Haulin Ass and Making History in Leadville
Boom Days Celebrates the Burro
The Donkey. The Mule. The Jackass. The Burro.
Regardless of the name – and yes, there is a difference – there’s always been a strong, steadfast connection between these rugged beasts of burden and the folks who call Leadville their home. The early pioneers found the little burros useful in lugging supplies into the mountainous mining camps which dotted Leadville’s steep east side. Pictures of the old mule trains tell their own tales of the dangerous and dirty conditions these jacks and jennies were willing to endure in order to get the job done.
Army soldiers found that same dedication to be true as dozens of donkeys joined the rank and file of daily life during the glorious Camp Hale days. In fact, when snow trails were blazed to reach the high-alpine military training grounds above present-day Ski Cooper, it was the width of an ass that was taken into consideration when shoveling out pathways. After all, it would be these sturdy, sure-footed animals that packed in supplies to the troops.
As the 21st century came into focus, burros could still be seen on the trails as pack-animals for backcountry adventurers, and certainly for hunters in the retrieval of big harvests. However, another burro-and-being love affair was blossoming as well. And on May 29, 2012, the beast and “the burden” made history when Pack Burro Racing became Colorado’s official summer heritage sport, thanks to Rep Millie Hamner.
But these seeds of affection between (wo)man and mule were planted long before the legislative designation made it official. Colorado’s love-affair with the sport began decades before that, and of course, it has a Leadville Connection. This racing form finds its roots in the 19th century when miners used burros to haul their tools and supplies across the Rocky Mountains. And here’s where the Leadville Connection comes in – legend has it that two miners panning up in California Gulch, found gold in the same location and raced each other back to town in order to be the first to stake the claim at the Assayer’s Office, thus giving them the legal rights to the find. There faithful jackasses followed along in the chaos and by the time the racers reached Harrison Avenue the stories would make a legend out of the first place claim. Now that was a podium finish that could possibly have a cash purse in the millions!
While pack burros have been a common workhorse for more than 100 years, burro racing came on the local scene in 1949, when the first race between Leadville and Fairplay was held. Melville Sutton (no record of the burro’s name??) won the $500 purse, and all other finishers received a case of beer.
In the beginning, the two mountain towns switched starting points each year, but eventually went their separate ways, creating two races instead of one. Fairplay changed course in the early ’70s, and the World Championship Pack Burro Race was born. Today, coupled with the Buena Vista Gold Rush Days Pack Burro Race on August 10 and Leadville International Pack Burro Race this Sunday, August 3, the three races now make up the Triple Crown of Pack Burro Racing in Colorado.
Last weekend’s races in Fairplay saw a historic first, as upwards of 13-foot snow drifts forced race organizers to re-direct the course. However, that didn’t deter 19 racers from taking on the long course, with only one representative from Leadville. But that’s all that was needed as hometown favorite Marvin Sandoval and mini-burro “Buttercup” took the top spot, with a championship run of 4:58:07. In the short course, 69 asses were lassoed in with a runner to take on the 15-mile course. Danny Pedretti and his burro “Call” came in first with a 2:11:19 time. They were followed closely by Brain Rawlings and “Cheeto” at 2:11:21. Well, they are pack animals, after all! Which may also explain the tie for third place as John Vincent and “Crazyhorse” with a time of 2:17:17 will share the bragging rights with Andrew Knutsen and “Hersey.” There were also a handful of DNF and DQs. Readers can access HERE the FINAL RESULTS of the 2019 The World Championship Pack Burro Race held in Fairplay.
As Pack Burro Racing continues to grow in popularity and noteriety, so does the field of competitors. 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. However in 2017, as a nod to times, the burro race transitioned to “long” and “short” course races, rather than be separated and constrained by gender.
The long course – which will start first at 11 a.m. on Sunday – is 21 miles summiting at Mosquito Pass to the east side of Leadville. The short course begins at 11:15 a.m. is 15 miles long and routes around Ball Mountain. Runners and burros will all find their way back on to Harrison Avenue with fans cheering them on at the courthouse, oftentimes with the human teammate pushing and pulling the stubborn beasts across the finish line. In fact, the last few feet of the competition can be a real game-changer.
Fans can meet and greet burro teams at the weigh-in starting at 9 a.m. at 4th and Harrison Avenue. As a general rule, spectators can anticipate that the lead teams will be closing in on the finish line at about 1:30 p.m. that afternoon. Come, watch the action and join the celebration of 70 years of Haulin’ Ass in Leadville Today at Leadville Boom Days! We’ll see you on the Avenue!