Asses Up Passes in Leadville Today
Celebrating Colorado’s Summer Heritage Sport
The Donkey. The Mule. The Jackass. The Burro.
Regardless of the name – and yes, there is a difference – there has always been a strong, steadfast connection between these rugged beasts of burden and the folks who call Leadville 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 tales of the dangerous and dirty conditions these jacks and jennies were willing to endure in order to get the job done.
During World War II, 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 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 former Rep. Millie Hamner. 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.
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 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. Their faithful jackasses followed along in the chaos and by the time the racers reached Harrison Avenue the story 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 with this year’s competition held on on July 25, 2021. Today, coupled with the Buena Vista Gold Rush Days Pack Burro Race (July 31) and Leadville International Pack Burro Race this Sunday, August 8, the three races now make up the Triple Crown of Pack Burro Racing in Colorado.
The Race Course
The long course – which will start first at 10 a.m. on Sunday – is 21 miles summiting at Mosquito Pass to the east of Leadville. The short course begins at 10:15 a.m. is 15 miles long and routes around Ball Mountain. Runners and burros will all find their way back 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.
Since then the sport continues to grow each year in popularity, with a record number 70 burro teams on historic Harrison Avenue in 2019, and all-time-record 81 teams in Buena Vista last weekend, Sunday’s line-up should be pretty deep. Fans can meet and greet burro teams at the weigh-in starting at 8 a.m. on East 4th Street. As a general rule, spectators can anticipate that lead teams will be closing in on the finish line at about 12:30 p.m. that afternoon. Come, watch the action and join the celebration of 71 years of Haulin’ Ass in Leadville Today! We’ll see you on the Avenue!
The Burro Race Course: Leadville
As Pack Burro Racing continued to grow in notoriety, so did 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 the 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 – is 21 miles summiting at Mosquito Pass to the east side of Leadville. The short course loops around Ball Mountain and is 15 miles long. Runners and burros will all find their way back with fans cheering them on at the courthouse, oftentimes with the human teammate pushing and pulling the stubborn beasts across the finish line. These last few feet of the competition can be a real game-changer. 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.
The burro pack should be thick on historic Harrison Avenue, so don’t miss out on all the action.
- Long Course Map – Official (Detailed) Leadville Burro Race
- Short Course Map – Official (Detailed) Leadville Burro Race
The Rules for Asses . . and Burros!
Every sport has its rule and for Colorado’s Summer Heritag Sport, it lines out as follows. 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! Although 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. Leadville Burro Racing makes sure 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.”
Race Schedule: Sunday Timeline
- 8 a.m. – Burro Team check-in & weigh-in
- 10 a.m. – Long Course Start
- 10:15 a.m. – Short Course Start
- Noon-Thirty-ish p.m. – Teams begin arriving back to finish line at the courthouse