Seemingly indifferent to the need for more speed during the final 200 yards of Sunday’s 71st annual World Championship Long Course Pack Burro Race in Fairplay, Marvin Sandoval’s burro, Buttercup, lumbered toward the finish line despite being pressed by Bob Sweeney and burro Yukon.
Both pairs hit the home stretch nose to nose, shoulder to shoulder, as spectators lining both sides of Front Street roared with approval.
Sandoval took up slack in the lead rope, positioned himself directly behind Buttercup and gently spanked the burro while verbally encouraging her to pick up her pace.
Buttercup got the message, steadily gained momentum and maintained focus long enough to establish a narrow lead that held through the finish.
Sandoval and his burro completed the 25-mile trek in 4 hours, 58 minutes, 7 seconds, followed by Sweeney and Yukon at 4:58:12.
The race traditionally covers 29 miles, but lingering snow cover over high-elevation portions of the course prompted organizers to shave the distance by 4 miles due to safety concerns.
Sandoval and Buttercup, who earned $1,000 for Sunday’s victory, now have the opportunity to compete for the Triple Crown of World Championship Pack Burro Racing by winning both the Boom Days Pack Burro Race Sunday in Leadville and the Gold Rush Days Pack Burro Race Aug. 11 in Buena Vista.
A lifelong resident of Leadville, Sandoval has the skills and experience to compete in endurance events – especially at high altitude. Being a past winner of the grueling Leadman competition in Leadville, competing as a high school sprinter and recently participating in numerous marathons are all pieces of Sandoval’s resume.
Sunday’s event marked only the second time Sandoval and Buttercup have raced competitively together. He said he was elated to have outlasted the field and praised Buttercup for maintaining her competitive edge through constant elevation changes, marshy terrain, boulder fields where runners and burros were slowed to a crawl and other obstacles along the way.
“We stayed within the lead pack from start to finish, and she (Buttercup) was just great the whole way,” Sandoval said.
“This was only our second race together, and this was our first time to be here in Fairplay,” Sandoval said, “so I’m really happy.”
Second place by seconds
The second-place team of Sweeney and Yukon were competing together for the fourth time. Last year, the pair took fourth place in the event.
“I’ll take it,” Sweeney said of the second-place finish. “This is our first time to the podium.”
Sweeney, 43, splits his time between Louisville and Leadville. He grew up in Syracuse, New York, and has been a Colorado resident since 1994.
Sweeney said he and Yukon are beginning to hit their stride together.
“Almost every week, she and I have been working together, and that has helped,” Sweeney said. “She is a great burro, and she has a great temperament. She is between 12 and 15 years old, so she is still young.
“When we got into the crowd of people, like most of the burros, she sort of freezes a little. The crowd is loud, and they are all pointing cameras and cellphones at them, and it usually affects them some. Yukon is also fine with being in the lead but is hesitant to separate from the pack.”
When asked if he would lose sleep over coming so close but falling short of winning by such a small margin, Sweeney chuckled. “Heck no, I won’t. After all, it’s just a burro race.”
Burro racing rules
Sunday’s race, along with those in Leadville and Buena Vista, is sanctioned by the Western Pack Burro Association.
Common rules for each of the races include:
Each burro is required to be equipped with a regulation pack saddle packed with prospector’s paraphernalia, which must include a pick, shovel and gold pan. The combined weight of the pack saddle and paraphernalia must be at least 33 pounds.
The burro is led by a halter with a rope not more than 15 feet long.
The following description of a burro is used in selecting an animal for competition. The word “burro” comes from the Spanish word meaning donkey.
They have chestnuts on the forelegs only, while other animals of the same species, such as mules or horses, have them on hind and forelegs. The tail has no hair, except on its lower part, which has a brush.
A registered veterinarian has the authority to disqualify any contestant and animal that does not match the above description, or whose animal is sick, doped, injured or mistreated. A veterinarian will check animals before and after the race.
Winning burros can be held in a designated area by the race committee for 30 minutes while being examined by a veterinarian.