Ultrarunner pairs with mini burro to win Fairplay world championship
In a year when 12-foot-high snow drifts prevented Fairplay’s World Championship Pack Burro Race from reaching the 13,185-foot summit of Mosquito Pass for the first time, it was a 33-inch tall miniature donkey who was up to the challenge on rugged Rocky Mountain terrain.
Leadville ultrarunner Marvin Sandoval — all 5 foot, 3 inches and 140 pounds of him — paired with 3 1/2-year-old Buttercup to capture victory at the 2019 Fairplay Burro Days World Championship on Sunday. In Sandoval and Buttercup’s first world championship race, the duo completed the altered 26.4-mile course in a time of 4 hours, 58 minutes and 7 seconds — 5 seconds ahead of runner-up Bob Sweeney and his (much larger) burro Yukon (4:58:12).
Despite her diminutive stature — small even for a miniature donkey, which is classified as 40 inches or smaller in burro racing — Buttercup led Sandoval to the finish line after he employed a racing strategy in which he saved as much of her energy as he could until the home stretch. Once they crossed the finish line on Fairplay’s Front Street, Buttercup became the first miniature donkey to win the Fairplay race, an event historically dominated by standard- and mammoth-size donkeys in its 71-year history.
“I think she was the one who wanted to win,” Sandoval said. “She’s tiny compared to the donkeys that she’s racing against. She’s a mini mini.”
Months ago, Sandoval would have found it far fetched that he would win the world championship race, let alone with Buttercup. The experienced ultrarunner — who won the Leadville Race Series’ Leadman trail run and mountain bike challenge in 2015 — only came across Buttercup serendipitously several months ago while down in New Mexico, just a few months after he first got into burro racing. At the time, Sandoval and his wife scoured Craigslist for miniature donkeys for their daughter and came across some for sale in New Mexico. But when the final purchase of the miniature donkeys didn’t work out as planned, the family stopped at a roadside burger joint for one last meal in New Mexico before heading home.
Glancing at Craigslist again, Sandoval saw three miniature donkeys for sale 20 miles away. One of those donkeys was Buttercup, who Sandoval decided to run with just two days before the June 8 Creede Donkey Dash.
“And when we showed up, Buttercup walked right up to me, and I was sold,” Sandoval said. “Just a little cutie, a sweetie pie — you wouldn’t think she’s a determined racer if you just met her.”
After Buttercup earned her racing legs in Creede, the pair taking third place at that race, Sandoval decided to stick with her for the Fairplay world title race instead of racing her sister Snickers, a donkey Sandoval thinks is faster but who he’s never really been able to run with due to a lingering injury.
Practicing on county roads near his home in Leadville, Sandoval knew he and Buttercup would have a chance. Then once the race started, he saw her competitiveness and her zest to lead the race’s pack early in the race.
It was with two miles left in the race, as they neared town, when Sandoval led Buttercup off course. Race veteran and 2019 fourth-place finisher George Zack yelled ahead to Sandoval helping him return to the course. The yell made Buttercup anxious, though, and Sandoval had to settle her saddle on her back before she sprinted as fast as she had all day through the finish line near historic South Park.
“I knew that no miniature had ever won because there was even a question by some of if a miniature could do it,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval and Buttercup will race in this weekend’s second leg of the annual burro racing triple crown, the 71st annual Leadville Boom Days Pack Burro Race, a 21-mile race that will reach the top of Mosquito Pass. If they win in Leadville, Sandoval said the duo might also race at the following Sunday’s third leg of the triple crown, the 46th annual Buena Vista Gold Rush Days Pack Burro Race, a 13-mile course.
LONG DAY IN FAIRPLAY
Fairplay local Bryan Shane and his burro, Margarita, were the final racers to cross the finish line Sunday night.
Shortly after 9 p.m. — 10 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds after they started the race — crowds cheered the pair home after seeing the glimmer of Shane’s headlamp from just outside town. Behind a police escort due to the darkness, Shane said Margarita gave it one last inspired go through the home stretch after he thought she wouldn’t budge after pausing for 90 minutes on the outskirts of town.
Shane said he knew about 9 miles into his first long-course race that Margarita wasn’t feeling like racing. So he was elated to see the crowd’s reaction when they opened the gate to Front Street from historic South Park.
“My favorite quote for the day is a Mike Tyson quote,” he said: “‘Everybody’s got a plan till they get punched in the face.’”
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