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Donkeys Bring Laughter to Emancipation Celebration

July 5, 2004 – Good, old-fashioned family fun was the order of the day as St. Croix continued its weekend of activities marking the 156th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation.
Sunday afternoon brought together young and old to enjoy a day at the races – the donkey races, that is. The antics of the donkeys and riders made for some sidesplitting fun and lots of belly laughs.
About 15 races were scheduled at a makeshift track erected at the Paul E. Joseph Stadium in Frederiksted. If there were actually that many races run is left to speculation – everyone was having too much of a good time to keep count. It seemed like a comedy of errors as riders fought to keep their steeds on the track, as some donkeys wanted to choose their own route. And at times it seemed that the hardest thing for most riders was to just stay mounted on the donkey.
Charles R. Davis and Christopher Simmons are two members of the American Legion Post 85, the hosts of the event. They explained that donkey races have been organized in St Croix since 1948.
"I knew about donkey races since the 1940's said Davis. "The first official race was in 1948." Davis said the races were held in Mannings Bay, now the site of the Doc James Race Track. "A lot of people, even sailors on shore leave, used to come see the races, they were more popular than the horse racing," he said. Other members of Post 85 include Amos Sealey and George Thurland.
The races included cart races with riders in crude wooden carts or riding bareback. The donkeys' had names like Yankee Dollar, Muddy, 6-Pack, Trooper and Lady Princess. Riders had names like Micki, Pappa Man, and Wilco.
Dark clouds hanging over the northwest sky brought in a brief downpour during the 5th race. Then the fun really began. The mixture of fresh mud and bareback riders on wet donkeys led to antics that were almost too much for the crowd to bear. At each slip and fall of a rider and each time a donkey tried to get away and go off track, the crowd roared with laughter.
The two-part obstacle course was a clear crowd favorite. The donkeys had to race with their riders on their backs around the track once and pass through a curtain of palm fronds. The rider then dismounted and donned a white coverall, got back on the donkey and rode again. The next part of the race was similar to the children's game musical chairs except that a rider had to dismount the donkey when the music stopped and sit in a chair. Well, before the donkeys could get completely around the track, at least two of them decided to go their own way instead of where their riders wanted them to go. One rider was thrown at least three times before making it to the end of the course. The palm frond curtain proved to be a big obstacle since the donkeys seemed to view it as an impassable wall. Only through sheer will – and a little bit of trickery – did the riders get the reluctant beasts through the curtain.
Tony Ayer and his family were among the many who came out to enjoy the festivities. "Its hysterical," said Ayer's sister-in-law, Linda Harper, who is visiting from Ormond Beach, Fla. Explaining that she hasn't been to St. Croix for seven years, Harper said the races were a good way to "feel the local culture." Also part of the Ayer entourage was his wife Nancy, their granddaughters, Jennifer Larsen, 14, visiting from Nashville Tenn., and 2½-year-old Jordan Holt.
According to Simmons, Post 85 and the Keep Gallows Bay Afloat organization revived donkey racing on St. Croix again in 1993. At that time a number of donkeys were shipped from St. John to St. Croix. "Donkeys were too plentiful in St. John, and were bothering the tourists, and the St. Croix population was dying out," Simmons said.
Mary Moorhead, project coordinator of the Frederiksted Economic Development Association, was glad at the level of participation by the public. She said next year's events will be bigger and better. "I encourage families and friends to re-experience all the cultural things you grew up with. This is a great time to reminisce and expose your family to Crucian culture."
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