Bill Christine

Bill Christine, whose first Kentucky Derby was in 1968 (like everybody else, he waited several years to find out if the courts would uphold the DQ of Dancer's Image), spent 24 years covering horse racing for the Los Angeles Times. He covered every Triple Crown race for the Times from 1982 through 2005, and also reported on the first 22 runnings of the Breeders' Cup. Recent stories by Bill have appeared in The Blood-Horse, Post Time USA, the California Thoroughbred and Paddock magazine.

Bill has won two Eclipse Awards for turf writing, five Red Smith Awards for best Kentucky Derby stories, two David Woods Awards for best Preakness stories and the National Turf Writers' Association's Walter Haight Award and Pimlico's Old Hilltop Award for career contributions to racing. He was part of the Los Angeles Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for its coverage of the Northridge earthquake the year before.

Bill came to the Times from the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, where he was assistant to the executive vice president. Before that, he covered a variety of sports for newspapers in East St. Louis, Baltimore, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Chicago, including a stint as sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He wrote Roberto!, a biography of the Hall of Fame baseball player Roberto Clemente, in 1972. His first job in racing was in the front office of the old Commodore Downs track in Erie, Pa.

Bill, who lives in Redondo Beach, California, is working on a history of Bay Meadows. Contact:

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Toast to a Mule

This is about a mule, but there will be no Francis the Talking Mule jokes, no clever references to "Two Mules for Sister Sara." It is too austere an occasion for comedy. Black Ruby, the mule of the piece, is about to run her last race and then be retired. Sixteen, going on 17, it is time.

I would like to tell you that Black Ruby is about to run her 116th race, or maybe her 121st, but no one, including the Daily Racing Form, has been able to accurately keep up with her non-stop career. She has run at least one race a year since she was a 4-year-old, in 1996. "They lost count during her early days, when she was running in Nevada," said Mary McPherson, who with her husband Sonny owns Black Ruby. "In those days, she'd win a race on Saturday, and then come back and win two more on Sunday."

Mary McPherson says with certainty that Black Ruby has won 70 races, a record for mules. She has earned about $260,000, another record for the breed but one that is in jeopardy because owners of these fast critters have been known to put their money where there mule is. Last year at the Big Fresno Fair, two men put up $20,000 apiece, and the track added $10,000, to see who had the speediest mule. Sarah Nelson, who lost the match race to Bar JF Hot Ticket, would be the earnings leader now had she won. With 48 wins, Sarah Nelson has earned $230,000, and she would appear to have plenty of time to pass Black Ruby. She's only a 9-year-old.

Sarah Nelson is racing these days at Ferndale, Calif., the same county fair where Black Ruby will make her last start. For those who didn't major in Northern California Geography, Ferndale is a 116-year-old Victorian village of 1,390, about 265 miles north of San Francisco and five miles from the Pacific Ocean. It has been deemed a state historical landmark. If you don't see a picture of main-street Ferndale next to "charming" in the dictionary, turn to the page where "idyllic" is listed. Surely Norman Rockwell visited there more than once. In 1996, on the recommendation of Tom Ward, a state racing steward who loves Ferndale more than Del Mar, I attended the 100th-anniversary Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale. The track had races for Arabians, Appaloosas, quarter horses, thoroughbreds and, of course, mules. There was a mule running with the eye-catching name of Alydar's Moonface. "Out of a mare by Alydar," one sage said with confidence, but officially the mule's breeding was listed as "by unknown out of unknown."

Mules are sterile (something to do with their chromosomes, but in good conscience I can't go there). Black Ruby's sire was a donkey, called a jack, and her dam was a thoroughbred-quarter horse mix. Black Ruby is not a mare, she's a molly--as female mules are called.

Mules are not allowed to run until they turn three, and Black Ruby's debut came when she was four, because of a badly damaged right rear ankle that she suffered when her leg went through the floorboard of a moving van as it traveled through Montana. At the races, Black Ruby began beating all comers, including Fancy, a standout mule that Sonny McPherson had bought for $750 out of an Alabama stockyards. Unable to beat Black Ruby, McPherson bought her in 1996, for a price that neither he nor his wife will disclose. "That's a mystical part of her story that we've vowed never to tell," Mary McPherson said.

Sonny McPherson once told me that he turned down a $30,000 offer for the mule. Mary McPherson said that subsequent offers had been for more. "This mule has given me more pleasure than I've ever known," Sonny McPherson told one salivating potential buyer. "Why would I want to give her up?"

He can identify with Black Ruby's recovery. In 1981, driving his pickup, McPherson swerved to miss another car and crashed into a tree. He was thrown through the windshield and suffered multiple injuries, followed by the amputation of his right leg at the knee.

While running for the McPhersons, Black Ruby has had three trainers--Jerry Jackson, who was 75 when he died in 2002, a day or two after one of her wins; Ron White, who was Jackson's assistant; and currently Harley Kowalsky. She put together two 15-race win streaks in a career that netted world-champion honors (muledom's version of Horse of the Year) for seven straight years, starting in 1997. Jimmy Burns, who was riding her then, was aboard for 68 races--48 wins, 13 seconds and 7 thirds. If she lost at all during that period, it was usually to the hard-knocking Taz, two years her junior. Taz also was beaten so often by Black Ruby that he came to be known "the Alydar of the mules."

The most money Black Ruby ever ran for was $10,000. Three Southern California tracks--Del Mar and Fairplex Park in 2002 and Los Alamitos in 2003--put up that much for her to face Taz in match races, and Black Ruby won all three. Jack Kaenel (that Jack Kaenel, the one who won the Preakness as a teenager with Aloma's Ruler in 1982) rode Taz at Del Mar and Fairplex. In one of the races that Taz won, at 440 yards, Black Ruby carried 131 pounds and spotted her opponent five pounds.

There was no betting on the race at Del Mar, and many times tracks precluded place and show betting. Bettors were said to bet tens--even hundreds--of thousands of dollars on Black Ruby, resulting in substantial minus pools that tracks had to make good on.

"I'm proud of the fact that I was along for one of her 15-race win streaks," Ron White said. "She's done an awful lot to bring mule racing to the general public. There were stories in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times. Sports Illustrated did something. Every time she went out there, she wanted to win. She didn't like the idea of another mule running ahead of her."

But Black Ruby, while remaining competitive, hasn't won a race since 2003.

"The only reason we're running her one more time is because that will mean she's run at least once for 13 straight years," Mary McPherson said. The McPhersons, who have been married for 34 years, have 12 acres of pasture waiting for Black Ruby at their farm in Healdsburg, 80 miles north of San Francisco.

Black Ruby hasn't changed that much from the days when she went head to head with Taz in all those battles. She stands 14 hands and still weighs about 600 pounds. Somebody once measured her ears at 13 inches. I wonder if she ever beat Taz by an ear?

Written by Bill Christine

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