saddle to ensure that it is tight. That’s it.”

It has become a lifestyle, at least for Hannah, who says she now wants to pursue a career as a farrier.

Roy adds that everything about the team is a reciprocal. “That horse, she is a great baby-sitter,” he smiles. “Cricket seems to know when Hannah Grace is on her back and seems to protect her.”

But with the potential comes the temptation to break up a good thing.

“I made a comment to an older gentleman, probably in his eighties, at Morehead State University one afternoon about replacing Cricket with a younger horse so Hannah can move up in classes,” Roy remembers. “He laughed and said, ‘Dads. They’re all the same. Faster, faster horses. Better times. You leave that horse and darling little girl alone and together because that horse is teaching her more about riding, loyalty and love than any man could ever teach her and that includes you.’

“He just walked off.”

Just like a team focused on one goal is better than a group of individual parts in any sport, Hannah Alves and her equestrian friend, Cricket, are proving the old barrel-racing saying is true.

Three barrels, two hearts, one dream.

E-mail John Herndon at jpherndon@theandersonnews.com.