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Meet Colorado’s champion rodeo cowboy and horseman: Greeley’s Willard Burbach

May 17, 2018


 Terry Frei 


Moving from Grover to New Raymer, and then to Evans during his Northern Colorado childhood, Willard Burbach was what he now calls “%$*#-#$&% poor.”

Supply your own colorful hyphenated terms there. They all work.

“Nobody ever gave me anything,” he recalled recently.

That was true in New Raymer, where his dad, Pete, worked on a ranch. As a kid, Willard was expected to do the chores of a farmhand.

“My job was to milk seven cows in the morning and run the milk through the separator,” he said. “And be ready to get on the school bus by 7:30.”

It didn’t end there: His mother, Elma, was the driver, so Willard had to jump off the bus and open the four gates on the roads along the route.

But that rural upbringing brought dreams of being a champion rodeo cowboy and an intuitive feel for animals.

Throw all that together, and it makes sense that Burbach, now 77, has been:

—One of the region’s most trusted and savvy cattle buyers.

—A three-time winner of the all-around rodeo cowboy championship at the Greeley Stampede.

—The state’s most successful thoroughbred breeder for nearly a quarter century.

The basement at Willard and Arlene Burbach’s home at their horse ranch northwest of Greeley is a mostly black-and-white or sepia-toned museum to Willard’s rodeo and horse racing career.

“We might have to build another house to put it all in,” he said dryly.

Although he made his living in cattle buying, rodeo was Burbach’s passion.

“I did it every chance I got,” he said. “I loved it. I always wanted to be a cowboy.”

Bareback horse riding was his specialty, and he also dabbled in team roping and steer wrestling. He competed on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, mostly regionally.

One year, he came within a single spot of qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo in steer wrestling.

“You had to be 15th,” he said. “I was 16th.”

The salty Burbach enjoys self-deprecation, as when he hints that he eagerly went along with the standard that cowboys had to compete in events both out of the timed-event chutes and bucking chutes to be eligible for the all-around cowboy award at the Stampede.

“I got a nice saddle out of it,” he said.

Along the way, he tore an ACL, suffered a broken wrist and ended up with a punctured lung when a bull stepped on him.

“He thought that maybe the next break would be his neck,” Arlene said.

Burbach retired from rodeo when he still was only 31.

“It wasn’t fun any more,” he said. “I’d have to get on a diet to get my weight down. And I’d rather eat than ride bareback horses.”

By then, Burbach’s cattle-buying expertise was long-established. Working first for others and then for himself, his business flourished.

“I think I know cattle pretty good,” he said.

He thought he knew horses, too, thanks to his ranching and rodeo background, and one day when he was in his late 40s, he and a partner heard of eight thoroughbred broodmares for sale in Oklahoma at a bargain price — so low, they convinced themselves, they’d be able to resell them for a nice profit.

Instead, Burbach soon felt like a chagrined Sky Masterson in an iconic “Guys and Dolls” scene, looking up and telling his daddy he had cider in his ear after being bamboozled by the conniving Nathan Detroit. They not only didn’t make a profit, they had a hard time unloading them. He all but gave away six.

“That at least stopped the feed bill,” he said.

When Burbach had two left, he decided to try and make the best of the situation.

Suddenly, he also was a thoroughbred breeder and owner.

It helped that Aurora’s Arapahoe Park, dark for eight years after a one-year run as Centennial Race Track’s replacement as the state’s major track, re-opened in 1992. Finally, the Colorado horse-racing community again had a viable place to run in addition to the fair circuits. The annual three-month Arapahoe Park meeting — while never blessed with big-time purses ­— eventually found its niche, in part because of the Colorado breeders program. Breeders get a bonus cut for Colorado-foaled horses in the money, but that cut has slipped because of the closing of the top off-track wagering outlet in the state, Red and Jerry’s in Sheridan.

Willard and Arlene moved from Greeley to the horse ranch in 1994. Since then, they’ve tended to the horses and the horse business. Burbach retains just enough of his own yearlings to help make it interesting and more fun at the track. “Whatever I thought was best, I tried to keep,” he said. “But you don’t know that until you run ’em.”

