07/18/2017 10:12AM

Catching up with Black Ruby, a.k.a. Super Mule

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She’s one of the most famous distaffers of modern times, with an incredible 70 wins in 119 starts. Mainstream publications across the land and around the globe featured her – from the New York Times to the Times of London, from Sports Illustrated to Mexico’s Caballo, and, no doubt, every racing journal anywhere. National television news loved her, too.

She was a champion for seven straight years and is even in two – count ’em, two – halls of fame.

She lives far from the spotlight now, in a tranquil setting in Sonoma County’s wine region in California. But just because her backdrop is tranquil doesn’t mean she is. Try visiting this sassy lass and – if her folks can catch her – she’ll be none too happy to spend time with you. In fact, she’ll be downright mulish about it, from the soles of her fleet feet to the tips of her 10-inch ears. That’s right – her ears.

If you were around in her heyday it's odds-on that you remember Black Ruby. Nine years after her retirement, the eyes of horsemen still light up when you mention her name. In fact, I'll bet you also remember the name of her personal Alydar, Taz. 

When Black Ruby was inducted into the Sonoma County Horse Council’s Equus Hall of Fame in 2012 – she was, of course, already in the Mule Racing Hall of Fame – owners Sonny and Mary McPherson called her “the little mule from nowhere who made it to the big cities.”

Did she ever.

Although mule racing has been around since at least the early 1800s (and probably longer), it only began at recognized tracks in 1995. Born in 1992, Black Ruby is one of the first mules registered and tattooed (If you're a numbers type, she’s #4006 – but don’t expect her to let you pull her lip up to see it. And while we’re at it, nope, she didn’t care for my “Let’s measure her ears!” game, either. My 10-inch result might not be entirely accurate – but stories from "back in the day," quoting 13 inches, don’t look accurate, either). 

Ruby’s dad was a 15.1-hand “black mammoth jack” named Two Bals, and her mamma was a Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse mix named My Satinette. 

She’s clearly a redhead, in looks and attitude, so why the name Black Ruby?  When I visited in February, the McPhersons pulled out her registration papers and their accompanying photo.  For color, the papers read "Sorrel/brindle."  Ruby's a deep-red tone, a sorrel - what we Thoroughbred folks might call a liver chestnut. But she also had black blotches here and there, hence the "brindle" annotation. Those spots have faded in recent years and none showed through her thick winter coat, but a few still pop up in the summertime.

Her registration photo is enough to literally make someone who knows her laugh out loud. In it, her famous long ears are pinned flat back.

Black Ruby was born in Utah on April 17, 1992.  But the McPhersons first saw her in Nevada where, although her then-trainer Pete Dazielle told them the 3-year-old was speedy and worth buying, she was in rough shape.

Ruby’s right rear ankle was severely injured when her foot went through the floorboard of a rotted, moving trailer in Montana. It took time for Dazielle to get her right, and the McPhersons steered clear. But the words “mule” and “hardy” are, you know, absolute synonyms. Soon, Black Ruby – who wasn’t bred for racing but simply proved downright fast – was on track.

Black Ruby’s then-owner/trainers, Bob and Ronda Davis of Utah, were certain they could beat the McPhersons’ star, Fancy – and, well, that’s how countless racing tales start, right?  Your horse, er, mule, vs. my horse, er, mule?  Of course, you know what happened: Black Ruby and Fancy raced, and Black Ruby won. They met again. Black Ruby won again, this time even more authoritatively.

“They offered her to us, for lots of money that time,” Sonny said, smiling. Smiles come easily with such success stories. “We had a husband-wife chat and went and got cash, and I bought her.” (they prefer to not reveal the price)

He was quiet for a minute before continuing. “That mule was crazy, though.”

Ruby proved a demon to train. She was exceptionally difficult early on, truly not enjoying that “interaction with humans” thing. And don’t even try explaining starting gates to her. She was extremely difficult to load throughout her career, often getting away from the starters behind the gate. She almost always had to make a few passes at it before finally loading.  Once, her jockey even fell off behind the gate, breaking his wrist.  A new rider was summoned and, no surprise, Ruby went on to win.  

But despite her peccadilloes, Black Ruby knew her job and she clearly relished racing. She was tough, powerful, competitive as all get-out – and fast.

The first win on her papers was the Winnemucca Mule Derby on June 1, 1996, at a distance of 400 yards. From there, she just kept going. From track to track on the Western fair circuit – Winnemucca, Stockton, Pleasanton, Vallejo, Santa Rosa, Ferndale, Sacramento, Ponoma, Fresno – she blazed to win after win, year after year. 220 yards, 350, 400, 440, 660, 870 – no matter the distance or competition, that ornery red son-of-a-gun – after inevitably pitching a fit at the gate – took on all comers and left them in her dust.   There were even times she won two races in a day, three in a weekend.

After each win, she’d strut back to the winner’s circle to her awed and joyous connections.

Of course, just winning race after race (after race after race . . .) might get any speedy mule some local media attention, but people need a “hook” to become really interested in something outside of their wheelhouse. 

