Stiff competition from the burro racing teams
By Jaclyn Schrock
2012 Colorado’s Legislators declared Burro Racing their Summer Heritage Sport. Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation (WPBA) spoke clearly to Colorado’s governing body through Brad Wann eventually approving the historical event as a legitimate sport. WPBA has sanctioned the sport creating consistency in the many events and well-being of humans and burros (Spanish for donkeys).
The origins of the burro races come from the Spanish bringing the best suited animals for mining into the mountains when gold and other precious metals were being found in the Wild West of the 1800s. These sure footed animals were traditionally used for packing materials rather than riding.
Racing packed burros occurred with the need to be the first to file a mining claim. Now, it has become a sport found only in Colorado, after some of the abandoned mine claims also left burros to become wild. Years later, when some wild burros were considered a nuisance, and some killed, others were rounded up and given a new purpose.
In 1949 the first officiated pack burro race (likely using those free roaming burros that had some training) ran from Fairplay, Colorado over Mosquito Pass and into Leadville. The following year it would start in Leadville and go to Fairplay. In those years, about a dozen burros and runners would take on the challenge.
A third generation young lad growing up in Morrison fondly recalls traveling with his parents in the early 1960’s to see the start of the burro races in Leadville or Fairplay and drive to the end to watch the finishers. The race always went over Mosquito Pass, which only has trails to make it from start to finish. One year, his family who boarded horses, purchased a racing burro to be the boy’s as he learned to ride bareback. That boy, now a grown man, has taken this reporter to Colorado pack burro races for the last three years.
2019 Pack Burro Race dates and locations
The Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation (WPBA) has been assuring the best practices and care of donkeys and people in races for at least a decade. Their website has race results from 2011 and much information at www.packburroracing.com.
Seven 2019 Colorado Heritage festivals with WPBA races included are:
14th Annual Historic Georgetown Railroad & Mining Days Pack Burro Race from Georgetown to Empire and back, Saturday, May 26th, about 9 miles
17th Annual Idaho Springs Mining Days Festival and Pack Burro Race, Sunday May 27th, 5-6 miles
2nd Annual Creede Pack Burro Race, Saturday June 9th, 10 miles
88th Donkey Derby Days, a week-end of festivities, held the Main Pack Burro and Businessman’s races Sunday, June 23, 2019 in Cripple Creek. This community’s first burro races originated in a specially built arena. Now, they use old trails and town roadways for races. Cripple Creek maintains a herd of burro’s that had been wild, which is not a WPBA event. Not long before the races, the burro human teams are drawn.
First Leg of the Triple Crown, Fairplay—70th Annual World Championship Pack Burro Race, Sunday June 29; long 29 miles, short 15 m.
Second Leg of the Triple Crown, Leadville—70th Annual Boom Days Pack Burro Race, Sunday August 5; long 21 miles, short 15 m.
Third Leg of the Triple Crown, Buena Vista—46th Buena Vista Gold Rush Days Pack Burro Race, Sunday, August 11th; 13 miles.
6th Annual Victor Burro Racing Gold Rush Challenge, Sept 7; very challenging 8 mile course with elevation changes and uneven footing.
2nd Annual Fredrick Miners Day Pack Burro Race, September 21;TBA
Why race burros, aren’t they stubborn?
All over the Western States, burros were the animal of choice for miners prospecting gold without using heavy machinery often powered by steam to dig deeper than a man could dig with his shovel. Burros were pack animals, and are included in many historical tales of adventure and challenge.
Marathon runners teaming up with a burro for a pack burro race, may be more of a challenge for the human than the burro. Wild or bred for the races they’re often eager to move along whatever the terrain. Finding the next level of marathon running, with historical mines and incredible views at high elevation draws many to the thrilling relationships found in burro racing that bridges generations.
Burros or donkeys are instinctively active, walking to graze and even trot or run to play and tease humans or animals. They love to run in the pack, the exhilaration is contagious at the start of the race. They also tend to bunch up with others during the race, they like being together, whatever the speed.
