AMRA Profiles

Rick Ruhge

At the beginning of the 1995 Northern California summer fair meets, I was introduced by my agent to a trainer named Jerry Jackson, just two weeks before the Stockton meet started.  For the first week, I got on several horses for Jerry in the morning. He seemed to be a heck of a guy and I enjoyed "shooting the bull" with him in the mornings when I was done.  That was something him and I were both good at.  (Laughing)  One morning I stopped by his barn to see if he had anything for me to work out.  He told me "yes" and said that he just got a new one in that he thought I would like a lot.  We walked down the shed row to where his new trainee was stalled so he could show her to me.  When I looked in the stall, I was very amused to say the least.  There stood the prettiest little mule that you will ever lay your eyes on.  I laughed hysterically at the site of a mule on the racetrack.  Then he said to me "I need to get her gate card", meaning he needed to have her approved from the starting gate without flaw to be eligible to race.  I looked at him and said "are you serious"?  Then he informed me that the summer fairs in Northern California were going to race mules and people would be able to bet on them.  I had never heard of this before and still thought that he was pulling my leg.  He showed me the condition book, and sure enough, they were racing mules and I had no idea.

I realized that Jerry was serious about getting her gate card, but I knew nothing about mules, or how to ride him.  I laughed at him again and said to him "Jerry, I'm not riding any mule races, are you kidding me"? He told me "come on, I really think she is a good one".  Just hearing this made me laugh again and I told him "Jerry, I know nothing about mules and I don't think I want to ride any mule races".  He asked me once again if I would just get on her and get her gate card and assured me that she was not wild or uncontrollable.  Well, finally I gave in and I agreed to get on her for him that morning, but still a bit apprehensive about riding a mule.  They got her ready for me and I stood outside the stall with the biggest grin on my face.  I couldn't believe that I was actually going to work a mule from the starting gate.  I had never even heard of such a thing before.  There were two older mules that had just shipped in the day before and Jerry had lined up a workout from the starting gate with them.  When he gave me a leg up on her in the barn area, I was already laughing and could not believe what I was about to do.  We walked to the gap on the backside of the track and we met up with the two other mules I was to work with.  As we stepped on the racetrack and started backtracking, my little mule was very well behaved, but one of the other mules was a bit feisty "crow hopping" as we went along.  This was very funny not only to me, but the other riders were really laughing as well.

As we backtracked in front of the grandstand, I still had a grin on my face from ear to ear.  The two other riders were explaining to me that they were on older mules that had both raced several times and had won multiple races in their career.  I told them I was trying to get a gate card and to please take it easy on me considering I was on a younger, inexperienced mule.  We approached the starting gate and started on our way behind it to be loaded.  I noticed immediately how incredibly relaxed the mules were as they walked behind the gate, much different from many horses who start to tense up and get excited approaching the gate.  The mules never seemed to take a deep breath or get excited in the least.  The starter and the gate hands working the starting gate were laughing almost as much as we were.  I gave them the name of my mule "Fancy", which was very fitting as pretty as she was.  Even that name was something that made all of us chuckle.  They loaded me up in the middle, with each older mule on both sides of me.  I asked the other riders once again to spare mercy on me and my inexperienced youngster.

When the gate opened, Fancy shot out like a rocket and almost instantly opened up "daylight" on the older mules.  She ran "straight as a string" without making a mistake and I was amazed at what a professional she was. After 250 yd., I looked back and she had opened up at least 2 1/2 lengths on the other mules.  As I looked back, I noticed that both riders were asking their mules to run, while I was still just sitting easy without asking fancy whatsoever.  As we pulled up, I started laughing hysterically at what I had just done, and I laughed even harder at how fast the mules stopped after the workout.  Unlike like horses, who are usually very hard to stop, the mules stopped almost immediately when they knew their work was done.  I will never forget that morning and I don't think I quit smiling for the entire day.  As we walked off of the track, Jerry was waiting for me at the gap.  He had a big smile on his face and said "well, what do you think"?  I told him I wasn't sure what to think.  I said "she sure smoked those older mules", " I think she can probably run Jerry".  He said "I told you so", "this little mule is a runner".  Just hearing that made me laugh again.  He asked me again, "Will you ride her for me in the race".  With a big smile on my face, I said "if my agent says OK, I'll ride her for you".  She was very well behaved, and if nothing else, it would definitely be a big laugh.

