Gold Rush Days features final race of Triple Crown

While the weekend of Gold Rush Days is filled with various events representing the famous history of Colorado and the Ark Valley, the burro races have become an important aspect of showcasing the true grit of mining antiquity. Buena Vista is part of the third leg of the annual Triple Crown competition, and the sport’s popularity and appeal continue to grow.

Saturday at 10 a.m., the race will begin in the middle of Buena Vista’s East Main Street and travel 13 miles around the “Gentleman’s Loop,” ending only a block from where it began in front of The Watershed BV building. As no pre-registration is required for the event, the number of participating burros and runners depends on how many show up that day. In 2012, a state resolution deemed burro racing the summer heritage sport of Colorado, and it is the only sport that both originated and continues today in this great state.

Although questions endure about the history of the sport, ardent devotees seek clues through old brochures, online information and artifacts. Legends of its origin come down to two tales. Some say it began with a race for a claim after striking gold. Miners unwilling to leave any provisions or supplies behind supposedly packed up their donkeys and raced to town to stake the first claim. Other folklore involves a braggadocious night at the saloon where two miners each claimed his ass was the fastest and began a burro race that night in town.

Brad Wann, media relations officer for pack burro racing, is also co-director of the race. His passion began in 2009 when the majesty of the burros captivated his attention. He dove into keeping the history alive and became involved in taking the sport to the Colorado Senate to be named a state sport. He works a thriving burro rental business when he and his family aren’t on the racing circuit.

“We saddled up 32 donkeys in Fairplay this year. We just believe in keeping the sport alive. I am glad the sport has come out of the mountains a little bit and is getting the respect it deserves. Our goal is to keep these towns alive with history and to help create revenue,” said Wann. “How else could someone make $500 in one day in 1949? Racing was a gold mine of its own.”

The Triple Crown is comprised of three weekend competitions climbing mountain passes from Fairplay to Leadville and ending up in Buena Vista. This leg of the event involves only three of seven towns included in the annual burro racing schedule. The runners involved in the sport endure just as much of the harsh elements and display as much stamina as the animals.

“Every time you pick up a lead rope you will learn something new. Burro racing is a bit of a mountain rodeo; it is definitely a full contact sport. Your donkey gets up just like you do each day and sometimes feels like running and sometimes doesn’t. When they do, and you have caught that magic in a bottle, you better hold on.

“You are really just the GPS. You are just trying to keep that animal on the trail and guide him where you want him to go. So it is a bit of finesse – you have to watch their body language and listen to them. It is a very unselfish sport,” Wann said.

Wann speaks of his love for the sport because of his adoration for the animals. Easily divulging stories of how burros have shaped American history, Wann, like many runners in the sport, respects the burros’ intelligence and self-preservation instincts.

“A burro is very fast. It can run easily a 5-minute mile. Burros travel about 60 miles a day in the wild. They can dig 4 feet into the ground and find water in the desert. And they inhabit every continent in the world,” he said. “They are the original information highway and were even the first ambulances during war. Five thousand mules and burros are still used in the high mountain desert ranges in the military today.”

With an uncanny will to survive, these donkeys seek out food that provides the most nutrients and conserve energy in cold-climate environments. They have keen senses of hearing and eyesight, though they are colorblind. Originally, they protected humans from wild animals, and later from dangerous gases in the mines. The sport of burro racing is not only maintained for its historical appeal, but also for the virtue of these hard-working animals.

“On the backs of burros, Colorado was built. Burros are extremely hearty animals and almost dog-like when it comes to companionship. A burro needs me as much as I need him. So that is where I find myself wanting to give these animals and this sport the legs they deserve.”