Jacks and Jennies are also people pleasures, especially when they have grown to have a trusting relationship with their care givers or trainers. As a Jennie teaches her colt with pressure and release, so does a wise trainer.
When the pack bursts from the start line along a street lined with cheering people, a runner may feel dragged along as the burro wants to go full tilt. The race is really set by the burro. The runner is part of the team, not the commander, just the one who chooses the trail.
The experienced pack burro coming to the race is like a dog who brings his own leash for a walk, according to Brad Wann of WPBA. He says they would be willing to go over the cliff with their trusted teammate.
Burros are good with the 35 pound pack safely strapped and a padded shoulder harness as the driveline. A burro is not concerned with how long the nose harness is going to be on. Pack burros are unconcerned by how many miles, steep inclines, creeks, obstacles, even check points (to verify the pack weight has not changed) will be covered before any rest and treats. They are simply willing to take on the next adventure with their other hoofed and human teammates.
It has been said that humans who try to restrain the donkey’s burst of go power at the start line with their pack of long-eared teammates often are challenged later in the race. The “cautious” demeanor of the notorious beast of burden realizes that they need to be in control. If they can’t trust the human on the other end of the 15 foot lead rope, they may take charge of the speed themselves on this thrilling adventure on some wilderness trail. Even though the runner wants to set the pace, recognizing their own limitations, to keep up with the donkey’s endurance, that doesn’t always work out. The burro may just come to a dead stop, go sideways, reverse, turn around, or even take their own path.
Many have come to realize that the human is the teammate that may try to choose the course they take, but the burro sets the pace. Runners use the 15 foot lead line and pass veterinary inspection to ensure that there is no abuse. The runner must maintain control of the donkey, but it is all about relationship.
A donkey that has been teamed with a human and packed on training trails all year is in better shape to take on the adventure of a new or old trail with their trusted teammate. When confined to a pasture for a while, then taken in a trailer to the race place, now loaded with the 35 pound miners’ gear of pickaxe, shovel, pan and other supplies, the excited burros are eager to please and go racing.
Pack Burro Triple Crown Winner History
The Pack Burro Triple Crown began about 1976 when Buena Vista added their race to the rivaling towns of Fairplay and Leadville which had split up the race they shared for over 30 years. Since then, each town holds their own pack burro race to go to the top and back rather than over Mosquito Pass.
Triple Crown organizer Curtis Imrie and neighboring burro breeder Oscar Chapa of Buena Vista perpetuated the strenuous activity of pack burro racing being steeped in Western Culture. Imrie was well suited to the race with legs and well-bred ass. He was sure to find every event a comedy of theatrical errors, according to a Sept. 2017 article in Trail Runner magazine.
The three Summer Heritage Pack Burro Races that make up the Triple Crown are held each week from the end of July until the middle of August. Racing burros with similar equipment as miners 160 years ago in the Arkansas River head waters of Leadville, human/burro teams have slightly different motives. With a few of Colorado 14,000 foot peaks in this area, sanctioned racers as members of the Western Pack Burro Association seek this 50 year prestigious achievement. There are high altitudes, hill top views, dense forests, with obstacles to go over and under, possibly snow and wash-outs or avalanches that redesigned traditional trails for the race on the eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies. If one runner and burro team wins all three races in the same year, they are awarded the Triple Crown.
In 2011, the long race in Leadville was still for men only, and women did the short race. But, the winner of Leadville’s short/women’s race, and Fairplay’s and Buena Vista’s long races was the burro Kokomo and Karen Thorpe, age 40 of Salida, CO.
In 2015 George Zack won the Triple Crown. In 2019 Zack and burro Jack won the Georgetown race.
Last year, the 2018 winner of the Triple Crown Pack Burro Race was Kirt Courkamp, of Pine, CO teamed up with burro Mary Margaret. First they won in Fairplay’s 29 mile World Championship Pack Burro Race in 6:06:38, July 29, 2018. The next week at Leadville’s 21 miles Boom Days, they took first place finishing in 3:59:00. August 12th in Buena Vista’s Gold Rush Days, they made the third week’s win in 1:56:35.
