05/27/2004 11:00PM

Black Ruby's brave rider says 'so long'

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Were it not for Smarty Jones and that Triple Crown deal he's got going on June 5 in the Belmont Stakes, this wayward reporter might have been found in the northern Nevada town of Winnemucca, hip deep in a three-day festival dedicated to the finest racing mules in the land.

As it turns out, Belmont Park will be the place to be on June 5 after all. Black Ruby, the world champion mule for the past seven years, cut her foot recently in her wine country paddock and could miss her traditional season opener in Winnemucca. And while Winnemucca sounds like more fun than a buckboard full of monkeys, it wouldn't be the same without Black Ruby.

"We'll give her a work at Stockton this weekend," said Mary McPherson, who owns Black Ruby with her husband, Sonny. "If she comes out of it fine, she could still run at Winnemucca. But whether or not she does, we'll be up there with our other mules, and rooting for Smarty Jones."

At the age of 12, Black Ruby lords over her mule world just as Smarty Jones dominates Thoroughbred news. There are mules in the wings - notably the young hotshot Sarah Nelson - poised to knock Ruby off her pedestal. But it will be a long time before another competitive animal of any kind comes along to threaten Black Ruby's career record of 66 wins.

An incredible 48 of those victories came in partnership with jockey Jim Burns, a straight-shooting 45-year-old journeyman who has plied his trade all over the Great American West, riding anything from Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses to Appys and Arabs. Mules, too, but only in sensible amounts, and mostly with Black Ruby.

Sad to say, the Burns-Black Ruby collaboration has ended, thanks to a freakish accident during training hours at Bay Meadows last March 1. Burns and fellow veteran Gary Baze were breaking off a team of young horses when the Burns colt ducked right, started to buck, then dipped dramatically to the left. Burns can pick it up from there:

"I lost my balance, landed in front of him, and he ran over the top of me," Burns said Friday morning from his home in the Bay Area suburb of Tracy. "I tried to hang on until the last minute - you know how we are - but I dislocated my left shoulder really bad, and broke the end of the shoulder bone."

When the dust settled, Burns looked down and saw the point of his shoulder facing forward. He'd lost feeling in three fingers of his left hand as well.

"I also told the ambulance attendant I felt like there was something wrong with my neck," Burns added.

The shoulder required emergency surgery to reset, and the prognosis was good, although Burns was warned that his range of motion might be reduced. Burns's neck, on the other hand, was not fully diagnosed until he visited his personal doctor six weeks later for a routine shoulder exam.

"My neck was hurting all the time," Burns said. "I couldn't look up or look down, and since the day of the accident I still had no feeling in those three fingers. He sent me in for a set of X-rays right then and there."

The verdict was grim, and not a little bit scary. X-rays revealed a fracture to the sixth cervical vertebra at the base of the neck and a dislocation of the seventh. The numb fingers and chronic pain stemmed from bone fragments pressing against the spinal cord. Burns was told that any kind of movement could have triggered paralysis.

"I'd been driving myself to therapy with one arm, doing little things around the house," Burns said. "I was even holding our riding horse, and he could have tossed his head or done anything with me. I was very lucky."

We've heard the story before, from all too many jockeys, tales of an inexact emergency diagnosis, performed in the heat of other, more obvious injuries. It happened to Laffit Pincay, when he went four days with undiagnosed multiple fractures to a cervical vertebra after his accident at Santa Anita in March of 2003. It happened to Julie Krone, who sustained dangerous fractures to her first and second ribs that were not detected for nearly a week after her fall last December.

This time it was Burns's turn. During four hours of surgery, the dislocated vertebra was reset and the two damaged vertebrae were fused with the help of a bone graft taken from his left hip. He was in a restrictive brace until last week, and soon he will be able to commence therapy to strengthen his neck.

In the meantime, Burns and his wife, Carol, circulated a letter that included a description of Jim's injuries, as well as the bittersweet announcement that Burns would be taking up "a new line of work" as soon as his recovery was complete. With 27 years of riding experience and a respected reputation, Burns hopes someday to make a contribution in the stewards stand.

"I sent the letter to our friends and family, just to let people know he wouldn't be riding anymore," Carol said. "Of course, I had to include a picture of Jim and Black Ruby at the bottom."