Not exactly the sport of kings

Column by Hal Walter

Pack-Burro Racing – July 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Some jackasses never go away. Just ask the folks in Buena Vista, where the third leg of the Triple Crown of pack-burro racing is about to resume after a three-year hiatus.

While it’s great that the race is on again, many folks overlook the symbolism of a culture struggling to stay in the saddle of a nation that’s losing 1,320 acres to new-home construction each and every day. Here in the West we’re too busy turning over 50,000 acres of elk habitat to developers each year, and drinking up water faster than the sky can make it, to notice the loss of something as seemingly insignificant as a small town’s pack-burro race.

But it’s all tied together.

Buena Vista got into the burro business back in the 1970s through an unlikely partnership between filmmaker and pack-burro racer Curtis Imrie and local entrepreneur Oscar Chapa.

“It was just Fairplay and Leadville and I was new to the sport… I thought if burro racing was the poor man’s horse racing, then why couldn’t we have the Triple Crown?” recalls Imrie.

Imrie mentioned his Triple Crown idea to Chapa, and it was off to the races. “To give credit where credit is due, Oscar could relate to that. He was not a runner himself, but he owned some good burros and wanted to see it happen. He got the Veterans of Foreign Wars involved and got all the grass roots organized to do what it takes to pull one of these things off,” Imrie says.

For nearly two decades it was tradition. On the last Sunday of July, the World Championship Pack-Burro Race in Fairplay was held. The following weekend, the circuit moved to the other side of Mosquito Pass for the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race. And on the third weekend, the final race was held in Buena Vista.

The Buena Vista race went through several permutations. There were as many as five different courses in its history. The prize money fluctuated on an annual basis, up and down with the local economy, and race organizers came and went.

After the 1993 race, the contest was dropped from the calendar, and left to history. Some people wondered why.

“Here’s what happened, and it’s happening in every town in the West,” opines Imrie. “The tinhorn instant rednecks move in and try to remake the town in the image of their suburban wannabe existence. They lose track of the indigenous cultures that are here and they don’t bring them along for the ride, whether it was the Ute Indians, the hardrock miners or the burro racers.”

Imrie, who at the time of this writing is running for congress, has recently been headlined a “Cosmic Cowboy” by one member of the mainstream conservative mostly Republican-owned media. But if cosmic means interrelated, then the point is well taken.

One person who recognizes this is Sean Herrin, a chiropractor who practices in both Buena Vista and Salida. Herrin is spearheading the plan for reviving the race.

It seems that dropping the burro race from the Gold Rush Days program did nothing to help the local festival, and after a flap over the VFW beer garden in 1995, Herrin says organizers turned the festival over to the Buena Vista Chamber of Commerce.

“Now we’re trying to bring back the beer and the burros,” says Herrin.

Herrin, a Buena Vista resident since 1982 who had recently opened practice and joined the chamber had already been wondering what had happened to the Triple Crown race. It disappeared while he was away at chiropractic school. Herrin remembers the days when the whole festival revolved around the burro race rather than booths that sell stuff to tourists.

“It was a great event and tradition … and I thought it was a shame that it wasn’t happening, so I decided to do my best to revive the burro race,” he says.

Herrin employed Buena Vista pack-burro racer Barbara Dolan to help him with planning a course and obtaining permission from the various entities. Dolan has drawn up a 12-mile route for men and women through the Midland Hills east of town. The race will start and end on Main Street.

The biggest obstacle for Herrin is raising prize money, but other than that he’s finding the mood elevating.

“I’ve run into some resistance, but for the most part I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback,” he says. “Actually I think there is a lot of support out there … I’ve had a couple of comments from a few people, but far and away the general consensus is everybody is happy it’s coming back.”

The race, it seems, has a spirit of its own and a history that is written in blood. “You know the greatest race I ever saw, I saw shaping up from third place and it was with Stuart Saucke and Ardel Boes in Buena Vista,” recalls Imrie. “With Ardel’s wisdom, smarts and savvy, and tradition of winning, and Stuart just a kid coming into his own and putting together the greatest race he ever ran … So often these races get strung out, but that one went right down to the wire.”

In a photo-finish, it was Boes by a nose; he added the victory to what became a string of seven Triple Crown titles. Boes hasn’t run a burro race in a couple of years now, and Saucke committed suicide in 1991. But their footprints still bite the decomposing granite of the old river road and their voices still echo off the walls of the railroad tunnels north of town.

Central Colorado, this region we have loosely defined, really has very few things to hold onto, to tie it together. We’ve got a polluted river and problem with development that’s happening too damned fast. But we also have tradition — an indigenous sport — pack-burro racing. Maybe, when it gets down to the wire, it’s this small piece of culture that will bind us together and perhaps save us.

Hal Walter will be competing in the Fairplay World Championship Pack-Burro Race on July 28, the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race on Aug. 4, and the Buena Vista Triple Crown Pack-Burro Race on Aug. 11.