Now in its third year, the Junior National Finals Rodeo continues to grow, with more than 700 entrants competing this year.
Not surprisingly, the event has an international flavor this year. Once again, there’s a strong contingent of bronc riders from Canada, and Mexico is also represented. But perhaps the biggest addition has come from outside North America.
At this year’s Junior NFR there are four bull riders from Australia, competing in four different divisions.
“The big bulls have always been a big thing, but the mini bulls is really growing in Australia,” said Matt Doak, who runs Doak Bucking Bulls in New South Wales, Australia, and accompanied the four bull riders to Las Vegas.
Doak first became interested in mini bulls two years ago when he and his wife came to Las Vegas for the Professional Bull Riders finals. That’s where they met Cirildo and Lillie Leal, who, along with Chris Shivers, are the primary people behind Leal’s Miniature Bucking Bulls.
“That’s when I first started thinking about raising minis,” Doak said. “We started with a few and I’ve always kept in contact with the Leals.”
For good reason, the Leals and Shivers were in on the ground floor, literally, of what is now the Junior NFR.
“We used to be on the main floor and we came here and we loved it,” Cirildo Leal said. “When we first started this it was like ringing a bell at school (because) everybody came to watch.”
Since then, the Junior NFR has added more events and has a new home at the Wrangler Rodeo Arena on the second floor of the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the crowds the event draws.
Friday, those in attendance saw Australian bull rider Chris Wilson tie for the lead in the 14-15 age division with a 75-point ride. After his successful ride, a small contingent of fans in the bleachers raised the Australian flag and let out a loud cheer.
“My ride wasn’t too bad,” Wilson said. “Hopefully I can get on a bucker tomorrow. My goal is to ride all three, that’s all I’m worried about.”
Wilson’s fellow Australians didn’t fare as well in the first go-round, with Koby Usmer sitting fifth with a 68.5 in the 12-13 division and Brendan Kelly (16-18) and Colby Edgar (10-11) posting no-scores. Edgar, though, left quite an impression in his first trip to the Junior NFR. His bull crashed him into the bucking chutes, resulting in a split chin and earning Edgar a re-ride. Unfortunately, he came off his re-ride just short of the 8-second horn.
Wilson, meanwhile, had another strong showing in the United States. This summer at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Rock Springs, Wyoming, Wilson finished ninth in the average after placing second in the first go-round and posting two no-scores.
“We contract rodeo bulls and run rodeos and Chris has sort of come through the ranks,” Doak said. “We run a rodeo series back in Australia and Chris is sort of my No. 1 hand.”
Doak doesn’t expect Wilson to be the last bull rider from Australia to have success at the Junior NFR, though.
“The first year we had minis we had two events,” Doak said. “And this year we had 20, so it’s all sort of a stepping stone.
“At first the kids couldn’t stay on the bulls, but by the end of the year they could all ride them. It just took the kids a little bit to work up the power.”
For Wilson, who has advanced from mini bulls to the more regular-sized one, Friday was a chance to get back to doing what he loves.
“I chipped a bone in my hip so I hadn’t been on a bull in two months,” he said. “I hadn’t trained or nothing. I was a little worried about hurting my hip again, but that’s about it. Right now I’m feeling pretty good.
“I want to be a bull rider. I don’t really watch anybody else, I just want to do what I do.”