News & Views
The life and mysterious death of jockey Ron Hansen
By Elliott Almond - Mercury News
Nov 10, 2003, 09:40
Of all the ways jockey Ron Hansen might have died, slipping off the San Mateo Bridge and drowning seemed almost too simple an explanation. But that's the best guess as to what happened to the hellion of horse racing a decade ago.
For many, Hansen's demise at age 33 remains as much a mystery today as it did when he disappeared Oct. 2, 1993. Some suggested foul play. Others said it had to be suicide. Nothing seemed too farfetched where Hansen and thoroughbred racing were concerned.
``He's the only one who knows what happened that night, and he took it with him,'' said jockey Ricky Frazer, Tobey Maguire's stunt double for the film ``Seabiscuit.''
Whatever happened, Ron Dee Hansen's life unfolded like a Runyon-esque tale about Northern California racing, according to interviews with more than 35 family members, friends and authorities. His is a story of alleged race-fixing, oddball characters, thousands of victories and the hard-living jockey who wanted it all.
• Car crash, then disappearance
The San Mateo Bridge is an arcing ribbon of asphalt that is a lifeline to thousands of Bay Area commuters. Hansen, who lived in Alameda, regularly drove the highway when working at Bay Meadows Racecourse in San Mateo. He often drove at warp speed, particularly in the early-morning hours after downing a few at the track's local haunts.
His last day proved no different. He was driving his Jaguar XJS on the bridge after 2 a.m. California Highway Patrol officers estimated Hansen weaved in and out of traffic at 100 mph before slamming into a Toyota Celica, which hit a concrete wall and rolled over. The driver and passenger, both 20, were treated for minor injuries.
Authorities said Hansen drove another mile, finally coming to rest about 2:30 a.m. just before the tollbooth in Hayward. They found the driver's door open, Hansen's wallet in a glove compartment and emergency lights flashing. But they couldn't find Hansen.
An event in Petaluma -- the kidnapping of 12-year-old Polly Klaas -- would dominate the news the next day and for much of the remaining four months until Hansen's body was discovered.
From the moment he disappeared, fiction blurred the facts as it often did with Hansen, a Mormon who grew up on a Utah dairy farm, the fifth of six children.
Those familiar with Seabiscuit jockey Red Pollard could find parallels in Hansen's ascent into horse racing. He started in the bush leagues, racing in three-horse fields on short ovals.
Before his first race -- at a July 4 festival in Idaho -- his horse threw him, brother Roger Hansen recalled. The animal crushed a cast Hansen wore for a broken arm. His father squeezed the cast into place so 12-year-old Ron could race.
Hansen dropped out of high school a few years later to turn professional, starting in Montana and picking his way to western Canada in the late 1970s. Even then, Hansen displayed the uncanny talent that would lead to more than 3,600 victories. His mounts earned $36.6 million. He would become one of Northern California's leading jockeys, making $8,000 a week in his prime, according to Alameda County Court records.
The bush leagues had tempered his fear, and Hansen found he could gently nudge horses from the back to victory.
``He was part horse,'' said Wayne McDonnell, his agent and friend.
• Money came, and trouble followed
While in Alberta, Hansen married the daughter of Ron Brock, a trainer. The newlyweds followed the racing circuit from Chicago to Minnesota to Seattle. Money started coming fast, and with it, trouble.
Natalie Olstad, Hansen's first wife, said she could not handle the frenetic lifestyle of drugs and gambling, and the couple divorced about the time Hansen landed in the Bay Area in the mid-1980s. She said he always took care of her and their son, Ron Hansen Jr.
Hansen loved the glamour of San Francisco but never forgot his roots. He rarely turned away hot-walkers and grooms looking for help, handing them money as he would sugar cubes to horses.
``He would relate to the lowest of lows and the VIPs,'' said Roger Hansen, 47, a Bay Area trainer.
Sometimes, however, Ron Hansen's generosity caused problems. In 1988, he guaranteed $28,000 worth of personal checks at Bay Meadows for Alameda gambler Mike Qutob. When Qutob couldn't cover his bets, Hansen had to pay. Yet the two remained friends, said Qutob, who in 1990 was convicted of embezzlement.
