Everything you need to know before you attend the Junior World Finals.
One of the most exciting events for youth competitors, the Junior World Finals—formerly known as the Junior National Finals Rodeo—is quite the experience. Much like National Finals Rodeo qualifiers competing during the same week, Junior World Finals riders also get to show off their talent under the bright lights of Las Vegas. Scheduled this year for December 10–14, in the Wrangler Rodeo Arena at Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Halls, the Junior World Finals is an unforgettable event designed to celebrate hard-working youth riders from around the country. If you’ve ever dreamed of competing at this event or are already qualified to go, we’ve got some tips to help you make the most of your trip.
History of the Event
In 2016, two-time Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Champion and five-time NFR qualifier Kelly Kaminski wanted to create a special event for youth riders as a way to give back to the sport. Previously Kaminski taught clinics, was a teacher and produced barrel races, and she says this was an evolution in her life and career.
The organizers of what was originally called the Junior NFR were looking for a producer for the barrel race, and Kaminski jumped at the chance. She carefully planned the barrels and poles portion of the event and how it would benefit the youth.
More than 700 riders compete in several age groups in eight events during the Junior World Finals. Each event is managed by a different organization. Barrel racing and pole bending are produced by Kaminski of KK Productions.
“My dream was to let kids feel special and experience what it’s like to be at the NFR,” Kaminski said. “It’s not your normal barrel race.”
The first year, there were six qualifier competitions. As the event grew, in 2017 the qualifiers increased to 11; and in 2018, there were 21, with a couple of international competitions. In 2019 there are 21 events around the country. Riders must place in the top two or three at a qualifying race or acquire points at qualifying races to qualify for the finals. Kaminski says some riders haul many hours to get to a qualifier, and her organization is working to balance the number of events around the country with how many riders can compete at the facility.
The entry numbers are limited because of the logistics of the Junior World Finals and facility. Each event, such as roping and steer wrestling has its own organization and qualifying competitions, and are held concurrently at the finals.
“We only have so much time and space, because we have to share the arena with the other events,” Kaminski said.
Riders at the qualifying events can enter as many times as they like, but they can only have one entry on one horse at the Junior World Finals. The qualifying races are 4D format, and age groups act as a side-pot for additional payouts. Once at the finals, riders are placed by fastest times.
The top 20 average times from each age group of the two rounds of semifinals in Las Vegas advance to the short go. The champion is based on the average of all three rounds combined.
What Makes it Different
The facilities are a bit different than your average rodeo. Stalls are off-premises from the arena, and Kaminski says competitors usually stay at Horseman’s Park nearby.
“It’s about 15 minutes from the Convention Center, and it’s pretty easy to get back and forth,” Kaminski said. “The kids have to haul in and out, but everybody [competing in Vegas] has to do that.”
The arena is on the cavernous second floor of the facility, but it is planned to be moved to a different wing of the convention center eventually. Kaminski says being up there is an adjustment at first.
“Once you’re there, you can feel that you’re in an earthquake-proof building,” Kaminski said. “You do feel the vibration when the horses run, but I think people worry about it more than the horses do.”
Trucks and trailers ascend the ramp in groups to unload, and riders can then warm up before they compete. The whole event follows a meticulously planned schedule to make sure everyone gets in and out in a timely manner, to respect the arena for other rodeo competitors.
“It’s all very carefully choreographed to make sure everything runs smoothly, because [the barrel racers] have to be out of there by 11 a.m. so that the steer wrestling kids coming in behind us can get started on time,” Kaminski said.
Riders do a lot more than compete while they’re at the event. They get to participate in autograph sessions and a back number ceremony—just like the real NFR competitors.
One of the best perks of the Junior World Finals are the prizes. The 2018 event paid out $100,000 to barrel racers and pole benders and more than $50,000 in prizes. Kaminski says every kid who qualifies in barrels and poles gets a jacket. Other prizes include a Sooner horse trailer to the fastest average, saddles for the winners in each age group, Vintage Boho purses, Rockstar Custom Leather headstalls and tack sets, halters, Charlie 1 Horse hats and more.
“It’s a plethora of things,” Kaminski said. “Throughout the year, we try to think of things that would be fantastic prizes.”
If all of these logistics sound confusing, you’re not alone. That’s why Kaminski coordinates a dry run at the facility for parents and competitors, usually very early the Monday morning before the event begins. Riders can work through the schedule, ride in the arena for a few minutes and practice loading and unloading at the facility.
Kaminski also communicates with each parent and competitor so everyone knows where they are supposed to be and when. There’s a Facebook page for parents to network and plan their trips, and she says members will often post asking questions about the weather on a particular highway or if there’s a good stop in a specific area.
“They really get to help each other out that way,” Kaminski said. “We don’t leave you out in the cold and just expect you to show up.”
Make the Most of Your Time
Beyond the prizes and the competition itself, participants have a great opportunity to get to know other competitors.
“You’re meeting people from all over the country, making new friends,” Kaminski said. “That’s what my goal is for our sport—to bring hearts together. Not just that we love our sport and we love our horses, but we can come together and find commonalities with barrel racers from other parts of the country. It’s been a really neat thing to do.”
There’s so much to do in Las Vegas during the Junior World Finals and the NFR. Don’t miss checking out the sights and shopping while you’re there.
“NFR time in Vegas is really family-oriented—there’s all the shopping, all kinds of activities, plus the rodeo itself,” Kaminski said. “If you can come in a few days early, especially if you’re coming from really far away and have to let your horse settle after the drive, there’s lots to see and do.”
This article was originally published in the July 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.