The next morning I met with my agent Joe Santo for a cup of coffee before our barn business.  I told him about the mule I had worked from the gate and that Jerry wanted me to ride her in the race.  He told me that the decision was up to me and if I wanted to ride her he would take the call.  I told him she was well-behaved, I just did not know what the other mules in the race might do.  I had never seen or even heard of a mule race before and was not sure what kind of things to expect.  I certainly did not want to risk injury at the beginning of the summer fair meets.  I had a lot of business and a book full of calls from trainers everywhere.  When the entry day came up, Joe named me on her and she got in a maiden race on opening weekend at the Stockton fair meet.  I had so much other business and a good a horse in an upcoming stake,that over the next two days I did not give the mule race much thought.  When race day came was the day all of the riders really anticipated the upcoming mule races.  All of us were wondering what to expect since he mule races were something that was new to the jockeys at the time.

When race time came, I stepped out into the paddock area and my mule Fancy was patiently waiting for me.  Jerry was grinning from ear to ear and so was everyone else, trainers, owners, racing fans, jockeys, racing officials, and everyone.  All of the mules were very well behaved, especially for a maiden race full of youngsters.  If it were a paddock for all of young racehorses, there would be at least a few of them "on tilt" and some "dancing and prancing" going on.  Jerry gave me my instructions and they were very simple "don't fall off".  I laughed at him as I looked up to see a huge crowd of people swarmed around the paddock and on the rail in front of the grandstand to get a close view of the mules.  We were all chuckling as we warmed our mules up.  They all loaded up in the starting gate without incident and they all stood well.  When the gate opened, just like Fancy had done the week before in her morning workout, she shot from the gate like a rocket and immediately opened up "daylight" on the rest of the mules.  She cruised to an easy victory that day, and as we pulled up I could hear the crowd absolutely roaring with laughter.

Jerry had a huge smile on his face as we came back to the winners circle and he said "I told you she was a runner".  The crowd was still laughing and so was I.  After the picture I shook hands with the rest of the connections including her exercise rider Jackie, and her owner Mary McPherson who would become a very familiar face in the winners circle.  Fancy won at every stop on the summer fair circuit including the very first $10,000 guaranteed " AMRA FUTURITY".  Which she won easily by nearly six lengths going 350 yd.

I would like to thank the late Jerry Jackson for talking me into riding her, along with her owner Mary McPherson for the opportunity to ride her.  She was always the crowd favorite in every race she was in, winning nearly all of her starts that summer.  Along with my success on Fancy came the opportunity to ride a very nice mule named Czar.  By now I had seen plenty of mule races and their past performances.  A lot of these mules had made big money in their careers including Czar, who at the time I believe had earned over $80,000 in his career.  He was owned by Donald W. Jaclyn and trained by Ed and Ruth Burdick.  I was 2 for 2 on him including the "FRESNO AMRA GOLD CUP". To the mule owners and trainers, mule racing is no laughing matter.  Some of these mules had made a lot of money and it is definitely serious business.   That summer I ended up winning all but three of my starts on mules, winning the leading rider title.  I would like to sincerely thank Ed and Ruth Burdick along with Donald W. Jaclyn for giving me the opportunity to ride Czar.  He is an extremely nice animal and I know that they are very proud of him.  The athletic talent and the intelligence of mules is absolutely incredible.  After the summer of 95, I took with me a whole new perspective on mules.  It was some of the most fun I've ever had and is an experience that I well remember and cherish always.