And a male mule named Taz provided that something. Sure, Taz was no Black Ruby, and Ruby won nearly all of their meetings. But, still, every so often, Taz would get to the wire first – just often enough to get folks interested.

Interested enough, in fact, that, on Sept. 8, 2002, the duo ventured from the fairgrounds to the track where the “surf meets the turf,” Del Mar, for a $10,000 match race coined the Mule Duel.

By then, Black Ruby was widely known as “Super Mule.”  She also had a few other nicknames, too, of course – some even related to the fact that the brilliant molly was one fast (forgive me) ass.

David Letterman’s people even expressed an interest in a Black Ruby appearance.  But the McPhersons, knowing how much Ruby enjoyed the restriction of, oh, just your basic starting gate, didn’t think she’d relish a cross-country trip to the bright lights of a New York City television studio stage. They loved their girl too much to agree.

Leading up to the Mule Duel, Sonny and Mary were treated like royalty at Del Mar, both by the powers-that-be and horsemen and racing fans. Folks lined up to watch Ruby and Taz on-track after regular morning training ended. Even Bob Baffert – who still lights up and enthusiastically shares Black Ruby stories at mere mention of her name – stopped by her barn to admire her.

The match race was held after a regular race card, and it’s estimated that – despite it being a non-wagering affair – half of the day’s crowd stuck around. Many showed their allegiance by wearing BLACK RUBY or TAZ pins given out earlier.

The fact that Taz had beaten Ruby in their most recent race was wonderful insofar as building media interest but, in the Del Mar race, there was no doubt as to the best mule: Black Ruby beat her rival by about two lengths. It was Black Ruby’s 60th win in 72 starts and the 39th time that she beat Taz, if records are accurate (it’s possible they’re not exact – but they’re darned close).

The duo shifted to Fairplex just six days later for what was titled The Mule Heavyweight Championship: The Rematch. Because they were back on a fair oval, wagering was allowed, and Taz kept this one interesting by staying even with Ruby most of the race.  But the beloved “Super Mule” finally eked ahead to win by a half-length, paying $2.60.

Soon thereafter, a charming drawing by Daily Racing Form’s Peb showed Ruby relaxing in a deck chair by a pool, sipping a drink, and daydreaming about Lido Palace, Harlan’s Holiday, Came Home and War Emblem. Beside her were signs reading, “To the World’s Mulest!” and “Congrats to the Greatest MULE.” Her hoof clutched a Form that read “COUNTDOWN TO THE BREEDERS’ CUP.”

Ruby stuck to her own species, however, and she and Taz participated in one more $10,000 match race the following May at Los Alamitos. Called The Battle of the Titans, guess who won?

Above/below: Black Ruby, with Jim Burns up, defeated longtime rival Taz in the Battle of the Titans at Los Alamitos on May 23, 2003.  Photos by Benoit Photo.

After that, the two titans continued to clash in their regular fair races. Black Ruby nearly always won, and Taz always did his best to keep things interesting.

Every October, the McPhersons pulled off their champion’s racing plates, and Ruby settled in at their Healdsburg, Calif., haven until training began anew the next April. Theirs is a beautifully understated farm, with mules and horses dotting the timeless rich-green paddocks. Some hundred grape vines that Mary’s father planted long ago run alongside Ruby’s paddock. Mary’s family has lived on those rolling lands since 1918.  

 

Black Ruby raced for the last time in 2008 at age 16, the mandatory retirement age for a mule. By then, no doubt, she’d lost a step.

“She wanted to go back to the winner’s circle and she’d go back to get her picture taken, but she hadn’t won,” Sonny remembered. “It was time.”

The McPhersons then pulled off her shoes forever. She’s also never been ridden since.

Black Ruby’s official record is 119-70-22-15, with earnings of just over $262,000. She raced for five trainers; and her 18 jockeys over the years included Jim Burns, who partnered with her on 63 occasions. That popular duo returned to the winner’s circle 48 times.

Her list of stakes wins includes many repeats, like the Winnemucca Mule Classic (seven years straight, including one tie with Taz), the Fresno Gold Cup (six), the Cream City Mule Stakes (five) and the Santa Rosa Mule Stakes (four). And although there is no official “Mule of the Year” award, the seven championships she won are the equivalent, the McPhersons say.

I asked how many track records Ruby set – for an indication of long-eared times, the Mule Duel’s 400 yards was run in 23.35 seconds – but mule racing records aren’t quite as easy to research as Thoroughbred records.

“I’m not sure how many track records, but she set them all,” Sonny said, explaining that organized mule racing was in its infancy back then, so records were easier to set.  “Others have come along, they’re bred better, they surpassed them. But she and Taz put mule racing on the map. Their rivalry is what got her known, not just her racing.”

