07/04/2002 11:00PM

Ah, Black Ruby: A mule in a million


PLEASANTON, Calif. - To her jockey, she's the Secretariat of mules. To her owners, she's the Tiger Woods of mules, helping her breed the way Woods has helped golf. To California racing officials, she's an icon on the state fair circuit.

But is Black Ruby, the world's greatest racing mule, simply too good for her own good?

Black Ruby dominates mule racing the way Man o' War or Personal Ensign did Thoroughbred racing. She has won 20 of her last 21 races, and at 10 years old is just hitting her mule racing prime.

When she runs Sunday at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton there will be no place or show wagering. County and state fair officials sought permission to do away with show and place wagering because of growing concerns about paying out large minus pools.

Black Ruby is as regular as a metronome. She has not finished off the board since 1996, her first year of racing. Since 1997, she has finished worse than second only once - when she ran third.

In her first race on the fair circuit this year at Stockton, a single $100,000 show wager in the Southern California system helped create a $26,092.95 minus show pool. Of that total, $21,708.16 came from Hollywood Park, the Southern California wagering hub. There was also a minus $3,554.97 out-of-state show pool and a minus pool of $829.82 that had to be paid by the San Joaquin County Fair.

Such bridge-jumping wagers could create problems. In California, host tracks receive a commission on all wagers, but minus pools are the responsibility of the site where the bets are placed.

The situation is troubling enough that Del Mar has hinted it will not accept wagers on any more of Back Ruby's races.

"As an organization, we favor no show wagering, but, as an organization, there's nothing we can do about it," said Don Jacklin, president of the American Mule Racing Association. "A large minus show pool could totally destroy an operation such as Ferndale," the fair meeting.

Still, Black Ruby is the queen of the northern California fair circuit, the most popular and most recognizable performer. She has developed a cult following that includes trainer Bob Baffert. When she runs, interest heightens and attendance increases.

"Ruby has helped the mules like Tiger Woods has helped golf," owner Mary McPherson said. "Everyone is interested in a superstar."

Were she a Thoroughbred, Black Ruby might have already set a world record for walkovers. But mules have limited opportunities to run, and owners and trainers would like the bragging rights of beating Black Ruby so she generally faces a full field every time she runs.

Black Ruby has a career record of 74 starts, 56 wins, 11 seconds, and two thirds. She has won 55 of those 56 races for owners Sonny and Mary McPherson since they purchased her as a 4-year-old, and her earnings now top $170,000.

She wins at distances from 250 yards to 870 yards, which she can cover in about 53 seconds.

Buying a star

The McPhersons first saw Black Ruby as a 3-year-old at Winnemuca, Nev. She was unable to race because of a serious injury to her right rear ankle caused when she fell from a trailer and was dragged.

"The late Pete Dazielle was her trainer and one of the best mule trainers I've ever known," Sonny McPherson said. "Her owners tried to sell her, but I didn't buy her because of her bad ankle. Pete told me that if she healed up, she'd outdo everything any other mule had ever accomplished."

He was right.

Black Ruby has more victories, earnings, and world and track records than any mule in history. For the past five years, she has been voted the champion mule by the American Mule Racing Association.

Black Ruby was not an easy mule to deal with at first. She didn't like people and stayed in the back of her stall in trainer Jerry Jackson's barn.

Getting her into the starting gate was an adventure, and several times she had to be scratched because she couldn't be loaded.

She tolerates people better now, and she is improved in the gate, although she is not fond of drawing the rail.

Taz is the only mule that comes close to Black Ruby. "There's always that chance [he'll win], and he usually gets her once a year when he's at the top of his game," her rider Danny Boag said.

Taz and Black Ruby have faced each other 38 times, running 1-2 in 31 of those races. Twenty-six times it was Black Ruby who finished first.

Neither weight nor distance seem to bother Black Ruby. Once in an 870-yard race at Vallejo - one of the few mule races to go around a turn - Black Ruby won even though McPherson inadvertently put her blinkers on incorrectly, preventing regular rider Jim Burns from steering her with his reins.

She handled the turn flawlessly and won the race.

"She's had every opportunity to get beat, but she's competitive, the most competitive mule I've ever ridden," said Burns.

"Most mules kind of go hippity-hoppity, but she actually strides out."

On the farm

Black Ruby is unquestionably the queen of the McPherson farm. in Healdsburg, Calif.

"We put feed piles out 20 feet apart, and Ruby finds the one she wants," Sonny McPherson said. "When she finds the one she wants, no one else comes around."

When newcomers do, McPherson said, they quickly find out that they have made a mistake.

Sonny McPherson prepares all his mules before sending them to Jackson, sometimes herding them along the hillside in his all-terrain vehicle. He has an exercise rider who gets on them, although he says he "doesn't turn them loose" even with a rider.

Black Ruby, though, gets plenty of exercise.

"We keep her in a 100-by-300 foot pen," he said. "She just flies around that pen. Anything can set her off, like a deer coming down out of the hills."

The McPhersons are well aware just how special Black Ruby is. "We are very fortunate, very lucky to have her," Mary McPherson said. "She's set so many records and won so much, everybody just likes her." Adds Sonny, "When we go out of state looking for mules, people come up and want to talk about Black Ruby."