Repurposing Retired Race Mules

by Gayle Stegmann, Gem State Mule Company, Rathdrum, Idaho

Laurice Webb on retired race mule Blue McGee, PhD, with Bernadette Bullington, age 12, in the background riding another retired race mule, Slick Shaun Schlager Photography

I am often asked what we do with race mules when they are no longer racing. There is a misconception that racing can have negative implications to a mule. I learned this first hand. When I was struggling to locate a mule prospect for the upcoming racing season in 2017, I put my request out on Facebook to a group that has some 4000+ members. From the feedback I received, the one that stood out the most was “Why wreck a good mule by putting it on the race track, enough with this nonsense?” I was shocked as I had no idea there was this perception out there. While this article is not to convince anyone of the good that comes to these mules from racing, it is merely to educate those who are not familiar with the mule racing industry and share with you some pretty awesome stories about what happens to these mules when they are no longer racing.

Gayle Stegmann on Miss Lourella, Shaun Schlager Photography

First off, let’s answer some common questions “right out of the gates.”

How far do they race in training and on the track?

It is broadly known that mules have strong self-preservation tendencies which they come by way of from their ancestor the donkey. In training, we have to take this into account as you cannot push them as hard as a horse; they will shut down. We typically work them approximately four-five days a week, 800 yards with a combination of loping and trotting. On the track, they race a 350-440-yard sprint….much less than a horse. There is one race in Ferndale, Calif., that is 800 yards, but this is the longest.

How old does a mule have to be before it races?

It is mandated that because a mule’s knees are not filled in enough until the age of three, they go onto the track a year later than a horse.

Do molly’s typically run faster than johns?

It is a proven fact that molly mules are generally faster competitors than john mules. We prefer molly’s as they have far less self-preservation tendencies, something to consider when prospecting a gaming mule.

Do the mules generate a good betting handle on the track?

The interest in mules vs. horses on the track in racing is phenomenal. The paddock areas are full of viewers and conversation. Mules are a novelty, and as such, garner a significant level of interest, thus a tremendous amount of money being wagered. Additionally, there is a degree of unpredictability with mules compared to horses relative to who is going to win, so the payouts can be very good.

How long have mules been racing?

Mule racing with pari-mutual wagering had its first debut in July 1978. It really wasn’t until the American Mule Racing Association was formed, to promote mules at recognized distances in the sport of racing, that the industry really took shape. With Donald W. Jacklin for the past 16 years as President along with a full board and secretary beside him, the mule racing industry he really gained national recognition and great successes.

Do you see a lot of racing related injuries to the mules through years of racing?

Because they run a short sprint, there is far less wear on their legs and body through training, or otherwise. If there are injuries, it is almost always related to a gate issue, or perhaps they spooked in training and attempted to jump the rail. If there are issues with legs or tendons, they are typically directly related to an accident that occurred and not wear and tear from repetitive racing down a track. Mules are so smart and sensible, that we do not see many injuries and if we do, they are typically ‘freak accidents’ in nature, similar to what can happen in every day trail riding when a moose jumps out from the trees.

How old can mules race?

Loretta Lynn was the oldest mule to race. She was still winning races at 19 years! If mules are running well and making the trainers money, an average retirement age is 11-15 years old. Most retired racing mules have come to the end of the career by way of age, or track record, not because of injury.

Speaking of making money, can the owners make money in the racing industry?

The purses are not nearly as large as they used to be, due to state funding drying up for the race tracks, and the betting handles are down across the board on the race tracks. Additionally, workman’s comp is quite expensive, and owners pay a significant amount of money just to get the mule to the gate. However, because they run by speed index, if your mule is the faster one in that speed index or happens to be the fastest on the track consistently, then yes, there is money to be made. However, most owners, including myself, do it for the love of the sport and promoting the mule breed, not the money to be made.

Gayle Stegmann riding English on retired racing mule Blinkie

So, what really happens to a mule when it’s racing career is over? It really depends on the owner and this individual being able to identify the right purpose or desired life style for this mule.

Often times, while in the off season, owners will keep their mules in shape by going on long trail rides, or endurance racing competitions. My late race mule, Apache Ripper, went on to become a 4-time World Champion Endurance Racer.

We still hold the record to this day, finishing a 26.2-mile race in 1:32 min. Don Jacklin, of Rathdrum, Idaho, who is my father, and was the trainer at the time and Apache Ripper’s owner, was able to identify a unique ability in this mule that was different than all others. He had the ability to get his heart rate down to a certain level very quickly and thus, had a distinct advantage at the vet check, as well as his strong work ethic in daily training. Were it not for Don identifying and repurposing this mule into an area his unique genetic ability could be capitalized on, he would not have accomplished these feats.

Chloe Pimley, now 18, on Passum Maybelline, a retired race mule she has owned for 9 years now.

Roger Downey, Albuequerque, N.M., an accomplished mule breeder, owner and endurance competitor, competes on many of his retired, and currently in use, race mules. He has multiple mules to pick from depending on their level of training and their capabilities at a certain mileage. Again, he has been successful in identifying those unique and special qualities that are applicable and desired for that purpose. He has competed on Crystal Palace, Jodi Nelson, Ears Looking at You and Bismo in multiple Tevis Cups and 50-mile races. “Having a racing mule to compete in endurance competitions is a prequalification to his selection process,” said Roger. Generally, if a mule has had a successful racing career, it translates into athleticism, highly competitive and successful outcomes.