While that's no doubt true, to watch Black Ruby in her paddock is a study in pride, athleticism and attitude.  She sure seems to know she’s a Hall of Famer and even looks - dare I say it - happy in her generally relaxed life. When hay is put out daily, she picks whatever pile she wants and others steer clear.  Anyone who disagrees – on the day of my visit, her paddock mates were four mules and one horse – quickly learns she is the boss.



She lives primarily outdoors, which is how she likes it, and she has little use for visitors. Oh, sure, she lets Mary get within range, especially if Mary brings carrots or Mrs. Pastures cookies. Bring another brand? No, thank you very much.  Ruby will politely drop them to the ground and stare at Mary, waiting for the real deal.

And if Mary or Sonny get close enough to rub the inside of her famous ears?  Oh, yeah...that's the spot. Ruby will absolutely stick around.

Above:  Sonny and Mary McPherson cleaning a winter-woolly Black Ruby up the best they could for me, during a rare California muddy spell in February.  Ruby was none too happy about any of it - until the ear thing.  Below:  Black Ruby allowed Mary the honor of getting close, likely because she knew Mary's pockets included Mrs. Pastures cookies.

Mules generally live very long lives and, although they require minimal fussing, Ruby gets basic care. When the McPhersons rattle her gate she’ll usually come right up because, although she’s her own mule, Ruby still understands her humans offer possibilities (For the record, some mules are actually very fond of people).

They can usually coax her into a small pen without trouble, but leading her with a rope simply isn’t going to happen. She’s far too smart to allow that indignity. When she sees the vet’s truck she glares and snorts, but she’ll tolerate him for small things. But there’s no way that famous gal is going to stand around for the darned blacksmith, so they tranquilize her for her occasional foot trimming.

People still ask the McPhersons about her, of course, and in 2011 Black Ruby was paraded under saddle, for an adoring crowd, on Mule Day at the Humbolt County Fair.

“The minute she came out on the track and saw that crowd, she just muscled up and strutted out there,” Mary remembered.

Nowadays, the 25-year-old Ruby struts to a much smaller audience, hanging with her equine pals in their expansive, sweeping paddock. Her best buddy is a thick-bodied, speedy Paint appendix Quarter Horse mare named Dashing thru the Wire.

“In the summer, and in the evenings, especially, if a little breeze comes up, you look up there and there’s nothing but dust up there,” Sonny said. “She and Ruby, they run around, back and forth, back and forth, until they’re wringing wet. They’ll go around the hill, and then they’ll streak down here and you swear that they’ll go through the fence. And they’ll just slide, stop, and then both of them will blow . . . and then they’re gone again.”



When asked what their beloved ornery, long-eared wonder has meant to them, Mary and Sonny carefully considered the question before responding.

“Ruby has taken us so many places where we’d have never gotten to go, and we’ve gotten to meet so many people on this journey,” Mary said, her voice reflecting deep appreciation. “How would we have ever met Bob Baffert before?”

“We got to go and do things that we never dreamed of because of her,” Sonny added. “Like Del Mar and the match races, and all of the other things like the interviews. 

“It was a fantastic ride.”


Above:  25-year-old Black Ruby (sorrel/chestnut, second from left), a.k.a. Super Mule, still acts youthful and lively.


Above/below:  The great Hall of Fame racing mule Black Ruby in all of her woolly winter glory.



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On Friday, July 21, an exhibit titled Equine Epochs: History of Sonoma County Horses opens at the Sonoma County Museum in California. Black Ruby is among the featured subjects, of course, and items like her trophies, silks and win photos will be on display.  For more information, please visit http://www.sonomacountymuseum.org

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Mule racing has fallen on difficult times as various issues, including skyrocketing insurance costs and a lack of owners’ discretionary income, have taken their toll. But our long-eared friends are still doing their best for appreciative audiences.  They are currently racing at the California State Fair/Cal Expo Center and then shifting to the Sonoma County Fair in early August. For more information on mule racing, inluding upcoming dates, please visit http://muleracing.org

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Fancy and Taz are both still alive and well and enjoying their golden years – Fancy at a ranch property of the McPhersons, not far from their Healdsburg property, and Taz at his owner Don Jacklin’s ranch in Idaho. Mules cannot reproduce, but Taz made very unusual headlines in the early 2000s when he was cloned. The first of several cloned Taz offspring - in fact, the world’s very first equine clone - was born in 2003 and named Idaho Gem.

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Youtube video of Black Ruby and Taz's Battle of the Titans at Los Alamitos (note that "Cowboy" Jack Kaenel rode Taz).  It was shot from a TV screen but, alas, it's the only video I can find of Black Ruby racing:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuXcLdqcylY

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A heartfelt thank you to Mary and Sonny McPherson, both for allowing my visit and for their very kind assistance with this story. Thank you also to Benoit Photo, for generously allowing the use of their Black Ruby racing images.  And thanks to the great Black Ruby, both for all she did for the sport of mule racing (including "wowing" me from afar all those years ago) and for allowing me to get close enough to photograph her in 2017.  

From the DRF archives

:: Black Ruby, she's truly a gem

:: Mule-mania strikes horse country