Many Colorado Gold Rush prospectors of yore relied on the tenacious little burro--a small but sturdy equine that can surefootedly haul its weight in gold--to pack necessary gear through the steep, rough terrain of the Rocky Mountains. But that was then, and this is now: Though lots of the fuzzy little guys still perform pack duty for backcountry hikers and the like, their main claim to fame in modern times may be their athletic prowess, measured each summer in a grueling series of races pitting man-and-beast teams against various challenges--steep trails, scraggy summits, the age-old elements and, well, the unchartable vagaries of the animals' distinct personalities. The most important of those races, an annual thirty-mile loop (give or take a mile) over Mosquito Pass, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this weekend in Fairplay.
Most of us think the burro is a bit of a bonehead, but Dave TenEyck, a burro-racer and leader of the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation, says nothing could be further from the truth: "Burros have a common reputation for being stubborn, but that's not actually correct. They simply exercise extreme caution. They'll work incredibly hard to avoid pain, and that's why we see them as being stubborn."
TenEyck's been racing for seven years, though he doesn't exactly know why. His rote explanation is that pack-burro racing pays tribute to Colorado's rich mining heritage--but there's more. "People in our groups tend to be rugged individuals--they're people who march to the beat of a different drummer," he says. "A good number of us do it because we love the outdoors and we love animals. Besides, this way, we've got somebody who's a bigger ass than ourselves to go running with."
What kind of ass makes the best running mate? "Most racers feel that the male burros are better racing companions," TenEyck says. "It's one of those chauvinistic things--males tend to be bigger, tougher and more fixated." But he prefers females and owns two--Matchless, a fourteen-year-old who actually made female-burro history by winning last year's Buena Vista race, and Xena, Warrior Princess, a rehabilitated, once-abused burro originally named Nellie. "I decided that running down the road saying 'Whoa, Nellie' was not the right thing," he jokes. A dedicated animal lover, TenEyck credits racing for giving aimless or maltreated burros a purpose in life: A number of racers, he notes, are adopted from the wild (for fifty bucks apiece) through the Bureau of Land Management. Once trained, he adds, they make great companions--even if they can't curl up with you on the bed like a dog.
All sorts of outdoorsmen, from Olympic athletes to mercenary loners with their eyes on the prize money, participate in the races, but nothing--not extraordinary prowess, unrelenting stamina or absolute avarice--ensures a win more readily than the mood of each burro. "If the burro doesn't move, it's not going to move," TenEyck vouches, noting that burro racing's strict anti-cruelty rules disallow the use of whips, chains or prods. "The only acceptable method of persuasion is the lead rope, and you can use that to smack 'em on the rear," he adds. "That sort of helps."
TenEyck and Matchless will be in Fairplay Sunday, attached by the fifteen-foot regulation rope that may or may not provide running impetus. She'll carry 33 pounds of equipment on her back, just like all the other pack burros; TenEyck will run on foot alongside her. But the rest is up to chance. "Sometimes we end up draggin' ass," TenEyck teases. "But this year we're going to try and kick some."
World Championship Burro Race, 11 a.m. Sunday, Front Street, Fairplay. For information on the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation, call 303-797-2435.