Hysterical laughter frequently punctured the air of Paul E. Joseph Stadium in Frederiksted on Sunday as this year's celebration of the 161st anniversary of the self-emancipation of slaves in the Virgin Islands kicked off with traditional donkey races.
"It's just like a horse race -- except you can't control the steed," said Mary Moorhead of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, which first brought the traditional donkey races to the annual Emancipation celebrations three years ago.
Donkeys ran hither and yon under the blazing summer sun, tossing their riders to the ground left and right, sometimes suddenly sprinting, sometimes literally being towed by their lead as the beasts planted their hooves and struggled to stand still. Old, young, men, women, families and friends came out and filled the stadium, cheering riders on for the good-natured, somewhat chaotic competition. Families set up folding chairs, blankets and coolers, settling in for a day's fun.
"What better thing is there for a fun day with the family?" asked former Sen. James Weber III of the Gentleman of Jones.
The group organizes and puts on the races with input from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, and the annual race has quickly become one of the group's most successful fundraisers.
"It costs less than a movie and I guarantee you never laughed so hard at a movie," Weber said.
There were a dozen races on the day's roster, with races for just boys, just girls, donkey-cart races, children's races and, at the very end, the Jackass Cup, with all-comers: adults, children, men and women all racing at once. Mindful of the grand tradition of ladies wearing fancy hats to the races, there was a best-hat competition, too. Betty Wilson, last year's winner, won again, hands-down, with an elaborate creation featuring two small black stuffed ponies sewn onto the front of the hat and a familiar, floppy-eared donkey resting on the hat's crown, looking morose.
"The two black ponies represent the top hats of the Gentlemen of Jones," Wilson said. "And Eeyore is on top. He's in charge."
Eeyore is the famously depressed donkey friend of Winnie the Pooh, featured in A.A. Milne's classic children's books and a series of Walt Disney movies.
In the races, Armando Martinez won the men's race and the trophy for the cart-race finals. Alyssa Ridgway won the women's race. Earl Baker won the first of two races for children 12 and under. Hector Acosta won the second under-12 race. The winning relay team was Riding Dirty with Melissa Minarek, Mike Pede and Hector Acosta. And lastly, the Jackass Cup went to a young Mr. Sweeney, who never gave his first name.
Race coordinator Sue Lakos ran around all afternoon helping riders with their donkeys -- often literally running as she and her assistants chased, pulled and directed loose donkeys all afternoon. The day and the fundraiser were unqualified successes, said Roy Rodgers, who headed the Gentlemen of Jones committee putting on the races.
"We want to make sure Government House gets some really good lights for next Christmas," Rodgers said, when asked what the group would do with the money they raised Sunday. "And we are looking at more tents, too, so there is more room for people to sit in the shade."
Sunday marked the fourth year Gentlemen of Jones and Yesterday Today and Tomorrow have worked together to hold donkey races as part of Emancipation celebrations. And this past year, Gentlemen of Jones held a Christmastime donkey race for the first time, too.
But donkey races have a long tradition on St. Croix and have been linked with Emancipation celebrations as far back as the centennial celebrations in 1948.
The day's fun was put on with the help of many companies and organizations in the Virgin Islands, including the Department of Agriculture, Housing Parks and Recreation, Public Works, Cruzan Rum, Roy Rodgers Shipping, Bellows International, Echo Valley Tire, Sue Lakos, West Indies Corporation and Cruzan Environmental Sciences. It kicks off a week of Emancipation celebrations.
Sunday's races were just the beginning of the celebration. On Thursday at 7:30 p.m. there will a tea meeting at Fort Frederik. At 5:30 a.m. on Friday, the anniversary of Emancipation, Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson is sponsoring his annual fort-to-fort walk, going from Christiansted's Fort Christiansvaern to Fort Frederik in Frederiksted. After the walk, at noon on Friday there will be a food sale in Buddhoe Park. Then at 4 p.m. historians Mario Moorhead and Carlyle Corbin will speak during the main Emancipation commemoration. In the evening, at 7:30 p.m., the street will be filled with folks dancing the traditional quadrille to the music of the Native Rhythm band.