THE MYSTERY OF RED McDANIEL : A Student of the Condition Book, He Knew All About Winning and, in a Fateful Moment, Lost

Times Staff Writer

Robert Hyatt (Red) McDaniel, the winningest trainer in the United States through the first five years of the 1950s, was hydrophobic. The only way to get McDaniel into a swimming pool would have been to fill it with martinis.

On May 5, 1955, the 44-year-old McDaniel helped jockey Ralph Neves mount a 5-year-old gelding running in the sixth race at Golden Gate Fields.

McDaniel promptly went to the Turf Club parking lot, got in his beige-colored 1954 Cadillac and made the five-mile drive to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. About 45 minutes after leaving the race-track paddock, Red McDaniel, the man who hated water, jumped hundreds of feet to his death from the upper deck of the bridge.

In 1950, McDaniel saddled 156 winners, the third-highest total since records were first kept in 1907. Becoming a national presence in tandem with Bill Shoemaker, the 19-year-old jockey who rode many of his winners, McDaniel wrested away the country's training championship from Willie Molter, the former quarter-horse jockey who had led the country in wins the four previous years.

Once McDaniel grabbed hold of the training title, he refused to let go. In 1951, he was No. 1 again with 164 winners; in 1952, he led the standings with 168 and in 1953 he became the first man to saddle 200 winners, breaking by 27 the record of 184 that Molter had set in 1948. McDaniel earned $275,000 in 1953.

McDaniel's record of 211 wins would stand for 15 years until Jack Van Berg hit the 256 mark in 1968. In 1954, McDaniel missed his own record by five winners, becoming the first trainer to lead the country for more than four straight years since Hirsch Jacobs dominated the 1930s.

In the first four months of 1955, McDaniel had sent 47 winners to the track and had won the Santa Anita Handicap with Poona II. He was close to the pace that had accounted for the record two years before.

Aptos, the horse that Neves rode in the sixth at Golden Gate on May 5, beat the favorite by a length and paid $6.10. According to the Daily Racing Form's chart of the race, Aptos crossed the finish line at 4:21 p.m. Coast Guardsmen estimated that McDaniel jumped just a few minutes before 5. They found wet tickets on Aptos in McDaniel's pockets.

As it turned out, the only horseman who could stop Red McDaniel was Red McDaniel. At the pinnacle of a career, he leaped from the pinnacle of a bridge. But why did he do it?

Thirty-two years later, all that remains are the same two theories that existed then. McDaniel killed himself because of a sickness or a sick heart, or both.

"He was under imponderable pressures, domestically and professionally," says Roy Dillon, a state veterinarian at Santa Anita. A few weeks before Aptos won McDaniel's last race, Dillon had castrated the $6,500 claiming horse.

There was backstretch gossip that McDaniel was gravely ill, that he had gone to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and learned he had cancer. There was no suicide note. People who knew him--and there weren't many, because McDaniel was a loner--said that he complained about an ulcer.

"He had to have stomach trouble," says former jockey Pete Moreno, who won his first stakes race with a McDaniel horse. "He was upchucking all the time."

Donna McDaniel, the trainer's first wife, had divorced him and married another trainer, a man who had lived near them at Del Mar. McDaniel remarried and had two young children by his second wife when he died.

It was an era when a spectacular woman might be called a femme fatale, and Donna McDaniel qualified. Blonde, model-thin and beguiling, she was an asset to her husband at the track, because his owners liked her. She became friends with Betty Grable, who raced horses with her husband, Harry James.

A friend of Donna's was asked why she was so popular. "Because, when you were with her, she had a way of making you think that you were the only person in the world," she said.

For Red McDaniel, the only person in the world was Donna. He liked a drink, and when his wife left him, friends said that McDaniel drank more.

There were reports of earlier suicide attempts. At Del Mar one summer, McDaniel suffered a lacerated forehead, butting himself against a brick fireplace. In Canada, he once jumped from a moving car into a deep snow drift. A newspaperman who knew him says that McDaniel once cut his wrist with a razor.

Several months before he died, McDaniel was playing cards with some friends at his $55,000 home in San Mateo. Unprovoked, McDaniel left the table and removed a brick from the fireplace. Hidden behind it was a huge wad of bills.

McDaniel started throwing the money around the room, shouting at the other players to help themselves. Then he went to a drawer and pulled out a gun. There was a scuffle before the others took the gun away from him, and a shot was fired. The bullet grazed McDaniel's skull.

There was nothing irrational about McDaniel when he sat down with a condition book, the trainer's Bible which is issued every 10 days by the racing secretary's office and lists the conditions of all the races at a track.

