Skip to main content
Original Issue


'Don't be a jackass, race a mule!' cries the young horsy set of Cleveland once a year, and the often stodgy sport of kings is punctured with a point-to-point of pure parody

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!"

The creators of this missive are a plucky, friendly and informal group of Young Turks and their pretty wives, all of whom belong to the Chagrin Valley Hunt Club—one of those studiedly relaxed but very proper and exclusive organizations where the elite meet to ride and talk horses and lift a glass or two on Saturday nights. The Chagrin Valley Hunt Club does not sponsor the Mule Point-to-Point, but it gives the annual event a kind of stepfatherly pat on the back each year. Mrs. Gilbert Humphrey and Mr. Robert White, the joint masters of the Chagrin Valley Hunt, look tolerantly upon the shenanigans that parody steeplechasing tradition. The Hunt also plays host to its members, mule riders and guests for the gala Black and Blue Ball, which invariably follows the May afternoon shambles in somebody's meadow.

The setting for this muley saturnalia lies near two of the prettiest little villages in "Mule Hollow," known 51 other weeks of the year as the Gates Mills and Hunting Valley horse country. These neighboring hamlets nestle in Ohio's Chagrin Valley at the last outpost of tall timber just before the beginning of the Great Plains. The Valley is a lovely, 20-mile-long drive through yellow-green spring countryside, far from the industrial smogs and poisonous water wastes of urban Cleveland. It is a world of gracious living, exuberantly attractive "young marrieds," their handsomely settled horsy elders and assorted estates with split-rail fences that seem actually to fence rather than to decorate.

This year the gracious living started the night before the race at the Gates Mills home of Carol and John Howell Jr. Mrs. Howell, a pert brunette, had ridden last year in the beginners' race but, while serving steamed clams and barbecued sirloin to her guests, she explained why she is no longer in the jockey club. "I fell off that thing right on my head. Only my hard hat saved me. Then I skidded along on the seat of my pants—you should have seen the grass stains. You couldn't get me on another mule."

Nearby, a visiting jokester named T.C.H. Webster, a gentleman farmer from Pennsylvania, casually broke an egg over the head of former New Yorker James Milholland. Milholland, who publishes a host of successful farm journals, grinned grimly and wiped yoke off his Madras jacket. "Let the fool enjoy himself. He has to ride tomorrow," he said. "Sensibly, I'm only on the committee."

The committee had met a few nights earlier to make up names for the 10 mules being brought up from Maryland. The members outdo themselves in fanciful false-mule genealogies, and since this is the only meeting where they allow libations many of the names then have to be thrown out. The remainder are still choice, though some are so local and "inside" even the committee loses track of their meaning. Each mule has to race four times, and he wears a different number and a new name for every race. These run from things like Fair Fiasco (by Moses out of Promised Land) to Candy (by Frank Harris out of Fanny Hill).

The behind-the-scenes skinners of the mule race are Cleveland Broker John R. Wilson and Iron-and-steel Executive John Limbocker. Wilson explained: "It all started when I lived in Baltimore in 1959. I was too heavy to ride in the Maryland Hunt Cup timber race for amateur steeplechasers." His blonde, Lilly-clad wife, who committees but won't compete, added, "And not good enough, either." Wilson agreed. "Well, as you know, that is a very fine race—the best for amateurs in the U.S., and most of us working fellows couldn't keep in shape. So we began a mule race there, just for fun. Then, when I moved to Cleveland in 1961, John Limbocker and I got enthusiastic about doing one here and the Hunt Club liked the idea. We work hard on it, starting in February, and every time we mention not doing it, people yell. So I guess you could call it a tradition now."

Limbocker said, "The hunt situation is getting stuffier and stuffier, so we try to make the mule race as serious as possible, too. That's the only way you can bring it off. Everything is serious except the mules."

Publisher Milholland noted that before the Derby the band plays My Old Kentucky Home and before the Preakness they serenade with Maryland, My Maryland. He suggested that the Point-to-Point should start with a rendition of The Bastard King of England, and began to sing it. Another egg was broken, this time on T.C.H. Webster's head by his slightly harassed hostess, whose straw-mat rumpus-room carpet was beginning to resemble an omelet.

The day of the great race dawned sunny in spite of an early morning rain. The pasture racecourse had been allowed to grow up a few feet and a mile track mowed through it. From the flag-bedecked starting line the mules were to run within red-and-white side markers attached to bamboo poles. The judges were already ensconced in their reviewing stand at the starting line—a red manure spreader covered with a beach umbrella. Nearby, a band played Hello, Dolly, Red Roses for a Blue Lady and an off version of the stripper's favorite, Night Train.

Station wagons, Jags, Rolls-Royces, vintage cars and luxurious buses were drawn right up to the split-rail fence. Announcer A. L. Register, who is the pet comic of the Chagrin Valley crowd, was in from New Jersey to do his stuff. He started out sonorously with "Good afternoon, racing fans," then quickly explained that the Ingalls' cows could not distinguish broken glass, flip-tops and bottle caps from pasture grass and urged the crowd to refrain from throwing debris on the ground.

The first race, The Swiss Stakes, was for veteran male riders only. Register reported that the mules were all new. "Last year's mules were replaced because they demanded a barley break," he quipped. "These mules wear ordinary tack, with the addition of a crupper under their tail to hold the saddleback. Mules have no withers. For those of you who don't know what withers is—and I am told it is is—no withers means no shoulders, so there is nothing between the rider and the distance ahead. The mule rider is a man with his feet planted firmly in midair."

