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Haulin’ Asses: Pack Burro Racing

Pack burro racing in Colorado dates back to 1949.

Pack burro racing in Colorado dates back to 1949. 

It’s been described as a cross between a wild west rodeo, a NASCAR event and a poor man’s horse race, but pack burro racing is much simpler than that, says veteran racer Curtis Imrie.

“It’s a bunch of bull-goose loony athletes running around in the mountains having a good time,” says Imrie, a gentleman rancher and three-time winner of the World Championship Pack Burro Race that’s been held in Colorado for 64 years. “Pack burro racing is about serious racing, but it’s also about keeping alive the traditions of the old West.”

The concept of pack burro racing tends to draw an inquisitive cock-eyed glance in mid-conversation, no matter how easily it rolls off Imrie’s tongue. That’s partly because it only exists in rugged high-altitude Colorado mountain towns.

The only sport indigenous to Colorado, pack burro racing has its roots in hard rock mining of the 19th century, a time when donkeys played a key role in hauling ore cars and carrying prospectors’ gear.

As legend has it, the sport started as a bar bet between two grizzled donkey-toting miners, but the official inception of the sport dates back to 1949. That’s when Melville Sutton won $500 for being the first to wrangle his burro 23 miles from Leadville, Colo., up and over 13,187-foot Mosquito Pass to the mining town of Fairplay, Colo. All other finishers reportedly received a case of beer from the bartender at the Hand Hotel.

Nowadays, trail runners young and old team up with burros and run rugged high-altitude races that range in length from six to 29 miles. (Some racers own their own steeds, others borrow one from Imrie or Western Pack Burro Racing Association President Bill Lee.) As a way to pay homage to that heritage, competitors must pack their burros with a packsaddle containing 33 pounds of gear, which must include a pick, pan and shovel.

There are still modest cash prizes put up by the host town, but Lee offers up locally brewed root beers to all finishers.

Imrie and Lee, both in their 60s, are a few of the quirky characters who have not only kept the sport alive over the past 30-plus years, but also helped it thrive by attracting a new generation of competitors for what’s known as the Triple Crown of Pack Burro Racing—a three-race series in Buena Vista, Colo., Leadville and Fairplay.

There’s also movement afoot to make it the state’s official summer sport.

“Once people see it, they want to try it,” says Brad Wann, who has been racing for four years and who coaxed his wife and children into the sport. “And once you do a race, there’s a good chance you want to do another. People fall in love with it.”

Longtime runner and pig rancher John Vincent stumbled upon a race in a small mining town 10 years ago. Now he has a few burros on his 25-acre ranch, including Crazy Horse, with whom he’s won several races. To prep for the season, he starts training with Crazy Horse in late winter, running a couple of times a week between six and 15 miles, while also adding intervals.

“It’s not about how fast you are as a runner or how fast your burro is,” Vincent says. “It’s truly a team race. You’ve got to figure out how to work with your animal. I’m not a great runner, but I have a great burro that allows me to compete with some of the best burro racers.”

Running in ‘Beast Mode’

Pack Burro Racing

Runner-burro teams compete on high-altitude trails and old mining roads in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Ride & Tie

Two-person teams alternate running and riding a horse across course that range from 20-100 miles at events across the U.S.

Man Against Horse Race

Trail runners compete against horse-and-rider teams on 12-, 25- and 50-mile courses over Mingus Mountain near Prescott, Ariz.

This piece first appeared in the July 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.