Article and Photography by Kenneth Springer, originally published in the January 2005 issue of BHN.
Kelly Kaminski, Bellville, Texas, knows all about being a bridesmaid. In 2002, her first year to qualify for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) in Las Vegas, Nev., she finished second for the world championship behind Charmayne James. In 2003, she again finished second this time behind Janae Ward.
This year, though, it was Kelly’s turn to toss the bride’s bouquet.
After winning $82,707 at the 2004 NFR to go with the $96,665 she had won at regular season rodeos, she walked out of the Thomas & Mack arena Dec. 12 as the 2004 World Champion barrel racer of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) with earnings for 2004 of $179,372. Unlike her two previous NFRs, where Kaminski hit a barrel in 2002 and got a no-time in the seventh go-round at the 2003 NFR when Rocky ducked to the left at the second barrel, everything went as planned in 2004.
“My goal was to be solid and stay solid throughout the· entire 10 go-rounds,” said Kaminski. “Of course, I would have loved to have won some go-rounds but it was more important to me to be consistent. Rocky worked his heart out for me, as he always does, and I really wouldn’t change a thing because winning the world title was my goal.”
Kaminski came into the 2004 Wrangler NFR in the No. 1 position among the top 15 barrel racers but held only a $4,458 lead over her nearest challenger, Paula Seay of Lake Butler, Fla. With first in each of the 10 go-rounds paying $14,777 and the average paying $37,897, Kaminski had a hard week’s work cut out for her in order to win the world championship.
Run by run, Kaminski and her gray gelding, Rocky, whittled away at the world title and were textbook examples of consistency and following a game plan, even when Seay jumped out and won the first go-round, which for 24 hours put Kaminski in second place for the world title. When the 10 days of grueling competition ended, Kaminski had placed in eight of the 10 go-rounds, more than any other barrel racer at the 2004 NFR. The NFR program showed Kaminski with one second-place finish, three third-place finishes, three fifth-place finishes and one sixth-place finish. Her total on 10 runs of 141.34 earned her second in the 10-run average. In go-round money, Kaminski and her 11- year-old gelding earned $51,959 to go with the $30,747 earned for second in the average, for NFR checks that totaled $82,707.
With total earnings for the year of $179,372, Kaminski took her first world championship by a margin of $22,552 over Molly Powell, who, after winning $99,868 at the NFR, moved from 12th to second in the world standings with total winnings for the year of $156,820.
“I still can’t believe it,” said Kaminski. “It’s like a dream that I haven’t awakened from. Even though you work hard, day and night, all year long to get to the NFR, it still doesn’t seem like reality that I’ve won the world championship. I think when I get home and watch the rerun of the last performance of the NFR that it will soak in that I’ve accomplished a dream I’ve had since I was a little girl.”
Reflecting on a specific turning point in her quest for the 2004 World championship, Kaminski goes back to the semifinals at the Pace Picante/Texas Stampede in Dallas on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 14, rather than any performance at the WNFR.
“I ran the fastest time of the Finale in the semifinals,” said Kaminski. “Rocky made such an outstanding run that it brought tears to my eyes when I got off. When I got back to the rig, I told my husband, Jerry, that I thought this was going to be my year. That I was going to go all the way. There was something about that run that was a confirming sign — it let me know that Rocky was at the top of his game and it was a great confidence builder going into the NFR.”
Kaminski, who refused to figure or pay attention to her winnings during the NFR, acknowledged that it was a relief to get past the seventh go-round, where she placed third.
“It was in the seventh go last year that Rocky ducked at the second barrel,” said Kaminski. “I still have no idea what caused him to do it but it was in my mind. It’s something that you can’t block out. It was a relief to get past that go-round this year and have a clean run.”
The story of Kaminski’s rise to the top of the world in barrel racing will serve as an inspiration to many up-and-coming champions in the sport. She never had a horse until she was a young teenager, only played in the pasture with barrel racing when she was in high school and never went anywhere to compete until she was out of college. She even had to pass up futurity and derby competition on Rocky because on a schoolteacher’s salary she didn’t have the extra money to pay the high entry fees.
There’s no wonder her motto is “Dream Big and Believe.”
Kaminski’s dream horse was born on April 24, 1993. She owned his mother, registered in the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) as The Brown Filly. His sire was Mito Wise Wrangler. Registered with the catchy name Rockem Sockem Go, the gray gelding was nicknamed Rocky. Because Kaminski has owned him since the day he was born, Rocky is like a member of her family that includes husband Jerry, daughter Kenna, 6, and stepson Colton.
Kaminski was pregnant with Kenna the same year that Rocky was eligible for futurity competition, so she entered only one futurity but went to enough Quarter Horse shows to qualify for the World Show. Being five months pregnant, she decided to make the World Show her last before Kenna was born after Rocky slipped during their run. It wasn’t until the fall of the next year that Kaminski entered her only derby on Rocky.
“It was as the 4Ds that I really seasoned Rocky,” said Kaminski. “The 4Ds and small circuit rodeos were where I really learned to become competitive. I’d use the money I won at the 4Ds to enter the smaller rodeos. I started going to the Mesquite Rodeo a lot because Rocky really likes that arena.”
In 2000, Kaminski and Rocky won both the D&G (Chuck Dunn and Phil Goostsree 4D Productions) year-end championship and horse trailer and the Texas NBHA State 1D Open championship in Austin, Texas. In 2001, she won the D&G year-end championship and trophy saddle. During the time she was seasoning Rocky, Kaminski used her Bachelor of Arts degree in education (with a minor in reading) earned at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, to teach school.
“I taught seventh-grade reading for nine years for the Bellville Independent School District,” said Kaminski. “In 2000, at the urging of my wonderful and supportive husband, Jerry, I quit my teaching job to follow my dream of running barrels full time. With a job, I wasn’t able to travel the WPRA circuit like I wanted to. Jerry told me to go out and give it a try. He said financially we’d make it some way.”
Unlike many of her peers, Kaminski loves to travel. Combining her love of barrel racing, her great barrel horse Rocky and her love for traveling, Kaminski is not exaggerating when she says, “I was born to do this (rodeo professionally).”
For Kaminski, winning the world championship is nothing short of a team effort.
“First and foremost is my family, who are there for me when I win and when I lose. They love me regardless,” said Kaminski. “My mom, Kay McAlister, is always willing to do what is necessary, whether it be stay home and keep things going or come on the road to help me for a few days. Ann Bateson-Thompson does all of my rodeo· entering for me and is a vital part of my team. She helps keep me focused because she’s been to the NFR and knows what it’s like to be out on the road. And then there are my special girlfriends. I can call these girls any time of the day or night.”
Kaminski considers her sponsors another vital part of her team.
“I wouldn’t be where I am now without Pace, Justin, Classic Equine, Nutrena Feeds, Horseswim.com, Necessity and Marshall Feather Lite Trailers as sponsors,” said Kaminski. “Their financial support is what keeps you going, especially during the times when you’re not winning.”
Kaminski’s WPRA resume is beginning to look very impressive. Three years on the road, three trips to the NFR, two Reserve World titles, one world championship and in three years she’s won nearly half a million dollars — $467,720.
“I love running barrels, traveling and coming to the NFR,” said Kaminski. “I plan to go again with my goal being to make it back to the NFR.”
After three tries, Kaminski is a world champion. She has no idea why her first two attempts fell short. “Maybe I wasn’t ready to be the world champion until now. I know it feels like a wonderful dream.”