CANDEE COFFEE on retired race mule Mandy’s Turn competing at Man Vs. Horse photo courtesy of Man Vs. Horse

Candee Coffee, on her mule, Mandy’s Turn, has competed in many endurance races, including one of her most notable races, Man vs. Horse. Year after year, riders and runners converge in the Eastern Sierras from all over California to compete in this uncommon opportunity for man and beast to compete shoulder to shoulder with each one gaining a new respect for the other. The race boasts an 11-mile, a Marathon, a 50K and a 50-mile distances.

One of the greatest mules of all time, Czar, owned by Jacklin and trained by Ed Burdick, was a World Champion on the race track and is now, at 26, still competing in gaming with exceptional times! He is the first mule EVER in the history to win the California State Horseman’s Association finals at Watsonville, CA in 2002. He has competed against horses and finished in top spots at National Horse Omoksee events.

MARK MATTOX on retired race mule Lilac Lady competing at the Northwest Trail Competition in Eugene, Ore.

Mark Mattox, Mesa, Washington, has taken his retired race mule, Lilac Lady (Leah), to National Trail Championships throughout the state of Oregon. He competes in some 20 Trail events annually. He is now “looking forward to exploring dressage and more versatile ranch horse competitions, proving that a mule can compete well in these events, through much time and effort”.

If one attends Bishop Mule Days, the majority of the top mules competing or past competitors in the gaming events are retired race mules, including Blue McGee, PhD, Pete Cooper (5x World Champion owned by Downey), Rhoda Nelson, Jethro, Becky Ann, Miss Lourella, Navajo Lady, Blinkie and many more. All of these mules are running comparable times to horses in poles, barrels and stake races. In our region, the mules stack up in 1 and 2D against horses in virtually every gaming event. So much so, that many are taking a second look at the mule as a gaming option or enhancement to their gaming animal line-up.

Trainer and accomplished competitor Matt Fournier has built a niche in his business by purchasing off the track mules. “I like how they have been exposed to all kinds of things so they tend to be a lot less reactive, which could be interpreted as gentle,” said Matt. A mule called ‘What Mule’ was sold to a man in California that uses him to wrangle cattle. Matt was able to identify the mules desire to move in and around cattle and found the right fit for him to reach his full talent and capabilities in this unique area.

The legendary Black Ruby who was inducted into the Mule Racing Hall of Fame in 2009 and has earnings in excess of $250,000, at 26 years of age, takes her new repurposed job very seriously. According to Mary McPherson, owner, “She now mentors our young mules and instills athleticism and forward motion to better prepare them for their racing career.”

Mary also has mules, including Outa Idaho, Classy Recruit, Dash of Rust,

andRecruit’s Irish to name a few who all enjoyed successful racing and endurance racing careers and now work with Trinity Jackson, Heart to Heart Ranch, in their therapeutic riding program and compete with these same kids in endurance racing.

Jesika Harper, Athol, Idaho, on retired racing mule Red Rooster

Not all retired racing mules end up in competition. Jesika Harper, Rathdrum, knows this firsthand. She purchased Red Rooster, a john mule who only days prior, had come off the track.

While discussing Rooster’s attributes, I told her, “He seems to take the track with him.”

She thought that would translate well in the mountains but said, “I didn’t fully appreciate what that meant until I experienced the careful way he navigates technical areas compared to horses I have ridden. Having had success on the race track, he also learned the discipline of an athlete. With his good work ethic in tow, he’ll go all day without a complaint then walk up to you eagerly the next day to go again.

I’m thankful I didn’t listen to my initial doubts questioning how a race mule could become a great riding partner. I’ve enjoyed riding more in the last four years than all the time before.”

From world champions to pasture pets, retired racing mules have enhanced the lives of mule lovers across the globe and it has been rewarding to be a part of this unique, one of a kind pairing!

Message from Don Jacklin:

American Mule Racing Association President

The luxurious life of the race mule certainly changes upon retirement. Gone are the days of twice daily super high-quality food buffets, daily baths, currying, combing, refreshing exercise, and quality human social interactions. However, the future remains bright for the retired athlete.

Race training and conditioning has developed a full potential of the fast twitch sprint muscle mass, thus opening a window full of opportunity for a bright future in all performance events, from gymkhana, trail competition, dressage, mountain and trail riding, to even competitive endurance racing.

The race track clatter, noise, and commotion has conditioned the race retiree to better accept parades, hootenannies and other public displays and celebrations.

One small alert area shows up during race transition activities: Race mules are not sensitized to the rear breeching nor crupper. The first day or two of transition training makes for interesting and exciting rides.

I can think of no better animal for a quality riding future than a retired race mule.

Remembering Ed Burdick...

Ed Burdick recently passed at the age of 79. Ed and Ruth Burdick are legends in the equine racing industry. Ed is well known for having earned the title of ‘Leading Trainer’ from Bay Meadows and throughout the state of California multiple years. In the mid 70’s, Ed trained Galverman, a quarter horse who set many track records. Ed also worked alongside Randy Bradshaw as assistant trainer in the late 90s where he trained world class race horses including Artax, a thoroughbred who went on to compete in the Kentucky Derby through R.B. Entrepreneur and Austrian born billionaire Frank Stronach saw the great potential in Ed in the early 2000s and hired him to get babies broke and ready for sales. Adena Farms is considered the ‘crown jewel’ of horse racing facilities located in Canada, Kentucky and Florida. It is considered one of the largest horse training operations in the US. Ed’s career rounded out what was a two-person training team with the love of his life, married 56 years, Ruth, and together, training for Donald W. Jacklin from 1995-2003, he trained several world champions racing mules, including Czar, his favorite mule, Taz and Chinook Pass. After retirement, Ed competed very successfully on Czar in local, regional and national competitions against horses in Omoksee. He was truly among the greatest ambassadors to the mule industry and will be greatly missed.