Bareback Bonanza

Riders Jim Duke and Joe Elsen worked in unison to not tear the toilet paper during an undated Potato Days Bareback Bonanza event.

As a young wrangler, I was inspired hearing tales of an old horse trader with a fast, white mule. Horse owners can be as bad as fishermen about bragging and exaggerating, so this old horse trader would wait for someone to brag up their fast horse in front of large crowds before saying, “Shoot, I got an old pack mule that can outrun that worthless nag.”

Having bragged himself into a corner, the horse owner was easily pressured into a high stakes race, often with several buddies anxious to place their bets, too. The mule owner only raced for high stakes with small crowds to avoid a reputation that might scare off future suckers.

Many small time horse racers are secretive about their fast horse, changing names at every race and keeping their horse out of sight, or even disguising it with dyes so others will continue to run and bet against it.

Training any animal for racing can be tricky, but mules present exceptional challenges. And racing shouldn’t be taken lightly as it often ruins critters for anything else. Racing can be addictive and often creates uncontrollable runaways. Long before the troubles with hot-rodding dad’s car around town was the problem of racing dad’s horse. Soon, any crowd of horses looked like a starting line and dad’s horse would take off like a banshee through a crowd at the church picnic. I got in trouble racing wife Kathy’s mule, who started bolting like a streak of lightning whenever approached from behind.

When training, it’s good to run with fast animals, but bad to be defeated too often. My friend, Paul, had a fast mare that my mule, Huey, was attached to and would try hard to keep up with. We lined them up on an abandoned dirt airstrip with a half-mile straightaway. Paul took off and established an early lead, but much to our amazement, Huey quickly passed him up with ease. After a couple of hundred yards, Huey started looking back over his shoulder and, after he figured out that we weren’t being chased by anything, he slowed down. He had just assumed that for a horse to take off like that, there must be something pretty scary chasing us. While he did have his moments, I don’t think he ever ran that fast again.

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I had a couple of other mules, Fart Blossom and Dooley, who I was also trying to train to race in the upcoming Garfield County Fair mule races. Huey was by far the tallest and most athletic looking and was bred from a fast quarter horse mare, but his speed on any given day was subject to mood, race track, weather, fellow racers, astrology and any number of other ill-defined factors. Whichever mule I was riding usually beat the other two, but nothing was very consistent and I didn’t want to get outrun by someone else on one of my other mules.

I decided to try a quirt (a short-handled riding whip) to see if it might help speed Huey up. The first time I quirted Huey, he spooked from being touched on the rump, and ran off the trail trying to look back to see who was behind him. We almost made it back to the trail unscathed when Huey jumped an unseen ditch, putting me up into the branches of a thorny hackberry tree and tearing off most of my shirt and some of my flesh. I finally got Huey used to the quirt, not because it did anything to speed him up, but because it made me feel more involved.

The first race we entered was the quarter mile. There were 12 mules entered and I was on the outside position. Lining up a dozen mules to race can be a ridiculous rigamarole in itself because they get so crazed about competing. This was made worse by a few owners that used amphetamines, cocaine, or sometimes injectable vitamin B complex to further jazz up their mules.

When the race started, I quirted Huey and immediately got the quirt tangled in his crupper (the strap under the tail on mule saddles) so my arm was stuck behind me by the wrist strap. Distracted by my struggles, Huey meandered casually down the track eating dust.

About the same time I finally tore my hand loose, Huey realized he’d been left behind by everyone and took off like a bat outta hell. We started passing the pack like they were standing still and as we went by Blossom and Dooley, they both peeled out of the pack to keep up with Huey.

Soon, we’d passed everyone except one exceptionally fast mule named Rocket, who was so far ahead there was no chance of catching him. Coming into the home stretch, however, Rocket spooked from the shadow of a grandstand pole across the race track. With the combination of the shadow and the roar of the crowd at the finish line, Rocket whipped around and passed us going in the wrong direction faster than we were heading to the finish line. A couple other spooky mules turned and followed him and a few others made abrupt right turns toward the gate entering the race track. I finished first with Dooley and Blossom close behind in second and third.

Having done so well, we decided to enter the pack saddle and the relay races even though we hadn’t practiced for these and would be competing against horses. The pack saddle race involved starting in a sleeping bag, jumping out and running to the horses being held by a friend, throwing a riding saddle on one and a pack saddle on the other, strapping the sleeping bag on the pack saddle, swinging onto the riding saddle, and running a half-mile circular track back to the start. The horses were all high strung racing horses and half of them spooked and got away as the riders ran up with saddles and sleeping bags.

Not expecting to win anything, I went slowly, avoiding most of the commotion, and was the last one saddled and going. Listening to the announcer on the speaker, I heard as one after another of the other riders either lost hold of high spirited pack horses, slipped pack saddles, or got clothes-lined by lead ropes and dumped. After a litany of such disasters, the announcer paused and then said, “It looks like Jim Duke and his mules are in the lead! They’re the only ones left in the race!”

I could hear the crowd laugh and roar from the far side of the track. When we finally loped across the finish line at least a minute behind all the other uncontrolled horses, we got a standing ovation.

The last race of the day was the relay race. Each rider had three horses. Riders raced the first horse around the half mile track, pulled the saddle and slung it on the second horse, made a flying mount on the run to circle the track again, re-saddled the third horse and did the last lap. Once again all the horses in the race spooked and got the best of their riders or lost riders to loose saddles and were, one by one, disqualified. This time, because it was three laps, we were several minutes behind what would have been the winners’ time, but still got a standing ovation.

I’ve won a few mule races since then, especially with Blossom in the Potato Days Bareback Bonanza, but never had such a clean sweep as my first day racing. But I still have plans for the future. There’s a wild ass in Africa, the Kulan, that has been clocked at 57 mph, faster than the fastest thoroughbred. The greatest challenge will be collecting semen from the fastest wild ass in Africa so that we can artificially inseminate a retired thoroughbred mare. With the benefits of hybrid vigor, the offspring might turn out to be the fastest equine on earth.

While it’s unlikely that the Kentucky Derby will allow the entry of a mule, no matter how fast, mules are fortunately excellent jumpers. A little preliminary reconnaissance will allow us to jump the wall behind the starting gates, pass the pack from a late start, and then jump another wall to disappear leaving the racing world wondering, “Who was that masked mule?”

Have a fast ass? Duke is ready to race anytime. Contact him at