I’ve known the Petska and Potter families all my life, and you won’t find a posse of more humble, hard working people. So it made my heart happy to see them sitting at a table together at the Silverado Steakhouse—breaking bread and enjoying each other’s company inside the rodeo dynasty that formed when these two cowboy clans combined to form a pro rodeo powerhouse.
It happened when reigning World Champion Heeler Cory Petska and four-time World Champion Barrel Racer Sherry Cervi got together and tied the knot a few years back. Fast forward to last night, and there they were at that table—five friendly, familiar faces in Paul, Gail, and son, Cory Petska, Sherry Cervi, and her dad, Mel Potter. They’d gathered for a bite before the Round 3 go-round buckle presentations, after Cory and Derrick Begay’s 4 flat earned them the victory lap.
Paul Petska headed steers for little brother Monty Joe at three National Finals Rodeos, then Monty Joe went on to rope at 11 more. Paul and Monty Joe won the NFR average in 1986.
Gail Petska won the world barrel racing championship in 1972 and ’73 on an amazing little sorrel horse she called Dobie. I remember my horse-doctor dad giving Dobie a little veterinary TLC when they were out our way in California for the Cow Palace when I was a little kid. Gail, who won the NFR average in 1972, still holds the record for most consecutive NFR go-rounds won in any event, with 13 straight.
Paul and Gail’s daughter, Tye, ran barrels at the 1994 NFR—which was Sherry’s first of 19 (which, by the way, ties Sherry with Charmayne James for the most NFR barrel racing qualifications ever)—so the sisters-in-laws were Finals freshmen together. Of course, you’ll never hear any of this from Paul or Gail, who strongly prefer to let other people do the talking.
This is Cory’s 15th Finals, and Paul and Gail can be found in their happy place here in Vegas during the day—Gail cleaning stalls and Paul exercising the horses. Cory’s NFR horse herd this year consists of his all-time favorite, Chumley, and a young horse he calls Little Guy.
Then there’s Mel, who joined the Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1951 at the age of 16, and roped calves at the first Finals ever held, in Dallas back in 1959. Mel’s Sherry’s dad and the Horse-Raising Wizard of Oz behind the breeding program that’s produced Sherry’s home-grown horse heroes, all of which she trained herself.
That’s far from all on this rodeo family extraordinaire’s resume. Mel’s wife of 64 years, and Sherry and sister Jo Lynn’s mom, Wendy Potter, is a three-time NFR barrel racer herself. Oh, and have I mentioned that she competed at the Finals the same years as Gail from 1971-73?
This crew has accomplished all that and then some. But you’ll never hear it from them. When they do say something, it’s typically to compliment someone else, and is never to brag on themselves.
“I feel like I’ve been on a full-time vacation all my life, because I’ve done what I love,” Mel said. “It’s not work when you love it.”
I learned something new at that table last night about what turned out to be Sherry’s chosen profession. Mel was hell bent on his daughter getting a college education straight out of high school, so she made her dad a deal.
“I begged him to let me quit school and go rodeo,” Sherry smiled. “I told him, ‘Let me try to make the Finals one time, then I promise I’ll go back to school.’”
She accomplished her goal with that first felt back number in 1994, then went on to win more than any other barrel racer in history at $3 million-plus—and counting. It’s safe to say she’s content with her career decision, and Mel did go ahead and let her off the hook on that promise.
“There’s a lot of rodeo history right here at this table, and rodeo’s what brought us together,” Sherry said gratefully. “Rodeo’s given us a great life.”
“Rodeo IS our life,” added her father-in-law, in softspoken Paul Petska style.
“Rodeo is all about the people,” Mel said. “The people are the best part of the sport.”
It was time to pick up the tab, and take the short walk over to center stage at the South Point to get that go-round buckle.
“My whole life’s been a dream come true,” Cory said. “Getting to rope, ride, and do what I love to do is pretty great. I don’t have to work.”
Pa-in-law Mel could not help but correct Cory on that statement: “You damn sure do work,” he said, as they all laughed getting up from that table.
“But it’s not like having to work at a tire shop,” Cory smirked.
It makes us all so happy to see Cory, Sherry & Company having so much fun in the arena and out.
“I think our families’ heritage and history is awesome,” Cory said. “Sherry and I have big shoes to fill, and we’re sure having fun trying.”