When the Junior World Finals began in 2015 the hope was to bring rodeo contestants from across the country together to compete in a 10-day event that would give them a taste of what cowboys and cowgirls get to experience at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
Seven years later that dream has become a reality.
Not only will kids be competing for $1 million in cash and prizes at this year’s event, which runs Dec. 1- 10 at the Wrangler Rodeo Arena in the Las Vegas Convention Center, they now receive some of the same star treatment accorded to the NFR contestants.
“When I first started this my goal was for these kids to have an NFR type of experience,” said Kelly Kaminski, who produces the barrel racing and pole bending qualifiers for the Junior World Finals. “And with things like the back number ceremony, and the goodie bags and jackets the kids get we’ve been able to do that.”
Rodeo’s future stars also can see how the Junior World Finals can be a launching pad for the Wrangler NFR. Bridger Anderson, who won the Ote Berry Junior Steer Wrestling World Championship in 2017, qualified for the 2020 Wrangler NFR and finished ninth in the world standings with $120,934. The Carrington, North Dakota, cowboy also was the College National Finals Rodeo bulldogging champion in 2019 while competing for Northwestern Oklahoma State.
“What’s impressed me the most is probably the talent level of these contestants,” said Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame member and four-time world champ Ote Berry, who is in his sixth year as the producer of the JWF steer wrestling competition. “I think the Junior World Finals is really helping prepare them for the next level. Before, it was high school and college rodeos and they didn’t have a lot of national competitions. Now these kids are getting to go to a lot of these events all over the country and the talent level is increasing every year. “Bridger was our first champion to qualify for the NFR, but you’re going to start seeing a lot more of these kids get there. These kids are stepping it up at every level.”
It’s not just in steer wrestling where former Junior World Finals contestants are making noise at the next level.
Tie-down roper John Douch, who finished 10th in the world standings last year and enters this year’s Wrangler NFR No. 2 in the world standings, is a former Junior World Finals contestant.
And this year Bayleigh Choate, a barrel racer from Fort Worth, Texas, will join Douch as a former Junior World Finals contestant competing at the Thomas & Mack Center. Choate enters the Wrangler NFR No. 11 in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world standings having won more than $90,000 on the year. Seeing Choate compete at the season-ending Wrangler NFR brings a smile to Kaminski’s face. The two-time world champion barrel racer (2004-05) has produced the KK Run for Vegas barrel racing at the Junior World Finals since 2015 and the KK Run for Vegas pole bending since 2019.
“One of my goals was to see one of our kids make the NFR and this year we have our very first kid in Bailey Choate,” Kaminski said. “And then there’s Taylor Moeykens, who won the College Finals. It’s just great to see these kids go on to be successful on a bigger stage.”
Moeykens was the College National Finals Rodeo barrel racing champion in 2021 while competing for Montana State. Also that year, former Junior World Finals team ropers Carson and Kellan Johnson from Casper College won the CNFR title. Former JWF champions Bradlee Miller (saddle bronc, bareback) and Chris Villanueva (bull riding) also have qualified for the CNFR in recent years.
As the Junior World Finals continues to bring the country’s top young cowboys and cowgirls to Vegas every year, expect to see more and more contestants competing at the college finals as well as the Wrangler NFR. “It’s exciting to me to see this talent every year,” Berry said. “And the more success they have after they leave makes us feel like we’re doing something right.”