The San Joaquin County Fair wraps up its two week meet this Sunday with a nine race card. There will be no stakes race for the thoroughbreds on closing day, nor will there be a race for the jockey title.
But, that doesn’t mean there won’t be star power on the track.
The names may not be too familiar with veteran track goers. Lets see we have Jet Fuel, Bar JF Hot Ticket and her sister Bar JF Red Ticket. The jockeys ? You wont find Russell Baze listed but you will find Joy Scott, Anthony Ayala and Billy Lewis.
Yep, like I said star power…of the mule variety.
The top mules in the country will be center stage for race number one and they are sure to draw a crowd. Over the summer, these three have put on battles at each meet and are right at the top of the point standings for mule of the year with Sunday’s race, and one last race coming up at the Big Fresno Fair.
Between the three, they have won 102 races in their career with Red Ticket boasting a record of 47 wins in 61 lifetime races and has been in the money 11 more times. Jet Fuel, the reigning champion, has won 29 of 108 races and has been a runner up 25 times. Oh and then there is Red Ticket who has won 5 of her 10 races this year and has won 26 of her 47 races.
They are a gem of consistency. Unfortunately they are also a vanishing novelty for summer race fans.
“I have watched the mule population go from maybe 400 some years ago to about 30 right now,” said veteran trainer Sandy Torok. “Personally I had 10 up until 2009 and now I have three or four. State Fund Insurance has made it hard on us little people. We have to win to almost break even.”
Torok (below) has been training since 1991, when she began helping her dad train thoroughbreds. But the rising costs of training mules has taken its toll on Torok and when the Fresno meet ends on October 14th, so will her career.
“I’m going to move to Idaho to spend time with my family” said Torok, who will send both Jet Fuel and Red Ticket to post on Sunday. “It’s just hard to keep it going anymore. I spend the rest of the year trying to live off what I make over the summer.”
The costs have increased significantly over the years.
Each time a mule breaks from the gate, the cost is nearly $400 per mule just for the insurance. Then you have to pay things like the jockey fee, a pony person and so on. It has become more of a money cost, than a money maker.
To see the mule population dwindle is sad because clearly they are very popular with the crowds. Known to many around the paddock as the horses with long ears, the mule tradition hit full stride with the emergence of the incredible Black Ruby in the late 1990’s.
Black Ruby, owned by Mary and Sonny McPherson, raced from 1996 thru 2008 and during that time, ran 119 times with 70 wins, 22 seconds and 15 thirds. She was named to the Mule Racing Hall of Fame in 2009 and currently stands at the McPherson’s ranch at the age of 20.
Black Ruby had four different trainers over the years and was ridden by 18 different jockeys, but the main one was Jim Burns who rode Ruby 63 times, winning 48. Jim is currently the track superintendent at Pleasanton.
The McPhersons first saw Ruby while she was sidelined with an injury before she ever ran a race. At the time, they had a nice mule themselves named Fancy. When Ruby got healthy she ran against Fancy twice and won both times. The McPhersons knew they had to buy Ruby and they did. The rest, you can say, is history.
“It was a great ride with Ruby that is still talked about by people everyday,” said Mary McPherson. “ Ruby was an outstanding athlete and she gave 100 percent every time she went to the track.”
While the McPherson’s still have five mules running now, Mary also acknowledged the decline of mule racing is hitting owners hard.
“It all has to do with the economy. The insurance to race has gone from $90 a race to $370. It’s a shame because the quality of mules has gotten better. I don’t see it getting better unless the economy gets better.”
We’ve seen the rivalries. Black Ruby had her Taz to do battles with, and now Jet Fule and the ‘Ticket sisters are going head to head. Hopefully we will see these fine animals racing again next year, but for now, lets enjoy the races they give us and get out and root on your favorite.