Familiar teams were found in the top positions in 2018 Fairplay’s World Championship race: In 2nd place was George Zack of Broomfield, CO with Jack came in 2 minutes after the leader, Hal Walter, of Westcliffe, CO and Little Minokin Full Tilt Boogie about 45 min later, Bob Sweeney, of Leadville, CO with Yukon one hundredth of a second behind Boogie, Joe Polonsky, of Palmer Lake, CO about 10 minutes behind them took 5th place. Bill Lee with Dolly, Idaho Springs burro race originator was near the end of the long race, as his age often finds him, but he is still racing.
In the 2018 Leadville Boom Days Burro Race, the teams are rearranged: Courkamp/Mary Margaret 1st, Jeff Bennet/Jack 2nd, Joe Polonsky/Jake 3rd, Walter/Boogie 4th, Britt Dick/Josie 5th, Sweeney/Yukon 6th.
In the 45th year of Buena Vista Gold Rush Days Pack Burro Race: Courkamp/Mary Margaret 1st, John Vincent/Crazy Horse 2nd, Joel Malander/Buckwheat 3rd, Andrew Knutsen/Hersey 4th, Louise Kuehster/Pandora 5th, Steven Knuehster/Finngen 6th,Bob Sweeney/Yukon 7th, Hal Walter/Full Tilt Boogie 8th.
Those 2018 Buena Vista results have these familiar names in a tight, 1 minute arrival time for 2nd through 8th. The 4th, 5th, and 6th place show the same time of 2:03:36.These racers share more than a relationship with their ass, they are a racing bunch of multi-generational Coloradans.
2019 Men’s and Women’s Triple Crown Winners
1st leg – July 27, 2019 in Fairplay’s 71st World Championship Pack Burro Race, the traditional course is 29 miles long. It was reduced by a few miles as Mosquito Pass had snow pack and wash-outs on the preferred trail. Marvin Sandoval with his mini burro Buttercup won the 25 mile course in 4:58:07. Experienced racers Bob Sweeney with full sized Yukon were nose to nose and shoulder to shoulder beside Sandoval and Buttercup in the home stretch lined with a roaring crowd on both sides of Front Street. New to burro racing this year, Leadville’s Sandoval moved behind Buttercup to encourage her fatigued pace, from their quick gait to the top of Mosquito Pass, when they were gaining on the lead rushing back down the mountain. At the finish line, clever encouragement included not just sweet talk, but gentle slaps on her rump. Tiny Buttercup’s nose crossed the line 5 hundredths of a second before taller Yukon’s.
1st Sandoval/Buttercup from Leadville, 2nd Bob Sweeney/Yukon of Louiseville, 3rd Louise Kuehster/Pandora of Castle Rock, 4th George Zack/Jack of Broomfield, 5th Kiet Courkamp/Ricky Bobby of Pine, CO, 6th Hal Walter/ Full Tilt Boogie of Westcliffe, Co, 7th Jeff Bennett/Alice of Louisville, TX, 8th Leo Fung/Smokey of Calgary, Canada, 9th Tracy Loughlin/Josie of Salida, CO, and 10th Joe Polonsky/Jake of Palmer Lake, CO. All 10 of these finished in 90 minutes of each other, with the top four within two minutes of each other. There were 20 teams that completed the long course in Fairplay.
First time burro racing
Sandoval, experienced in marathon running and mountain bicycling and other sports is living in Leadville. He entered his first burro race June 8 this year, in Crede, CO coming in 3nd with mini donkey partner Buttercup.
Not all runners can switch their focus from being in control of the pace, to humble their personality to become a team partner with a burro. These animals like most have their own personality and needs when being in a racing/team setting. Burro races must learn to be sensitive and adapt to the donkey’s demands. Often encouraging words or action may result in stubborn defiance, or worse.