When Hansen arrived in the Bay Area, Russell Baze was the region's best jockey, riding most of the favorites. At 5-foot-6, 115 pounds, Hansen was one of the few who could challenge Baze, who still dominates today.
But while Baze was serious-minded, Hansen loved to play. He took friends skiing near Lake Tahoe or gambling in Las Vegas.
In 1985, Hansen entered drug rehab for a cocaine addiction, family and friends said. He washed out as a jockey at prestigious Santa Anita Park because of his nighttime antics, said McDonnell, who now trains horses in West Virginia. Said James Ough, a former track commentator: ``He was a saint and a devil, a hero and villain -- and lot of things in between.''
• Race-fixing charges follow Hansen
With a smooth stroke, Richie Sklar, a.k.a. Richie Fingers, drives a golf ball deep on a Long Beach practice range. This is the new pastime of a convicted race-fixer, who in 1998 served six months for bribing jockeys at Los Alamitos Race Course.
Sklar more than anyone fueled rumors and innuendo about Hansen, claiming they fixed hundreds of Northern California races from about 1985 to 1990. In sworn testimony in 1990, Hansen denied that he fixed races, court records show. McDonnell acknowledged that Hansen knew Sklar, but also said the jockey never influenced races.
Sklar, though, said Hansen once told him: ``When I die and it ever comes out, don't hesitate to tell the things we did and got away with.''
Sklar, 50 and no longer a horse player, said Hansen was the captain of a ring of about four jockeys, whom he refused to identify. Sklar said he would survey the Daily Racing Form, the newspaper listing the day's activity, to devise a scheme. He would then call Hansen with the plan. Using money from a Las Vegas high roller he refused to name, Sklar would bet $10,000 to win and place, or $8,000 on an exacta (in which bettors try to select the top two finishers in order). The jockeys' cut came from a cash payment from Sklar, or wagers on the race.
``Ron always took the bet,'' Sklar said. ``When he was involved, the job was done right.''
Except once during a Pick Seven, a challenging wager in which bettors try to select the winners in seven consecutive races. Despite his efforts to get disqualified, Hansen's horse won and Sklar said the gaffe cost them as much as $1.6 million.
Bryan Campbell, a retired Bay Area jockey, said Sklar approached him to fix races but he refused. Campbell said he knew that Hansen was involved, though. ``Out of the wrong doings that he did, the only ones who got hurt were the major gamblers,'' Campbell said.
How? ``Let's put it this way: They did. Their money was going to a game and Ronnie had his own game going on.''
Bob Gai, a California Horse Racing Board investigator at Bay Meadows, said multiple agencies, including the FBI, found no evidence Hansen was fixing races. In 1990, officials at the Bay Area's other track, Golden Gate Fields, did suspend Hansen for six weeks when a jockey claimed he was controlling races. Authorities cleared Hansen of wrongdoing after learning the jockeys had a rivalry over a woman.
While banned from Golden Gate, Hansen worked with quarter horses at Bay Meadows each morning. Brad O'Neill, a small-time trainer, asked him why. ``Why do you think?'' Hansen said. ``I'm a jockey. I love it.''
O'Neill doesn't think Hansen fixed races because he won almost 20 percent of his starts. ``I don't care if you are riding the merry-go-round at Bedford Park, if you win 20 percent you belong in the Hall of Fame,'' he said.
Dark last days
• Ex-wife, sister sensed trouble
Hansen continued to defy tradition, but by the end he seemed troubled.
Natalie Olstad talked to her ex-husband two months before he disappeared, to complete the adoption of their son after she re-married. Olstad said Hansen endorsed the adoption but planned to stay involved.
``He wasn't fine,'' she recalled. ``Don't ask me what he was dabbling in. He would only say he wasn't doing well.''
Hansen's sister, Annette Olsen, also sensed something wrong. ``It was such a dark time,'' she said. ``That's what breaks my heart. I wasn't there.''
The day before Hansen disappeared, trainer Jeff Bonde recalls his jockey being upset from the morning exercise to the starting gun of the seventh race. Hansen took the lead in his final mount, but the horse tired and finished third.
That day, Hansen displayed some of the caprice of his personality.