The Swiss Stakes riders paraded slowly to the line, where Veterinarian Daniel Stearns, acting as starter, attempted to establish order. Riders were wearing a rainbow of silks rented from a local costume company, plus derbies, polo helmets and hard riding hats. Only a few had the required white britches, and their boots ran from regular black to brown to Newmarket canvas to laced field types.

"They're off" is a cry that can be taken several ways in mule racing. Past Point-to-Points have seen several bad spills, but this year the mounts broke in various degrees of speed, and a few of them even started around the course. Skate Board (by Kids out of Uppers) began bucking, but rider Bill O'Neil stuck to him. Obstacles along the course were foot-and-a-half-high hay bales that did not extend all the way across. Most of the mules wisely veered around the bales; one or two simply plodded right through, breaking them up and scattering hay on the track. The announcer screamed, "Look at the way they take those jumps!"

In spite of the contention that no one knows what will happen in a mule race and that riding skill has very little to do with it, the first man to gallop across the finish line was J. Moffat Dunlap, a former Canadian Olympic Equestrian Team member, introduced to the Mule Maul only last year by his bride, the former Margo Humphrey. Hapless (by Hopeless out of Helpless) came in last in spite of rider Hugh Hunter's crop. By that time, the other riders had gone to the paddock so their mules could be re-saddled for use in the next race.

Retired mule dealer Charles Hackman was the man who had driven the mules up from Maryland. Squinting into the sun, he explained: "The mule is now about gone entirely from the parts of the country where it originated. But with government allotments growing smaller, tobacco farmers in Maryland have started using them again. You see, they push those rows real close together and then they need a mule to cultivate with in there. So these are big farm mules."

Then the ladies paraded out on their mules for the running of The Maiden Form Cup, obviously a local favorite. These distaff riders looked serious and, after some jockeying for position and forceful pushing of mules into place, they started at the signal. Anne Register's Roll-a-Perm (by Curly Fox out of Business) actually jumped the first hay bale as she clung to him, spurring in jodhpur boots and canvas-hacking leggings. A very fine-looking blonde rider named Susan Imars managed to get her mule back onto the track after he had wandered afield. In spite of his dereliction, she forced him across the finish line first and tossed her crop in the air. Margo Dunlap, whose husband had won the previous race, got Sybil's Arthur (by Jerk out of Frug) up to the finish line, but not across. The mule backed up as Margo flailed at him. "That's the brakes, honey," whooped Announcer Register. The mule moved forward. "That's it, that's the accelerator," said Register. Finally Sybil's Arthur moved across at a snail's trot and the crowd cheered.

The winners of these two events received silver pitchers, but in most cases could not accept on muleback as their mounts had already made straight for the paddock. The third race was the feature and favorite of the day. Called The Major Bowes Challenge Trophy, it is "a special race for gentlemen, open to valley residents of the '30s whose legends of misadventure grow with their years." The trophy, a silver cigarette box, would be given by the John Howells in memory of a well-loved Appaloosa vaudeville mule once owned by John's father and named Major Bowes. "He was the first mule in the valley of horses," said Howell, a stout young man who now confines his own riding to a snappy red Honda.

The Major Bowes began in chaos and ended in confusion. After a slow start as Announcer Register shrilled, "Look at those mules pound along," most of the mules broke for the paddock at the turn, and some never came back on the course. Pipeline Contractor David Williams, chomping the cigar he started with, did at last urge his mule across first. It was named Szell for the Cleveland Symphony conductor, who recently completed a tour behind the Iron Curtain. Its "genealogy," predictably, was by May Day out of Moscow. Rapid Extension (a reference to the Cleveland transit system) was by Slow Reduction out of Bad Service and came in, tellingly, a very slow last. In fact, the race had already all but ended while rider Peter Hitchcock was still on the first half lap. The P.A. system crackled wearily, "Folks, don't go away. Stay and watch this thrilling race for last position."

The final event, The Rough Rider Plate, is always the one most eagerly awaited by the swarms of kids who are the real enthusiasts of mule racing. This is a race for novices and most of them hide their saddle fright under props and costumes.

Ranking tennis player David Dickenson came out on Bunion (by Limping out of Short Shoe) wearing a jet pilot's helmet and using a tennis racket for a crop. Alex Hadden was wearing a papier-m√¢ché mule head that looked like something from A Midsummer Night's Dream. He doffed it before they were "off." Banker George Kirkham had on a construction helmet; Charles Newell was in cowboy attire but switched to a hard hat at the last minute. Tucker Marston wore an orange jet-pilot suit and helmet, while Arthur King sported a fireman's helmet. It was a field day for show-offs and the first year no female had entered The Rough Rider.

"This race requires more nerve than sense," announced Register as the motley crew surged out onto the track. Bunion proceeded to walk the entire distance while Jockey Dickenson burst a few tennis guts flailing for action. At one point on the half lap, two mules were facing in different directions and going strong. Charlie Newell nudged in first on Little Audrey (by Big Julie out of Academy Awards).

The crowd began to drift out. Somebody said, "I'll declare, those mules got 18 different gaits." And, of course, somebody else answered, "Yeah, that's what makes mule racing."