07/12/2004 11:00PM

Whirley Side best of three breeds


VALLEJO, Calif. - Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Thoroughbreds met last Sunday in the Jack Robinson Memorial Handicap at 870 yards at the just-concluded Alameda County Fair with an Appaloosa favored, a Thoroughbred winning, and a Quarter Horse running second after setting the pace.

One note for fair handicappers after watching the super- quick Thoroughbred Santano run in midpack early: Fractions for Quarter Horses are timed from a standing start; fractions in Thoroughbred races are recorded with a run-up to the pole where timing actually begins. When comparing equal Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred times, the Quarter Horse went faster.

The winner of the Robinson Memorial, named for a jockey who was killed when he saved another rider who was falling from his mount in a 1973 race at the Solano County Fair, was Whirley Side, a relatively modest claimer who had three wins and three seconds in six starts but had run for tags of $6,250 and $12,500 since winning his debut in a $16,000 maiden claimer.

Whirley Side's owner-trainer, Dennis Ward, nearly returned to the winner's circle when defending champion Surprise Halo ran second after taking the lead in the stretch of the $50,680 Alamedan Handicap later on the closing-day card. Ward was thrilled by Whirley Side's victory for two reasons.

"I've been planning on this race for the past two months," Ward said. "This is one of the fastest horses I've ever had."

Jack Robinson, for whom the race is named, "was a friend of mine," Ward continued. "We rode together and were good buddies."

The 870-yard distance is an interesting test. Quarter Horses can't run much farther while maintaining their speed, and Thoroughbreds and Appaloosas generally can't match the speed of Quarter Horses going shorter.

That played into Ward's pre-race instructions to jockey Carlos Silva, who applied them perfectly.

"With the other horses in there, I knew they'd be going fast, so I told him to take back and just sit there after the break," Ward said. "He didn't send him. I knew the others would stop, and the Thoroughbreds would keep going."

Emerging star mule

Smoking Joe flashed talent in the mule ranks as a 4-year-old last year, winning 6 of 13 starts, including a pair of Ferndale and Sacramento stakes over Black Ruby. He won his second straight race in the Pleasanton Mule Championship, as Black Ruby finished fifth after rider Ryan Morris's whip broke leaving the gate.

Jackie Payton, a former mule rider who trains Smoking Joe, thinks she has the best mule running this year.

"He's young and in his prime," she said.

Payton won the first race of her riding career at Pleasanton and now has her first stakes win as a trainer there.

Payton serves as an assistant to Thoroughbred trainer Eric Kruljac when the fair circuit is not running and also is an accomplished farrier.

"If I can keep him right, he'll be tough all season," Payton said of Smoking Joe. "He's just like a horse. He gallops like a horse."

Payton has seven mules, two Quarter Horses, and seven Thoroughbreds in her barn, but she says of shoeing, "That's what I call my real job."

Mule trainers consider Payton perhaps the best mule farrier in the business.

"Mule shoes are difficult to shape because their feet are so narrow," Payton said. "Some mules are bad and you have to use rope tricks to distract them while you shoe, but others are much nicer than Thoroughbreds."

Handle up at Alameda

Spurred by an all-time record single-day handle of $4,586,825 on July 3 and the fair circuit record pick six carryover, the Alameda County Fair showed a 4 percent increase in handle for its 2004 meet with $35,776,343, up from last year's $34,419,955.

Ontrack handle was up 3 percent, although northern California satellite handle was down 3 percent. The big changes came in advance deposit wagering, which was up 25 percent.

The total was the second-highest figure in Pleasanton's history behind 2000, when the total handle was $36,317,177.

Double or nothing

Last Saturday when Boeagle, part of a heavily favored three-horse entry, won the Pleasanton Arabian Handicap at 30 cents on the dollar and Liebau won the California Appaloosa Cal-bred Derby at 2-5, the double paid $2.80.

On the previous Thursday, when Devil's Bro scored a $77.40 upset in the middle of the pick six sequence that ended up paying $236,988.20, no one had the double when Brite Colors won the next race at $10.60. A Devil's Bro-all daily double paid $67.