When you go to a barrel race, it is very important to stick to YOUR
game plan. If you were going to go to the barrel race and slow lope the pattern, then you need to slow lope it. Who cares if you are the slow one? Don't let anyone else influence how you ride YOUR horse. I entered in a jackpot last summer to TROT my horse through the pattern. I don't give a two nickels for what anyone else thought of me doing that, because that's what my horse needed so I"m going to do it.
And just because everyone else is going fast and sloppy, does not mean you should follow suit. I'm guilty of seeing people do things and thinking "Oh I should do that with my horse too." But I always remind myself of what my game plan was before I arrived. And stick with it. I know my horse best, just like you know your horse best.
The people that actually know how to train a barrel horse correctly can pick out the people like a sore thumb that are doing it wrong. There are many barrel racers who have rushed their horses or who have not given them the right fundamentals. And those people are usually found at the local races. If sloppy and fast is winning, think about what the horse could do if the pattern was CORRECT and fast.
The point of the leads is that you aren't helping your horse by allowing him to go toward the barrel on the wrong lead. A finished horse, yes, it does not matter with the leads. But your horse is not finished. Your horse is still learning. Especially on the first barrel, he got caught up in trying to change his lead way too late at the barrel. Plus he had no bend in his body. Basically YOU should have set him up for success at that first barrel by being on the correct lead already, asking for bend before the pocket, etc, but you didn't. That's why it is important to put them on the correct lead in the beginning, because they have enough to worry about the way it is while they are learning.
Your horse was stiff around the barrels because you didn't ask for any bend. Sure, I agree that he probably won't do it as nicely if he's not "in shape" as much as he was before, but he can't do it if you don't ask.
And THIS needs to be fixed:
Have you ever had his teeth checked?
What bit are you using?
He's completely evading bit pressure. That's going to ruin your barrels quicker than anything else. I think some more time off the pattern, and more time with the basics (softening in the bridle) will be beneficial.