Most of our Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifiers got their start in rodeo in associations other than the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.
With the addition of the Junior National Finals Rodeo to the events in Las Vegas, opportunities are expanding for future rodeo contestants. The dreams of riding in the Thomas and Mack Center are planted in these other organizations, many of which have just as rich a history as the NFR.
Just to put things in perspective, here’s a look at some qualification facts. The National High School Finals Rodeo (NHSFR) held last July in Rock Springs, Wyoming boasted 1,557 contestants representing 43 States and four countries (United States, Canada, Australia and Brazil). They competed in the same events as are hosted here as well as pole bending, breakaway roping, goat tying, boy’s and girl’s cutting, reined cow horse, trap and light rifle shooting.
Take 25 percent of 1,557 and you get approximately the number of qualifiers for the next logical rank of rodeo, the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. Wyoming is also the host of the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR). It has been held in Casper since 1999.
Last June, 374 college rodeo athletes had their headshots taken at the Casper Events Center. That event features the same competitions as the NFR along with goat tying and breakaway roping. The NFR has a spot for 120 contestants, less than 30 percent of the CNFR. This year we have 119 because Rhen Richard is competing in two events.
How hard is it to win a National High School Rodeo championship? Hard, because of the number of contestants at their finals. What about college – still hard. The numbers in events vary, but to win a college title you have to rise to the top of a pretty big field.
Each step is preparation for the ultimate rodeo in the Thomas and Mack Center. And while there are only 15 contestants in each event, getting here is more than half of the battle. Winning championships at every level is nearly unheard of. Janae Ward did that winning the NHSFR in 1999, then the CNFR in 2002. One year later she earned the gold buckle in the Thomas and Mack Center. Her sister, Kylie Weast, is one of the barrel racers here this year.
Rodeo as a career is not for the faint of heart and no matter how much fun it is, it gets harder at every level. Wyatt Denny finished second in the bareback riding at the NHSFR in 2012. In 2016 he was crowned the champ at the CNFR and qualified for his first NFR. On Thursday night, he won the first round and got his first buckle from Las Vegas. The native of Nevada was elated when he took his parents and grandpa to the buckle ceremony.
Marty Yates qualified for the NHSFR and CNFR, and while those experiences were stepping stones in the tie-down roper’s career his success at those events wasn’t what he had hoped for. He won the buckle in the tie-down roping in the second round of the 2018 NFR. It was his 10th round win and while he never gets tired of winning, it’s the getting here that is important.
“Getting a back number probably means more than a round buckle,” Marty said. “Going up and down the road and having to beat all the best ropers throughout the season to be among the top 15, when you get that back number, it’s special.”
So, for all the rising stars of rodeo, from Jr. NFR to CNFR qualifiers – don’t ever take any of it for granted and know that those qualifications aren’t going to get any easier.