Donkey Derby Days
On sunny summer mornings in Colorado, it’s common to witness a steady stream of cars as they make their escape from larger cities. These mountain migrants are on the hunt for cool air, sparkling vistas, snowcapped peaks, and wildflowers in bloom — a fun day and a temporary respite from the urban clamor. One restorative getaway option is the historic mining town of Cripple Creek, particularly during the festive Donkey Derby Days in June.
Donkey Derby Days is an event that both brands the city and helps it reconnect with its roots. This festival, which arose organically, is sustained by the community and delights visitors, especially kids. In a time when many cities hire public relations professionals to create a civic brand, it’s refreshing to see a community embrace and cherish its unique past.
In the 19th and early 20th century, burros worked in the gold mines of Cripple Creek and Victor, pulling carts loaded with ore. These beasts of burden completed taxing work in confined spaces unsuitable for horses or mules. As the mines played out, many of the burros were simply released, set free to fend for themselves. The tough little animals survived, and even thrived. They came together as a herd, one that roamed the streets of Cripple Creek, grazing on the grassy meadows that surrounded the city.
From 10,147 in 1900, Cripple Creek’s population fell to a low of 418 in 1970. Despite the significant decrease in residents, the number of burrows remained constant. Inhabitants of the town looked out for the small herd, offering carrots and apples to the gentle creatures in the summer and hay in the winter.
Today’s Cripple Creek is a prosperous little city of more than 2,000 residents, and burros still roam the streets. Compared to their ancestors, they’ve got great lives. “We keep an eye on them,” said Wendy Field, the marketing director of Bronco Billy’s Casino. “City employees in the transportation department kind of monitor them, so we know where they are. From May to October, they just wander around the city and the countryside, but in winter they stay in an 18-acre paddock with a barn for shelter, water, and food.”
During the Donkey Derby Days festival, local and visiting burros of all sizes and descriptions can be found ambling along Bennett Avenue. The streetscape is comprised of original storefronts from the 1890s, although the buildings themselves have been converted to other uses (think casinos!) The historic street is lined with itinerant vendors, dogs are everywhere, and kids shriek happily. Even the most dedicated gamblers abandon the slots to take a look.
This year, the event will take place June 22-23. Bennett Avenue will be closed to traffic during the festival, which kicks off at 7 a.m. with a pancake breakfast. The first event is the aptly named Big Ass Challenge, in which members of the media are paired with racing donkeys in a mercifully brief course from the Double Eagle Hotel and Casino to Second Street. Note that you don’t physically ride the animals, but rather run side-by-side with your long-eared partner.
A few years ago, my spouse (Colorado Fun publisher Karen Hazlehurst) and I showed up to compete. We thought we could win, or at least place. In a previous life, Karen raised horses and burros on a Texas ranch, so that gave us an edge — or so we believed. “They can be stubborn,” she said. “I’ll take some grain along to encourage him, and we’ll get off the line in a hurry. I know donkeys — I don’t think any of the other media people have even been close to one!” We had no clue. Our donkey was the Bruce Springsteen of donkeys, born to run. He bolted off the line and we couldn’t keep up, so he dropped behind and tried to speed us up with a few encouraging head butts. We finished an inglorious last, welcomed by good-natured cheers.
Donkey racing has a long history in Cripple Creek. As the Great Depression deepened in 1930, local businessman Charley Lehew thought that some sort of summer festival would help attract visitors to the then-moribund mining town. Oddly enough, he settled on burro racing. Aided by a couple of partners, he built a makeshift racetrack, sold advertising, hired bands, contracted with concessionaires, and launched the first Donkey Derby Days festival on Aug. 15, 1931.
According to contemporary accounts, it was a pretty big deal. Colorado Governor Billy Adams served as Grand Marshall, paying tribute in his opening remarks to donkeys and miners. After his speech, Adams mounted a donkey and led a parade down Bennett Avenue. Next, the Grand Donkey Sweepstakes inaugurated the weekend’s events. Thirty-five donkeys competed, many from out of state. There were few troublesome rules to constrain competitors. Rider and donkey had to finish together, with the rider still atop his or her donkey. The winner reportedly received a silver loving cup, hopefully full of feed for the exhausted steed. Other events included a boys’ relay race, a girls’ chariot race, and a visitor free-for-all. There was also a tug-of-war between Cripple Creek and Victor businessmen, horse races, stock car races, and the Miles High Smoker, a 32-round boxing match.
Donkey Derby Days was suspended during World War II, and subsequently revived in the late 1940s. The event was expanded in the 1950s to include a carnival, a rodeo, and hard rock drilling competitions, and struggled on until the city’s visitor economy strengthened with the advent of casino gambling.
Since then, the event has grown and matured, the donkeys have thrived, and the city has been reborn. And if you can’t make Donkey Derby Days, don’t worry — the donkeys aren’t going anywhere. You’re likely to see the herd roaming peacefully through their home, the historic, beautiful, and utterly unpretentious city of Cripple Creek.
Words by John Hazlehurst
Photos by Jewels Burdick