"If there is any formula for my success, it has been due to studying the conditions of races, running my horses where they belong and riding Willie Shoemaker," McDaniel said during those palmy days.

"I win most of my races in the condition book. If I can't look at an upcoming race and not name 9 of the 12 horses that are likely to run, then I consider myself a failure."

A typical McDaniel barn would have about 65 horses. He owned only four saddles, but he would work the horses in the mornings like an assembly line. Exercise riders would come off the track with their horses, board horses that were waiting trackside and then head back to the track for more gallops or workouts. At Santa Anita, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt used to complain that McDaniel was "cluttering" the track.

A natty dresser with an eye for neckties with floral designs, McDaniel stood only 5-foot-3 and weighed 125 pounds. He would supervise the busy morning operations in dark suits, usually standing at the top of the stretch with a stopwatch. It would have been easy to suspect that McDaniel woke up each day with a suit and tie on. He never seemed to be dressed in anything else.

Of the hundreds of horses that McDaniel trained, only 15 became stakes winners. But he was capable of winning a big race. Poona II, probably his best horse, won the Santa Anita Handicap. Apple Valley took the Del Mar Derby and the Santa Anita Maturity, the forerunner of the Strub. In 1951 at Del Mar, McDaniel won the Bing Crosby Handicap, the San Diego Handicap and the Del Mar Handicap with Blue Reading. McDaniel once beat Citation with A Lark, who might have been the fastest horse he ever trained.

In a prep for the Santa Anita Handicap, Poona was beaten, and Evan Shipman, the New York turf writer, wrote: "Red McDaniel knows something about claiming horses, but he doesn't know anything about how to train a good horse."

After Poona won the Big 'Cap, McDaniel said: "Where's that writer from New York? I want to talk to him."

McDaniel and Shoemaker, who started riding in 1949, were invincible at Del Mar. They set still-standing riding and training records there in 1954, with Shoemaker registering 94 wins and McDaniel saddling 47 winners in a 41-day season. Most of McDaniel's wins were with Shoemaker and that summer they frustrated bettors day after day, because while they were winning, the prices were terribly short. Mainly because of this reed-thin, ruddy-faced horseman and a jockey who was even smaller, 43% of Del Mar's favorites--about 13 points higher than the national average--won the races.

Dale Landers, now a trainer, was a valuable exercise rider for McDaniel for about 10 years.

"We always called him Mack, because his hair was actually sandy, not red," Landers said. "He was only Red in the newspapers.

"Anyway, Mack had as much to do with making Shoemaker as anybody. And the way they would win some of those races was a joke. Shoemaker would just be sitting on the horse, coasting to the finish line and laughing his guts out, while the other jockeys would be whipping like crazy trying to catch him."

Shoemaker took his first national title in 1950, winning 388 races. Twelve more times he would lead the country in either wins or purses.

"I was lucky to hook on with Red," Shoemaker said. "He was the first trainer out West who could really read a condition book. He could claim a horse and figure the horse was going to win a certain race three or four weeks later, and he'd enter him in a couple of races in between and this would work.

"If the horse went bad, or Red felt the horse wasn't doing well, he'd drop him down in class. He'd claim the horse for $10,000, and he'd run him for $5,000. He trained for owners who let him do that."

The day McDaniel went off the bridge, Shoemaker was in Louisville, two days away from riding Swaps to the jockey's first win in the Kentucky Derby.

"When I heard, I was surprised," Shoemaker said. "I never thought Red would do something like that."

In the McDaniel era, trainers weren't obligated to move horses up in class after they claimed them, which is the way the rules are now.

"And Red had Shoemaker," says Frank (Jimmy) Kilroe, Santa Anita's vice president for racing. "There were only two big jockeys at that time--Johnny Longden and Shoemaker. And McDaniel had one and Willie Molter had the other. And those were the two guys who were winning all the races."

With Shoemaker riding most of his horses, McDaniel was able to hold off nervous owners.

"I remember a guy who was stuck for $80,000," Landers said. "Mack told him that he'd be all right, and don't you know that when the guy got out, he was $80,000 ahead."

McDaniel performed something resembling alchemy with cheap claimers. In 1947, he bought Stitch Again out of a race for $5,000. The sore-legged 6-year-old finished second in the Santa Anita Handicap and won three stakes. Blue Reading was a $6,500 claim who won 11 stakes and earned $185,000. Stranglehold earned almost $300,000 after McDaniel claimed him for $7,500.

