08/08/2006 12:00AM

Match race of star mules typifies fun atmosphere

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Although racing is taken seriously at California's smallest racing venue, the Humboldt County Fair, general manager Stuart Titus says anyone coming to Ferndale should be prepared for fun when the fair's 10-day meeting begins Thursday.

Nine stakes races for all breeds are scheduled during the meet, and an extra $5,000 has been added to raise the purse for the closing-day C.J. Hindley Humboldt County Marathon to $15,000. The Marathon is unique in American racing because the horses pass the finish line four times while running 1 5/8 miles.

In addition to five Thoroughbred stakes, two mule stakes, and two Arabian stakes, the track will also host a match race on Saturday when Sarah Nelson and Smoking Joe, the two best mules on the circuit, face off in a $10,000 winner-take-all race at 660 yards.

"We've made special buttons with pictures of Sarah Nelson and Smoking Joe saying, 'Who's Got The Best Ass In Town,' " Titus said. "We plan to have fun with this."

Roger Downey, the owner of Sarah Nelson, who has defeated Smoking Joe by open margins at Solano and Santa Rosa after losing photos to him at Stockton and Pleasanton, and Smoking Joe's owner, Terry Shelton, have each put up $5,000 for the winner-take-all race.

While Sarah Nelson is at the top of her game, Downey notes she has never beaten Smoking Joe in a race around a turn.

"Joe's a little handier around a turn," Downey said of Smoking Joe, who the following Saturday will try to match Black Ruby's record of four straight victories in the 660-yard Cream City Mule Handicap.

Sarah Nelson holds a 7-6-1 (dead heat) advantage over their past 14 meetings.

"The bottom line is who is the fittest," said Danny Boag, who rides Smoking Joe. "They're used to running 350 or 400 yards, but when they get there, there's still another eighth of a mile to go."

Boag says that while the match race will generate excitement, "Every time they run, it's a match race."