Colorado’s Strangest Race

There are some unusual traditions, and one of them is pack burro racing, Colorado’s official state summer heritage sport since 2012. This sport began in 1949 with the World Championship Pack Burro Race, running from Leadville to Fairplay. The original 23-mile race over Mosquito Pass echoed the routes miners and their burros used before the railroads were built in the 1870s.

Pack burro racing harks back to mining days when prospectors raced to stake claims. To attract tourists and revive the local economy post-World War II, the Fairplay Chamber of Commerce organized the first event, drawing 21 teams. Each team, consisting of a human and a donkey, followed strict rules: the human held a lead rope, and the donkey wore a pack saddle loaded with traditional mining gear. Riding the burro is never permitted.

Only eight teams completed the inaugural race, with Melville Sutton and his burro, Whitey, winning a $500 prize. The race’s popularity grew, nearly doubling in participants by 1955. Today, Colorado hosts a Triple Crown of pack burro racing in Fairplay, Leadville, and Buena Vista, covering about 63 miles in total. The state offers ten races from Memorial Day through September, with other states like California, Arizona, and New Mexico also hosting races.

Runners aged 16 and older can race with their own donkey or rent one. The Triple Crown series starts in Fairplay during Burro Days, with races varying in distance and elevation. Leadville hosts its race the first weekend in August, featuring a loop around Ball Mountain or a route to Mosquito Pass. Buena Vista added a 13-mile race to its Gold Rush Days celebration in 1978.

Donkeys, capable of carrying 20 to 30 percent of their body weight over tough terrain, enjoy having a job. The challenge is convincing them to race. Once they understand the task, they develop a liking for it and will work hard if they trust their handler.

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