Before gold buckles are awarded to the champions at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR), some young people will be earning buckles of their own at the Jr. NFR at Cowboy Christmas.
The inaugural Jr. NFR consists of eight events: miniature bull riding; 14-and-under tie-down roping; mini bareback riding; 13-and-under girls breakaway roping; 18-and-under team roping; 19-an-under tie-down roping; and barrel racing in age categories for those 11 and under as well as 16 and under.
Presented by Yeti, the events were held throughout the 10-days with championship finals on Sunday, Dec. 4 and Saturday, December 10. The Jr. NFR started with 328 contestants that all worked hard to qualify and get here.
They have had support from parents and family members. Some have sponsors and all of them have the drive and determination to compete. They have a lot in common with the NFR competitors.
If they would have had the Jr. NFR three years ago, Marty Yates would have been eligible to compete. In 2013, at 19-years-old, he finished the season 43rd place in the PRCA world standings. The next year he qualified for the first of three consecutive NFRs.
“It would be amazing to compete in Vegas as a kid,” Marty said. “Your idols are competing here at the NFR. I would have loved it.”
Team roper Shay Carroll had been discussing the Jr. NFR with his dad before winning the ninth round of the NFR.
“I just told my dad how awesome it would be to compete in the Jr. NFR.” He said. “Rodeo is such a mental game, and that would put you in a pressure situation that you could learn from.”
Shay remembered a time when he was terrible at media interviews. With help and encouragement, he improved those skills and learned ways to attract and add value to sponsorships.
“This is so good for those kids in every aspect,” he added. “It’s a great opportunity that will help them down the road.”
With kids coming from across the country to compete, it’s not surprising that NFR contestants know some of them and have their favorites that they are cheering for.
“I know several of the kids competing,” said Amberleigh Moore who has won $113,115 in the Thomas and Mack Center so far. “I think it is their dream to be here with all of us. I’m hoping I can get over there and cheer them on.”
Bareback rider Tim O’Connell is the favorite to leave Las Vegas with a gold buckle on Saturday night. He got his start in the PRCA thanks in part to Three Hills Rodeo’s Free Ride Program. The stock contractors from Bernard, Iowa, provide expert instruction, pay for their PRCA permits and entry fees to rodeos that they produce for Free Ride participants.
“It would have meant the world to me to compete in the Jr. NFR,” Tim said. “How cool would it be to be riding a bareback horse as an eight-year-old in Vegas. I don’t’ think there would be anything any cooler than that.”
On Friday night, Brennon Eldred had the highest-marked bull ride of his career when he scored 94.5 points on D&H Cattle Company’s SweetPro’s Bruiser. Brennon got on his first calf when he was just five years old and is now in contention for a gold buckle.
“I think the Jr. NFR is the biggest stage you could set for a kid that wants to compete in rodeo,” he said. “It would put a world of confidence in them and give them such great opportunities. It’s exciting for the future of the sport.”
Gold buckle dreams end in Vegas after the 10th round of the NFR each year. Now for a select group of kids, they start here too.