The Donkey Jockey

'Here,' said Yahooskin Fowler, pushing a wire instrument into my hand. 'Brush.'

This was my introduction to training to be a donkey jockey in the Border Classic World Championship Saddle Donkey Race in Columbus, N.M. Great! Here I thought it would be a glamorous experience, comparable to riding in the Kentucky Derby. Instead, Yahooskin, a Paiute Indian and my trainer and owner of a donkey named Isaac had me brushing the animal before I could climb into the saddle.

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Poker players and gamblers lead a bizarre life...

...and this was as crazy as it sounds. I ran the wire brush across Isaac's back. The cloud of dust that exploded from the animal's fur nearly choked me.

Howdy Fowler, Yahooskin's husband who was sponsoring the 20-mile race, said, 'Donkeys like to roll in the dust. It makes them feel good.'

Well, it wasn't making me feel good:

Spitting donkey hair and dust out of my mouth, I proceeded to give Isaac a good brushing, wondering why I had let myself in for this experience.

I was working as Bureau Chief for the Las Cruces News-Sun. My office was in Deming, about 20 miles from Columbus which was planning to commemorate the 1911 raid by Pancho Villa and his men on U.S. soil. Being a George Plimpton type who enjoys participating in adventurous events that I write about, I accepted Fowler's offer for me to compete in the race.

Howdy told me, 'People underestimate donkeys'. The donkey is one of the oldest domesticated riding animals on earth. Everybody who has gone to church or read the Bible knows that Christ rode a donkey to promote his ministry. But most people don't realize that the Egyptians rose to power using donkeys long before the horse came along.

'A donkey will surrender speed to a horse, but it can usually keep up with the horse if it doesn't have a rider. A donkey also works cattle and can do all the other things a horse does.'

I asked him what strategy he would use if he was riding in the race. He smiled.

'Remember the story about the turtle and the hare?

The donkey riders who try to win in a blaze of speed will fail and the person who is content to plod along until the final couple of hundred yards will be the winner.'

Over the next couple of weeks, I made several rides with Yahooskin and Howdy to train for the race. Isaac and I bonded.

On Friday the day before the race, I found it nearly impossible to sleep. I must have woke up half a dozen times with donkeys racing through my brain. At 4:30 a.m., I got up, showered, brushed my teeth, dressed and headed for Denny's, the only restaurant open at that hour. The attractive Hispanic waitress brought me my sausage, eggs and coffee. I told her about the race and she wished me good luck.

She grinned. 'With that poncho on, you look like Clint Eastwood.'

The sun was just coming up when I arrived in Columbus. I could see campers, a few pickup trucks, and half a dozen donkeys fenced in near the Columbus Museum where Howdy said he would be camping. Fifteen minutes later Howdy and Yahooskin drove up in their truck.

She pointed to Isaac, tied to a fence.

'You know what to do,' she said. 'Brush him.'

There were five donkeys entered into the race.

The winner would receive half of the cash money from the entry fees and a $300 silver and turquoise belt buckle. A slow-moving truck carrying a television crew from Channel 9 in El Paso rode ahead of us, along with an Emergency Rescue ambulance. I found myself hoping their services would not be needed.

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I had a leather whip and a probate judge from Deming, Delia Perez, handed me a pair of spurs. She helped me attach them to my boots and said, 'You'll need them to keep that donkey moving.'

For the first five miles, we rode down Highway 11 toward Deming. Police cars, bicycles, pickup trucks and motorcycles followed us with the drives waving and giving us the thumbs up sign. Yahooskin was in the lead on her donkey and stayed there.

The first eight miles went fairly easy. The last 12 miles were as close to hell as I ever hope to get. As we neared the outskirts of Columbus I realized that Isaac and I were both about played out. My legs were in a bad cramp. Yahooskin had a slight lead over me and started to pull away. All I wanted to see was the finish line.

As we neared the end of the race, my sturdy little donkey broke into a trot. My arm felt like lead but I swung the whip and we narrowed the gap behind Yahooskin.

Kids were running alongside, urging me to go faster. I threw up my hands in frustration.

'My donkey's finished,' I said. 'We've got nothing left.'

I was 30 feet behind Yahooskin as we neared the finish line in front of the Patio Cafe. The line was a wide strip of flower from a five-pound sack of Gold Medal Flour. As Yahooskin and her donkey Lottie neared the line, her donkey suddenly stopped and refused to cross the line.

Yahooskin leaped off the animal's back and began tucking it, but Lottie wouldn't budge. In a daze Isaac and I passed her.

We won the race.

I tumbled out of the saddle and couldn't move. My legs wouldn't let me.

That night Yahooskin and Howdy went to a celebration banquet and danced the night away. I was in bed recovering from my ordeal. It took three days before I could move without limping. And one of these days I think Yahooskin will even speak to me again.

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