09/06/2002 12:00AM

Mule-mania strikes horse country


DEL MAR, Calif. - Darrell Vienna, tucked safely behind the desk of his stable office, spat out the word as if cursing a boil.

"Mules," he said, and shuddered.

Cut him some slack. Better known as the trainer of the top grass mare Janet, who runs Sunday in Del Mar's Palomar Handicap, Vienna is also an all-around horseman who rodeoed throughout the West in his carefree youth.

Even now he occasionally can been seen atop a cutting horse or heel roper in breakneck competition.

His most recent encounter with a mule, however, resulted in a left forearm fractured so badly that he still displays a noticeable lump near the joint of the wrist. The injury occurred in early 2001 when he dismounted a mule named Archie before Archie hit a pipe rail fence. Vienna still owns Archie, but the thrill is gone.

"Want to buy a mule?" Vienna asked a visitor.

The answer was no, but not for lack of interest. Mules were definitely in vogue on the Del Mar backstretch Friday morning, and heads were snapping as both Black Ruby and Taz spent their first full day among big league Thoroughbreds before their exhibition match race on Sunday afternoon.

The match makes it official. The mule craze has left its roots in Nevada and northern California to infect a whole new audience. Henceforth, in the rarified world of Thoroughbreds, there will be a new appreciation for all things mule, from the distinctive nomenclature (Taz is a jack, Ruby is a mollie), to the variety of size (Taz has the body of a full racehorse, Ruby is more delicate), to the use of the popular term "he's gone donkey."

"I've probably owned 150 mules in my life," said Cowboy Jack Kaenel, who will ride Taz on Sunday for Ruth and Ed Burdick. "I got my first one when I was 8. Her name was Mindy - we also had one named Mork - and she was 8, too. She lived until just a couple months ago, 38 years."

Black Ruby is 10, and a five-time world champion. Taz is 8, and if it were not for Black Ruby, he would have reigned as the best. As it is, Taz has been the only mule to beat Black Ruby more than once.

"And when he did, it was never more than this," said Jim Burns, Ruby's rider, holding his hands barely a foot apart.

Taz is stabled on the backside of the Bob Baffert barn, across from the shed row of John Shirreffs. He is occupying a stall normally reserved for ship-ins from Wayne Lukas, who has run only four at the meet and has no winners. Marty Jones, whose stalls are nearby, was not aware that a mule was going to be in the neighborhood. Upon arriving early Friday morning, Jones was greeted with a sound that shattered the pre-dawn serenity.

"I had no idea what it was," Jones said, trying to describe the bray of a racing mule. "I thought one of John's horses was real sick."

Down the road, in a corner of the barn occupied by the horses of Jerry Dutton, Black Ruby had made herself at home. Mary McPherson was giving Ruby a half-hour on the hotwalker, just to get her out of the stall. People would walk by, stop and point, then succumb to wide, silly grins.

"Is that her?"

The one and only, with 59 lifetime wins and counting. McPherson owns Black Ruby with her husband, Sonny. They drove the 500 miles straight through from Healdsburg, just north of Santa Rosa, to Del Mar, arriving Thursday just before noon.

Sonny McPherson lost the lower part of his right leg after his truck collided with a tree 21 years ago. That has not stopped him from becoming a prolific acquirer of mules, far and wide, and the knowledge that goes with it.

"Tonnage and mileage," said Sonny McPherson. "That's how mules are trained. It's not easy to get them tired."

Or catch them, for that matter. A few years back, Black Ruby got loose at the McPherson's ranch and headed into the dense hillside brush. McPherson jumped in his little John Deere and gave chase.

"Every time I'd get close, she'd take off again," he said. "All you could see were her ears, like a mule deer. I was afraid she'd hurt herself before I could catch her. She had a race in four days. She won anyway, and set a track record."

The novelty of a match between America's two most famous racing mules at a first-class track like Del Mar might rankle the absolute purist.

But the promotion is all about racing, not about beach-blanket giveaways or recycled rock groups. Anyway, these are well-seasoned performers trained to a competitive task. And a rider can get ruined aboard a mule just as fast as they can on a Thoroughbred.

"I ride all the breeds," Burns said. "When you're on a mule, you can never stop paying attention."

There will be no betting on Sunday, although fans will get a chance to back their favorite mule the following week, when Black Ruby and Taz take their road show to Fairplex Park. In the meantime, buttons will be everywhere this weekend, posing the question: "Who has the best ass in Del Mar?"

Take your pick - Black Ruby or Taz.