He’ll have four of his own horses running at the upcoming May 26-Aug. 12 Arapahoe Park meeting, and he estimates he will be the breeder of record for about 50 horses on the grounds. So when Willard and Arlene are at Arapahoe Park most race days, they’re rooting both for horses they bred and sold and the ones they kept.

By hiring help at the horse ranch, Burbach has made allowances to age and the physical toll of his rodeo past, including a horrible back and respiratory issues. Most times, there are 15 horses — give or take — on the Burbach spread.

“There are some horses out here he feeds,” Arlene said, gesturing outside. “We put the mares in the pasture at night with the babies and then the yearlings are out in the circle. He moves them in the morning, but they almost know what to do.”

Burbach has been Colorado’s thoroughbred breeder of the year (determined by earnings) 14 of the past 17 years, and the breeders program is a home-state advantage. In short, the formula is to take 10 percent of a Colorado-bred horse’s winnings in a race and make that the base number, then multiply that by a figure that in recent years has fluctuated from $4.50 to $5.50. It’s also incentive for the top breeders, whether Burbach or Linda Wood at Menoken Farms in Montrose or any of the others, to stay in the business.

“You couldn’t do it in Colorado without the breeding program, I guarantee you,” Burbach ssad. “You’d have to have tons of money and like horses awful well.”

Burbach’s most notable accomplishment probably has been breeding Get Happy Mister, sold for $46,000 at the 2011 Silver Cup Sale at Arapahoe Park and then gelded. Burbach gets that the breeder doesn’t have a vote after selling a horse, but he never understood the reasoning that led to Get Happy Mister running as a gelding.

“He would have been the best stud that Colorado’s ever had,” Burbach said.

Keeping all or even many of the yearlings is impractical, but Burbach faces sometimes wrenching choices.

Did he regret selling Get Happy Mister?

“Not really,” he said. “At least not until I saw how fast he could run. I was happy that everybody was happy and he was a nice horse. He’s the nicest horse Colorado has had in I don’t now how many years.”

With 11 wins in 14 starts and $384,928 in career earnings, including a graded stakes win at Santa Anita Park, Get Happy Mister became the top-earning Colorado-bred of all time before he was retired in 2015.

Burbach’s own horses have earned $1.36 million, with 80 wins, 84 seconds and 56 thirds in 470 starts. In 2017, his horses’ three wins in 23 starts came from Kelsey in a Sept. 16 claiming race at Albuquerque and two from Dewey at Arapahoe Park ­— the track’s Classic Stakes on Aug. 12 and an allowance race on June 16.

A major issue within the Colorado horse-racing community is its uneasiness with the Arapahoe Park ownership, Mile High Racing and Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Connecticut-based BLB Investors, which operates tracks and casinos. Live racing remains a Colorado Legislature-required loss-leader for the track ownership’s more lucrative satellite wagering on races around the country.

The track ownership in 2014 sought approval of a ballot initiative that would have turned Arapahoe Park into a “racino” — or a casino with horse racing and satellite wagering on other tracks. Heavily opposed by the Blackhawk and Central City casino interests, Amendment 68 didn’t pass, and Burbach is among the horsemen who question the track ownership’s commitment to racing after the setback at the polls. Burbach is outspoken that the track ownership isn’t willing to go beyond a bare-bones approach with live racing, with what he believes are insufficient promotion and deteriorating facilities.

“Something has got to change or there won’t be enough horses coming in to make a decent meet,” Burbach said. “I’m not going to say any more because you might print it.”

Will live horse racing still be going at Arapahoe Park in five years? Ten years?

“I’m going to say yes, but I don’t really believe it,” Burbach said. “I’ve got a feeling in my belly that they could just say, ‘That’s it, boys, we’re done,’ and fold the tent.”

If it’s still possible, Burbach said he plans to stay in the business, “until I die, probably. When I can’t get up any more in the morning, I’ll probably quit.”