Professional Huntsman Brian Kirkham appeared on a lush-meadowed Ohio racecourse recently, attired in pink coat, black velvet cap, tan-topped hunt boots, immaculate white stock and all the other trappings of his trade. But when he signaled the 2 p.m. start of the first race, it wasn't with the usual coach horn. Disappointingly, he instead used a smaller copper-and-brass hunting curl. For Huntsman Kirkham had a fever blister on his famous lip and simply couldn't give his all that day.
On this off-note the fourth Annual Chagrin Valley Mule Point-to-Point began—once again giving the old heehaw to the sport of kings and providing a down-to-earth shot in the arm, or needle elsewhere, to the often stuffy world of racing, hunting, jumping, hacking and horse.
Mule racing is unique because mules are unique animals. When raced they are apt to buck and pitch, step peacefully along to their own distant drum in spite of the whip, travel back to the paddock despite the jockey's pleas, stop dead still and refuse to move, lay back their ears and contemplate the rider's navel, back up, waltz sideways, roll in the grass and on the rider, stop three feet short of the finish line, or look to see if the grass is greener somewhere off the track. Occasionally, a rider will even draw a mount that runs like hell.
The mule is a hybrid throw-off of the equine world, described in the 1800s by Legislator Ignatius Donnelley as resembling the Democratic party in that it is "without pride of ancestry or hope of posterity." But mule society is used to insults and plods serenely on with the inner knowledge that any mule is smarter than a Thoroughbred horse. (After all, fine horseflesh often stumbles and falls, but mules never do, though they sometimes lie down on purpose.)
Since mules are rapidly becoming as scarce as iceboxes, kimonos and long-handled dippers—a goodly portion of the younger generation has never seen any of these items—it might be well to explain how the mule got here and why it isn't going anywhere. Not to strain at fruit flies, a mule is the sterile offspring of a male jackass and a mare. The male mule is called a horse-mule, and the female, just as logically, is a female mule. If the parents happen to be reversed so that they are stallion and she-ass, the result is called a ninny. These creatures are incapable of reproducing themselves—they have the drive but not the means—and the horse-mule is, therefore, always gelded.
Mules possess dubious sporting instincts and have a feel for doing as little work as possible. In the "work" category the mule places such silliness as allowing himself to be cinched into a saddle in order to amuse the sporting bloods of Ohio on a hot spring afternoon. But mules have been making men laugh (and, perhaps, vice-versa) for centuries, and the process isn't about to stop now.
So almost 2,500 people from greater Cleveland came bearing box lunches for a tail-gate picnic in the David S. Ingalls Sr. Stonybrook Farm pasture on the day of the Mule Point-to-Point. They paid a $2 entrance fee, making up a neat gate that annually nets around $1,000 for the police pension funds of two nearby villages, Gates Mills and Hunting Valley.
Back in April, 60 special persons round and about the nation had received an unusual letter postmarked Gates Mills, Ohio. It invited them to participate in one of four categories of mule racing "over natural Jack-Ass Country" and read provocatively: "As you are undoubtedly aware, the racing of mules is a highly competitive sport, requiring courage, maturity and considerable skill—qualities which our Selection Committee feel strongly you possess. Therefore, it is with great delight that we invite and urge you to ride a mule.
"Because Jack-Asses always require suitable decoration, each rider is asked to supply his own tack, and is requested to wear racing silks, light britches, and protective headgear of some form."
The committee urged the invitees to return their $10 entrance fees quickly since there were only 10 post positions each in the four races and riders would be decided on a first-come, first-served basis. The letter ended: "Don't be a Jack-Ass, race a mule!"