Taz plays Alydar in mule battles with Black Ruby

Sep 17, 2002 9:42 AM

   If Black Ruby is the Secretariat of mules, then Taz is the Alydar.

   Second a remarkable 30 times in the 42 times he has raced against Black Ruby, Taz gallantly attempted to turn the tide at Fairplex Park last Saturday, but the 8-year-old gelding couldn’t hold off the 10-year-old mare, Black Ruby, in a winner-take-all match race worth $10,000 at a distance of 350 yards.

   Unlike the 400-yard match race between the two at Del Mar on Sept. 8 in which there was no wagering, win betting was offered at Fairplex, with Black Ruby winning by a half-length and returning $2.60.

   Despite losing to Black Ruby for the 25th time in his last 27 starts against her, Ed Burdick is fulfilled.

   “It feels wonderful (to be compared with Alydar),” says Burdick, the 64-year-old trainer of Taz, who has 17 wins, 34 seconds, six thirds and earnings of $96,645 in 65 career starts. Taz last defeated Black Ruby on Aug. 24, by a head.

   “It’s a pleasure to have any animal (that can compete) at this level, and there’s nothing wrong with being compared to Alydar, because he was a champion in his own right,” Burdick said. “I watched Alydar run (in the late 1970’s, when he and arch-foe Affirmed established a rivalry that has become part of racing lore) and he never did give up. Taz never gives up, either, and he will never give up.”

   In their match at Del Mar, Black Ruby got the jump on Taz from the gate and while Taz challenged at about mid-point, Black Ruby never relinquished the lead and won by two lengths. Burdick feels the start is crucial when the two meet, and despite Taz’s alert start at Fairplex which enabled him to lead until the final 50 yards, the 8-year-old gelding couldn’t withstand Black Ruby’s unflagging surge.

   “Black Ruby is pretty flawless,” Burdick said, “and when she does everything correct, she’s extremely tough to beat. That’s the reason she is the world champion.”

   Burdick is philosophical about Taz’s unbalanced ledger against Black Ruby, as he is about the relative lack of respect, recognition and earnings of racing mules, compared to their thoroughbred counterparts. In his 65 starts, Taz has average winnings of about $1,500 per race, and $11,332 for each victory.

   “You’re right about the (inequity) in the money,” said Burdick, a native of Lakeside, California, near Sacramento (he grew up in Del Mar but moved to Northern California in his early 20’s). But believe it or not, the money doesn’t really come into play here. It’s just about Taz being gifted enough to step to the plate as much as he has, because when he was younger in his career, he wasn’t really dedicated. So for him to do like he’s doing now, we’re really proud of him.”

   Unlike their thoroughbred kin, mules can race days apart with little drain on their countenance.

   “That’s not uncommon for a mule,” said Burdick, a trainer of quarter horses and thoroughbreds for many years before “getting into the mule world eight years ago. Their metabolism is so much stronger than a horse that their recoup time is like three times greater and quicker.”

   Mules have a reputation for being obstinate (“stubborn as a mule,” the expression goes), but Burdick thinks that is a misconception.

   “Mr. Jacklin (Taz’s owner, Don Jacklin) chuckles when I use the word ”˜stubborn’ about mules,” Burdick said. “He told me, ”˜You’re going to find out two things about mules: No. 1, they are extremely cautious, and here’s some insight the average person doesn’t have. A mule’s sense of smell vs. a horse is 4-1 greater, so a lot of times, if a mule balks at something, and when it has its head down looking at it, they’re really smelling it and want to check it out.’

   “I have found that to be true. Mules are extremely cautious. They pick their friends. You don’t pick them.”

   If a mule’s nose provides one of its keenest senses, what about those oversized ears? Taz’s are 14 inches long.

   “Here again,” Burdick said, “as far as we know through (research at) the University of Idaho (Taz is an Idaho-bred) and Texas A&M, mules are unique in several ways and their hearing is one of them. They also have terrific peripheral vision, where a horse does not. Mules are very gifted.”

   But none so exceptional as Taz and Black Ruby, whose frequent and competitive showdowns have captured the fancy of the nation. Black Ruby was featured in a recent Sports Illustrated article.

   Mules are sterile, thus cannot breed. A mule’s parents are always a donkey and a horse, usually a thoroughbred or a quarter horse. Burdick says more often than not, the male in the mating is the donkey. “We have had our best success that way,” he said.

   And as if one Taz isn’t enough, a duplicate could be on the way.

   “Even as we speak there is a Taz clone being developed,” Burdick said. “We took DNA from Taz when he was younger and Mr. Jacklin has been working on this program for about 2½ years. We have had two mare’s eggs in an incubator for almost 50 days, and the University (of Idaho) and Mr. Jacklin feel that if we can get up to 65 days, we will have a real high rate of being successful.”