08/20/2002 11:00PM

Black Ruby, she's truly a gem


DEL MAR, Calif. - The first day back from vacation is always a killer, but this time around it is really tough.

The letdown is palpable. Blues fill the soul. Sure, there is the $1 million Pacific Classic to look forward to on Sunday, with the potential of a meeting among War Emblem, Came Home, Sky Jack, and Milwaukee Brew.

But how, in all reality, can it hope to compete with the euphoric scene last Sunday at Ferndale when Black Ruby took the stage at the Humboldt County Fair?

Good racing always stirs the blood. Stars put the game on the boil.

War Emblem will be making his first California appearance if he runs in the Classic, and he deserves all the headlines.

But he is hardly an institution, and there is no guarantee he will even be around a year from now. The racing business has pretty much betrayed its fans by creating a beast so fragile that it never lasts, or so valuable that it can not be risked in public beyond a certain "sell by" date. If either Came Home or War Emblem race next year it will be a miracle.

So, in a fit of desperation, attention has turned to a mule. But not just any mule. This one has a following that rivals the most popular runners out West. Half donkey, half Quarter Horse, sterile as a fence post, Black Ruby has come to represent qualities that Thoroughbreds have lost. Where once they could be relied upon for entertaining service over the long haul, the best Thoroughbreds are now little more than Faberge eggs with an appetite. Look at them cross-eyed and their knees buckle.

Then there is Black Ruby, mule ears and all, doe eyes, ballerina feet, brand on her left hip, and a gnarled right hind ankle that went through the floorboard of a trailer more than seven years ago, when she was barely 3.

"I wish that ankle wasn't so ugly," said doting Mary McPherson, who owns Black Ruby with her husband, Sonny. "But it's been that way for a long time, and never bothers her."

Nothing much does. On Sunday afternoon, while fairgoers stuffed themselves with corn dogs and cotton candy, Black Ruby waltzed from her red barn on the Ferndale backstretch to the Harlan Detlefsen Memorial Assembly Barn behind the paddock with all the serene dignity of Grace Kelly strolling the palace grounds.

"She's not black!" said an awestruck fan, new to the mule game, as Black Ruby bounced onto the half-mile track under Jim Burns.

In fact, Black Ruby has a rich chestnut coat, polished to a shine by her groom, Roy Groff, and set off by a flaxen mane. She gets her name from a dark spot of hair decorating her rump, just to the to the right of her tail, that from some angles can be mistaken for a cut gem. Perhaps even a ruby.

That rump is about all the other racing mules ever see of Black Ruby.

In winning Ferndale's Cream City Handicap for the fourth straight year, she is now credited with 47 victories in 53 starts in the pages of this publication.

In reality, she has won 59 competitive events, which means she doubled up on a dozen days in early season Nevada meetings. The computer program for past performances can be forgiven if it does not account for racing animals that win twice a day.

The Cream City was a bittersweet experience for the people in Black Ruby's world. It wasn't nearly the same without Jerry Jackson, her veteran trainer, who died on Aug. 5, the day after Ruby won the richest mule race of the year at Santa Rosa. The ongoing effects of diabetes, coupled with post-op complications from open heart surgery finally did him in at age 75. Ferndale officials attached Jackson's name to the Cream City in memorium.

"This is hard," said Ron White, Jackson's assistant, as he waited to saddle his mule. "It's not her that's making me nervous. It's the media. The expectations."

Black Ruby came through, as usual, touching off a celebration that had very little to do with her $2.10 parimutuel win payoff. Although trying to beat her is half the fun, it is also quite beside the point. Black Ruby, a California treasure, is the best possible kind of public relations for a sport in search of a hero.

TVG carried the Ferndale race, but Del Mar failed to take any bets, a business decision for which management must answer to the racing board as well as the fans. At least they know a sure thing when they see one.

If all the details come together, Black Ruby will be heading South to Del Mar for an exhibition race on Sept. 8 against Taz, the last mule to beat her. The McPhersons will be a long way from their Healdsburg ranch, deep in Sonoma County wine country, but the adventure will be worth it. And Black Ruby will be game.

"When you load her in the trailer, you'd better be ready to load," Mary McPherson said. "Once that door drops, she practically drags you to the back."

Del Mar may never be the same.