In Crede, Sandoval and little Buttercup were only 6 minutes behind the top two finishers; George Zack with Jack, and Patrick Sweeney with Alice. Many have found mini donkeys are seldom at the top of the winning lineup. Pressed to finish together, the larger burro Full Tilt Boogie and Hal Walter of Westcliff CO were scored 3 hundredths of a second later, a very experience duo team often near the top of the race ledgers.
Sandoval/Buttercup’s 2nd race together, July 27th in Fairplay portrayed above, brought their first 1st place win.
2nd leg – August 5th in Leadville’s Boom Days, the Buttercup/Sandoval team took 1st place with a time of 3:45:38. Using similar strategies of the Fairplay race, they worked to gain lead during the downhill reward of reaching the peak on the race trail of Mosquito Pass, hoping to avoid a full-tilt sprint at the finish line on Harrison Avenue after coming out of California Gulch.
About 4 minutes behind Buttercup, Full Tilt Boogie with Hal Walter finished Leadville’s Boom Days in 2nd place. Louise Keuhster with Pandora arrived 3rd overall, yet first for women in Leadville. The three happy teams are seen in the Leadville photo. Bob Sweeney with Yuka, George Zack with Jack, and Joe Plonsky with Jake were 4th, 5th and 6th place Leadville teams.
As Sandoval and Buttercup are viewing the possibilities of the next race together to win the Triple Crown, Sandoval is not stepping back from previous commitments. Being a Leadman athlete, without Buttercup, he poured on the energy this past weekend in two other races. He rode 100 miles on extreme rugged mountain trails on Saturday, taking 8 ½ hours to finish 179th. Sunday morning he also ran 109th across the finish line a 10K just under an hour in Leadville for Leadmen. In Buena Vista on Sunday, he ran the WPBA race with Buttercup to come in third behind two women. That man moves his ass!
3rd leg – So, being the first man across the finish line in all three events WPBA Triple Crown races, Marvin Sandoval and mini Buttercup were recognized as the 2019 Men’s Triple Crown Winner. Buttercup is the first mini burro to win the Triple Crown in its 71 year history.
Buena Vista Pack Burro Race is a 13 mile race with 4 or 5 check points. The 69 racing teams, starting at 10 am, all worked hard to do their best together. The age range of runners was from 11 to 68, with two in each of those age groups.
The weather was sunny and the weather warm for the race. Watching from the weigh-in to the start, it is clear that these teams are eager to please, demonstrating that cooperation is the key to a racing team.
It is really all about the animals. Some burros are rented, some are owned, some are young, and others are older. But all race with excitement – the pounding of hooves and running shoes perpetuating Colorado Culture and history from beginning to end.
Coming in on the home stretch it was too hard to guess which of the two women would cross the finish line first. They both came down the street where the barricades were just before the finish line. Which side of the barricade each would take seemed in debate. They ended up going to the right around it with a bit of a zig and zag to approach the finish line at a steady trot pace.
The two gals did an excellent job in the race according to Richard Emond of Canyon City, WPBA former president and race official. “The women won the race hands down.” Despite Pandora’s saddle coming loose after the last check point, Kuehster, with burro racing experience since she was a young girl, was still able to bring a thrilling race to a winning finish. Louise Kuehster, 23 and Pandora won the Buena Vista race with a time of 1:55:16.
Tracy Loughlin, age 41 with her burro’s nose only 1 one hundredth of a second behind Pandora’s, came in 2nd place. The next eight finishers were within three minutes of each other.
3rd place was Marvin Sandoval, age 41 and mini Buttercup. 4th place was last year’s Triple Crown Champion Kirt Courkamp in his 50’s, 5th place was Bob Sweeney in his 50’s, 6th place was Hal Walter who took a fall and still finished the race with a hurt shoulder, 7th place was George Zack in his late 40’s, and 8th place was Patrick Sweeney, just 40.
Congratulations to the recognized male and female 2019 Triple Crown Burro Racers: Melvin Sandoval with Buttercup, and Louise Kuehster with Pandora!