Git Your Ass Up The Pass! Leadville Burro Racing
For a pack animal, the burro might be the most stubborn animals on earth. On the other hand, the burro might also be the most sturdy when it comes to loading and hauling mining equipment through rough, mountain terrain.
While pack burros have been a Colorado workhorse for more than 100 years, racing pack burros has been part of the scene since about 1949, with the first Leadville – Fairplay race.The pack-burro races are serious business. The Leadville – Fairplay race started in Leadville and ended 22 miles away in Fairplay.
Women started entering the races around 1951, and as the event grew in popularity, more races started to include separate categories for men and women.
Leadville and Fairplay switched starting points each year, and eventually went their separate ways, creating two races instead of one. When Fairplay changed the courses in the early ’70s, the race was dubbed the World Championship Pack Burro Race.
Coupled with a burro race in Buena Vista, three races now make up the Triple Crown.
While there was a bit of a switch up in the traditional order of races this year due to some calendar issues, tomorrow’s Leadville race will actually be the third spire in the crown, while it usually lands in the middle. The Fairplay’s World Championship Pack Burro Race was held on July 26. The second leg, the Buena Vista Gold Rush Days Pack Burro Race was held last Sunday, August 2. So by the ends of tomorrow’s competition there should be a 2015 International Pack Burro Race Champion. All the more reason to come and see the races!
Leadville Today dug into the Burro Race Archives to bring readers some great stories and insight from the race director for the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race, Dave TenEyck. Come up and be part of history!
If you think convincing your friends to head home after a fun night out is difficult, try getting a burro out of a bar. Dave TenEyck, the race director for the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race, had to do just that one year. According to TenEyck, the starting gun went off, all the animals and racers went charging down the avenue and his burro took a right turn into the Manhattan Bar.
TenEyck says that getting the burro out of the bar was only half the problem. The other was that the crowd was packed together in front of the Manhattan, with everyone focused on the race. Those who think a crowd might readily move aside for a racing burro are woefully mistaken, he says. In fact, he had to spend several minutes politely saying “Excuse me, burro racer coming through. Excuse me. Burro racer. Umm…Excuse me.”
After managing to direct himself and his burro out of town, he headed east for only a block before his burro headed right again — straight into someone’s backyard barbecue.
TenEyck summarizes that story—and several others he has about burro racing—with his analysis of racing with these four-legged animals. “The difference between racing with a burro and racing without one is quite simple. Without a burro, you’re 100% in control. In a burro race, it’s a partnership-with someone who has veto power.”
Why race burros? “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I really have no good answer,” says TenEyck. He laughs, and then grows more serious. “I like animals. I’ve developed a fondness for the Rodney Dangerfield of the equine world. You end up with a relationship with them if you train all year.” TenEyck explains that the most important thing in burro racing is to train extensively with the burro. “I train my burros year-round,” he says. “At the end of summer, I start for next year.”
The worst mistake any burro racer could make (and one that happens every year) is to sign up two days before the race, borrow a burro and try to finish, says TenEyck. “Usually the cooperation is not good,” he says dryly.
TenEyck explains that although burros are known for being stubborn, they are, in fact, simply extremely cautious. “A stripe, a crack, a manhole cover – their interpretation is that it is fatal.” A great deal of burro training, therefore, is convincing them that not every abnormality in the world will actually kill them.
TenEyck says there are only two ways to get a burro to work with runners and not against them, during a race. First, runners must expose the burro, in training sessions, to hazards they will experience during the race. Second, the runners must work to gain the burro’s trust.
Runners may also wish to help the burro train for its dramatic role as a historical stand-in. During the race, every burro must wear a regulation pack saddle loaded with prospector’s paraphernalia – including, but not limited to, a pick, shovel and gold pan. Burros measuring more than 40 inches at the shoulder must carry at least 33 pounds of gear. The burro may never carry the runner, however. (Though burro-racing hopefuls who haven’t been incorporating weight-lifting into their training routine may wish to note that the rules clearly allow the runner to carry the burro.)
Training the burro is important for another reason – hurting the animal in an attempt to control it is grounds for disqualification. TenEyck says that one of his biggest concerns as a race director is that no one mistreats the animals. “The rules say no whips, knives or guns – those rules are there because someone has tried to use each of those in the past.”
Canada has basketball, Norway has skiing, and Colorado has… burro racing. This early version of adventure racing is, say the experts, the only sport indigenous to Colorado.
The first race, in 1949, began in Leadville and headed over 13,187-foot Mosquito Pass to Fairplay. Melville Sutton won the $500 purse, and all other finishers received a case of beer.
Winning that case of beer wasn’t as easy as it may sound, however – of the 21 people who started the race, only 13 finished.
The next year, the race began in Fairplay and ended in Leadville. For ten years, the towns took turns hosting the beginning of the race, according to TenEyck. Eventually, each town developed its own independent race, and Buena Vista added one as well. The three races now make up what is known as The Triple Crown.
Whether you’re a long-standing burro aficionado or a newcomer to the sport, this year’s Leadville International Pack-Burro Race should be worth any spectator’s time. But don’t take my word for it; come see for yourself: the Leadville race begins on Harrison Avenue at 11 a.m. Sunday, August 9. Be warned, however – you’ll want to wear your running shoes. You never know when you might have to get out of the way.