Donkey races summer high point

By Bob Huber: Local Columnist

Kids in my hometown had a summer bonus — donkeys they could ride all day long each year, free of charge. All they had to do was catch them, and my friends had the scars to prove it, mainly tooth marks on their behinds.

This unique situation came about when the Great Depression caused mining operations in Colorado to improve the environment by shutting down. Donkeys, previously used to haul ore cars, were simply turned loose, and they were hard to catch and the devil to ride. What more could a kid ask in those pre-war days of the l930s?

But the high-water mark of this state of affairs came about when some unknown anarchist proposed a two-mile, no-holds-barred, wild donkey race north from the center of town, across the WPA bridge, up Washington Avenue, around Cemetery Hill, and back, no grownups allowed.

Orville Diggers, the son of the town’s mortician, kept track of the tournament with binoculars from the roof of his father’s funeral home. My friend Smooth Heine and I planned for the big race by scouting the small herds of donkeys that ran loose in the hills and targeting the best mounts — those with graceful, rhythmic gaits. Jackass gaits were important, because a galloping donkey could inflict great bodily harm to a jockey’s delicate parts.

The race took place on a warm summer Saturday, and the track was fast. A squirming, kicking, biting mob of noisy animals was held back by a rope drawn across the street. Those were the jockeys. The donkeys were corralled 100 feet away.

When the noon whistle blew at Coors Brewery, all jockeys ran to their mounts. The donkeys, alarmed by the whistle and the sudden rush of midget humankind, reared, kicked, ran, and squealed, and their jockeys danced around them in a frenzy to become mounted before being stomped or chewed on.

Once begun, bedlam prevailed. A crowd of adults, mostly grave-yard shift workers from the brewery and Larsen’s Saloon, gathered to watch, and money changed hands. Less than a half-dozen jockeys turned their mounts north and broke free of the melee, jiggling and bouncing across the WPA Bridge. Smooth was among them. I was forced to tag along on foot, because my mount had unceremoniously shaken me off and was last seen grazing a small farm between Wheatridge and Arvada west of Denver.

I won’t go into detail about the unique race. At times, Smooth bounced along among the front runners, according to Orville Diggers. At other times, Smooth traded places with the donkey and tended to fall behind. But after circling Cemetery Hill, Smooth was in first place by six lengths and pulling away. That was when fate took a wrong turn in the form of jackass temperament.

As Smooth and his mount approached the return crossing over Clear Creek, the jackass took a notion to bypass the bridge. “Noooo!” Smooth yelled, pulling back on his homemade rope bridle, but it was to no avail. The donkey plunged down the river’s bank, and without breaking stride, submerged into the icy waters of Clear Creek.

Smooth was fished out downstream before he reached the Ford Street waterfall, while his mount was last seen breast stroking the Platte River north of Denver.

My mother nodded when I told her what happened and said, “Well, I suppose a jackass in hand is worth a thoroughbred in the bush, but I doubt it.” It was another in a long line of quaint French proverbs she often recited. But that’s another story.

Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales. He can be contacted at 356-3674.