07/08/2003 12:00AM

Sarah Nelson's reputation growing

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VALLEJO, Calif. - There's a new mule in town, and her name is Sarah Nelson.

A virtual baby in the mule racing world at 4 years of age, Sarah Nelson handed the queen, Black Ruby, her worst loss since 1996 - the year she began racing - Sunday at the Alameda County Fair.

Sarah Nelson has Rubyesque numbers with 11 wins and two seconds in 13 starts. Both her losses came at Stockton, by a nose as a 3-year-old and by a neck to Black Ruby this year.

Black Ruby's owners Sonny and Mary McPherson had the first chance to purchase Sarah Nelson, but as Mary McPherson said, "You can't buy them all. We're always looking for a mule who can beat Black Ruby, but that was right at a time when we couldn't go look at her."

Jim Burns, the McPherson's regular rider for Black Ruby, was asked by John and Patty Harris in Washington to find a buyer for Sarah Nelson. Burns talked to the McPhersons first. He then contacted several other people involved with mules before Roger Downey agreed to buy her for $2,600 in February 2002.

Before Sunday's race, Sarah Nelson's trainer Rhoda March was reluctant even to hint that there may be a changing of the guard in the mule division.

"Ultimately, it could be so. But you can't take anything away from Ruby and what she's done in her lifetime," she said.

Smoking Joe, a 4-year-old trained by Deanna Cook, had been fourth at Stockton behind Black Ruby, Sarah Nelson, and Taz. He finished second Sunday, a half-length behind Sarah Nelson and 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Black Ruby.

Takin It Deep retired

Takin It Deep, winner of the 2001 California Derby and three other stakes races, has been retired, said trainer Gil Matos.

Matos gave the 5-year-old horse time off after he won last year's $100,000 Joseph Grace Handicap at Santa Rosa and the $69,000 Governors Handicap at Sacramento.

"We were going to run him this year, but he developed a suspensory problem," Matos said. "We probably could have run him, but it's not worth it. He's been good to us."

Matos said Takin It Deep, who won 7 of 23 starts and earned $355,055, would stand at stud next year but no decision had been made where.

"We own 15 mares and are looking forward to getting some of his babies," Matos said.

Giant place payoffs

The entry of Boeagle and Determind seemed so strong in Saturday's Pleasanton Arabian Handicap that show wagering was eliminated. That didn't stop bridge jumpers from betting the entry, which was sent off at 1-10, to place.

Speedster Determind didn't run a step, finishing fifth, and Boeagle, probably the best Arabian running on the fair circuit, was never really a factor, finishing third after a wide trip.

The $134,957 place pool had $130,845 bet on the entry, with most of the pool coming from New York and Southern California.

Virgule won, returning $26.40 to win and $112 to place. Highlander paid $151.60 to place. The $1 exacta returned $94.80. There was $1,004 bet on Virgule to place and $739 bet on Highlander to place.

Four of track records set

Four track records were set at Pleasanton Saturday.

Virgule's winning time of 1:10.50 for 5 1/2 furlongs in the Pleasanton Arabian Handicap Saturday broke Bellaa's track record of 1:11.20 set July 4, 2001.

One race earlier, He Roves won the California Appaloosa Stakes at 4 1/2 furlongs in 50.230 seconds, setting a track record. It was the second time during the 2003 meet that French Invader's record of 51.40, set in 1996, was bettered.

Call It set a brisk pace, was passed in the lane, then re-rallied to win a mile and 70-yard race in 1:38.01, breaking Majestic Nasr's record of 1:38.20 set in 1993.

In the Alameda County Fillies and Mares Handicap, Aunt Sophie was timed in 1:40.34 for 1 1/16 miles, beating General Royal's 1999 record of 1:40.60 for the distance.