Friends said he had a beer at the track and then went to a Belmont restaurant to drink and talk about a big stakes race the next day.
At about 1 a.m., Hansen joined outrider Billy Cambra at a '50s-style lounge with Naugahyde booths. The horsemen closed the joint and went to the barkeep's apartment across the street to eat.
A little after 2 a.m., Hansen agreed to stay with Cambra, who said of his friend: ``We were tighter than a new pair of boots.'' Hansen went to his car with the intention of parking it properly, but instead kept driving.
Police said Hansen called his wife, Renee, who was at their Alameda home. He also called an old girlfriend, Kim Erskine, who has a son by Hansen.
``If he had a little too much to drink he would stay on the couch,'' said Erskine, who might have been the last person to talk to him. ``We were friends to the end.''
Search for answers
• Even identification of body not certain
After Hansen's disappearance, Sgt. Randy Keenan of the Alameda Police Department interviewed more than 100 people and fielded perhaps 500 tips. He found no signs of robbery or car jacking. The evidence pointed to a drowning, said Keenan, now retired.
``The question is why? Nobody can ever answer that.''
Some try. Cambra said Hansen might have slipped into the mud flats and gotten stuck while trying to flee from the hit-and-run. Cambra said Hansen, who had a DUI and reckless driving charge on his record, had pulled off a similar caper on the bridge before.
Roger Hansen said his brother once served time for a hit-and-run accident in Canada, and vowed never to go to jail again. Some friends say Ron Hansen told them much the same.
Said commentator Ough: ``If the car went up in flames, that would be more like Ron Hansen. But more fitting is Ron Hansen being careless. It wasn't the mob or bad guys or people he owed money to. He finally did a dumb thing at the wrong time.''
Sklar, the convicted gambler-cum-golfer, said the idea of gangster involvement is Hollywood hyperbole. Former private detective Dick Smith disagrees: ``A guy doesn't stop his car on the bridge and take a dive when the tide is out and it is two feet deep,'' he said.
Smith, hired by friends from the track to find Hansen, ran down tips as best he could, including one about another car chasing the jockey on the bridge.
Four months passed before authorities discovered a body lodged in pickleweed in an area known as Whale's Tail. The Alameda County Coroner's office identified the badly decomposed body as Hansen through dental records. An FBI agent said recently that the autopsy proved inconclusive regarding identity and cause of death. The body was cremated for a memorial in Logan, Utah.
``There is no way of knowing whether that was Ron Hansen,'' said Smith, now a trailer-park ranger in Pennsylvania. ``My feeling he is either capped or is out there somewhere.''
After four hellish months, the family simply wanted closure.
• Hansen not far from loved ones
Ron Hansen Jr., 19, keeps an 8-by-10 picture of his father in his room in Calgary. One of his fondest memories is watching Hansen's only Kentucky Derby appearance on television. The jockey finished fourth in the 1990 race on a 65-to-1, $40,000 claimer. At 6-2, Ron Jr. long ago gave up the idea of being a jockey, and is taking a year off from college to sell cars. Family members say he has some of his father's mannerisms.
``I pray to him every night,'' Ron Jr. said of Hansen. ``Ten years, 20 years, five years -- it is all the same to me. Once you are gone, you're gone.''
Renee's son Blake, who turns 12 this month, keeps a photo of himself, his mom, dad and the horse staff rider from Aug. 28, 1993, at Bay Meadows. Their final family portrait was taken after Hansen's second-to-last stakes victory.
For those who were close to Hansen, a distant aching lingers. Then something reminds them of him. It could be a story shared in the jockeys' room or at a local watering hole. Or perhaps a memento from a family gathering.
For Renee, who is re-married and lives in Danville, it is one of Hansen's racing whips. She uses it when competing in the quarter horse sport of barrel racing. She has not gone to the track since the morning Hansen disappeared.
For Roger Hansen, it is a broken-down racehorse named McFig living on his Idaho ranch. In one of the rare times the brothers worked together, Ron Hansen rode the bay gelding for Roger. Years later, the trainer reclaimed McFig as a keepsake.
It cost him a buck.
this article reprinted from an original story at The Mercury Times
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