Barrel racing growing in Queen Creek

Cindy Diaz and Dirty Harry whip around a barrel.  (David Minton/Tribune Staff Photographer)

It’s a story about two women who had an idea and ran with it…around some barrels.

Jill Starkey and Stacy Portonova co-founded the Queen Creek Barrel Racing Association in 2014.

Starkey said she noticed a need for barrel racing in the East Valley and with some help from Horseshoe Park and Equestrian Center, it’s become a reality for the past eight years for riders of all ages and skill levels.

“Our little, not-so-little, association has been described as the best kept secret in barrel racing,” she said.

On July 2, the association hosted the first annual Firecracker 5D that allowed barrel racers of all skill levels to compete for cash prizes.

Racers ranged from a little boy who celebrated his first birthday on July 2 to some in their 70s, Starkey said.

“I love the thrill of barrel racing but I love that it can be a lifelong sport for all ages,” Starkey said.

Starkey said it’s been a dream of hers to start this since she used to trek across the Valley to Buckeye for barrel racing. Now, it’s drawn attention from across the country.

She soon partnered with Portonova and former Horseshoe Park General Manager Tim Lynch to discuss some opportunities for barrel racing at the facility.

Starkey said the association hosts races at John Volken Academy Ranch in Gilbert as well but HPEC facilities are “best in the state” capable of supporting the capacity.

In 2018, the association removed a membership requirement and opened it up everyone due to winter visitors who couldn’t do a year-round membership.

“We are a club that likes to listen to the riders and make decisions based on that and what is best for the majority of the riders,” she said.

She said they hold races every Thursday that can draw 100 riders to more than 300 riders for their 10 big weekend races per year. One race drew more than 400 competitors.

She said some contestants from the National Finals Rodeo have also run with them to “tune up” their horses on their way to the national competition in Las Vegas.

For Starkey, this isn’t her first rodeo.

“I grew up in Wisconsin and horses have always been part of my family’s life,” she said.

Starkey moved to Queen Creek 20 years ago with her husband Dean and son Garrett, and in that time has raised her daughters Taylor and Tyra to race.

She has coached for the past 16 years and watched more than 1,500 racers from the Queen Creek and San Tan Valley compete in their races.

The association is more than just about competition considering they’ve raised money for various causes including raising awareness for breast cancer and alopecia.

Portonova has lived in Queen Creek for the past 15 years and helps with many of the fundraising efforts the association gives to. Her daughter Hailey competes in the races despite being diagnosed with alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss.

“She is instrumental in helping to raise funds for other young kids with alopecia and bringing awareness to this disorder,” she said.