At old Tanforan, near San Francisco, McDaniel claimed three horses for different owners out of the same race in 1951. It was an audacious, vengeful stroke that may never have been duplicated. McDaniel, trying to run a filly he trained, went weeks without a race because other horsemen wouldn't run against her. When a race for the filly finally did draw enough starters, he left her out and claimed three of those who did run. The trio ran 1-2-3 the day McDaniel claimed them.

Another reason that McDaniel's operation thrived was medication. McDaniel was using phenylbutazone (Bute) before most trainers even knew what it was. Bute, an analgesic that deadens the pain for sore horses, is legal in most racing states now, but back then it was a relatively unknown substance. It wasn't illegal and it wasn't legal, and there weren't even any tests given horses to detect it.

The son of a dairy farmer, McDaniel was born in 1910 in the cattle country of Enumclaw, Wash. At 15, he lied about his age and began riding on the Washington and Oregon fair circuits. He rode his first recognized winner in 1926 in British Columbia.

In 1929, McDaniel broke a leg in a spill and that, combined with a weight problem, ended his riding career. He began training at Caliente, later broke yearlings at a California farm and worked as a jockey agent before he returned to training.

It was after World War II when McDaniel began to build a large stable consisting of a broad assortment of clients. He wanted his owners to know one another and formed an unofficial club, with McDaniel buying the drinks at the bar after somebody won a race. That made for strange barfellows. Betty Grable and Harry James might be there, clinking glasses with a potato farmer from Bakersfield.

At 6 in the morning on May 5, 1955, McDaniel was at his barn as usual. There were no reasons to think that this would be a day unlike any other day, although later Ray Scott, the stable foreman, would recall a strange conversation a few days before. McDaniel had said that Scott would outlive him by a lot of years.

McDaniel associates were haunted by other seemingly minor incidents that happened not long before the suicide. One morning, McDaniel talked at length with a horse owner and walking away said that he couldn't remember the man's name. McDaniel, who had already invested in other race-track stock, talked about buying Tanforan for $35 million. The track was on the market, but the asking price was only $3.5 million.

Later on the morning of May 5, McDaniel sent a stable hand home with a large amount of money for his second wife, Evelyn.

Asked to sign $40,000 worth of payroll checks for barn employees, McDaniel at first declined, then signed them.

As it became time for the first set of horses to go to the track, McDaniel went over the schedule with Scott and exercise riders Dale Landers, Willie Wyndle and Joe Hyder.

At 10, when the workouts were over and with post time for the first race more than three hours away, McDaniel usually went home, had breakfast and napped for a half-hour before returning to the track. On May 5, however, he stayed at the track.

About 1 in the afternoon, almost an hour before the first race, McDaniel drove into the Turf Club parking area.

"I didn't expect to see you here this early, Red," said Rod Fraser, who directed the lot.

"I hit a big one yesterday," McDaniel said. "Got to cash the ticket." Customarily, McDaniel wouldn't cash winning tickets until the following day.

"I got a good one in the sixth," McDaniel said as he walked away from Fraser. "Aptos. I think he'll win."

By the time the second race had been run, McDaniel had seen five backstretch workers who paid him money they had borrowed.

"If you need this, keep it," McDaniel told each one of them. "I don't need it today."

McDaniel spent the early races at the bar. Somebody said later that he looked as though he wanted to be alone. He appeared to be drinking Cokes, but they were laced heavily with whisky.

After the third race, McDaniel gave Willie Wyndle $3,500 and told him to "watch this for me."

After the fourth race, McDaniel took the money back from Wyndle and with the same advisory gave it to one of his owners.

"I didn't think I could trust Willie with that much money," McDaniel told Landers.

Johnny Longden, riding at Golden Gate that day, saw McDaniel en route to the paddock for the sixth race.

"How are things going, Red?" Longden asked.

"Fine," McDaniel said.

McDaniel seldom gave jockeys much pre-race instruction. Most of the time, according to Shoemaker, he'd tell his rider something like: "Just ride him. He'll win. Don't worry about it."

Aptos had five rivals in the $2,400 race, with Rillito Boy, a 4-year-old ridden by Ray York, favored over McDaniel's horse.

McDaniel, said Ralph Neves, did not appear nervous in the paddock. The trainer, always looking for another horse to claim, carefully eyeballed his five opponents.

"That Rillito Boy's in here," McDaniel said as he stood beside Neves. "I knew I should have claimed him last time. But I still think our horse will win."

A few minutes later, in the Turf Club parking lot, Rod Fraser noticed that McDaniel's Cadillac was missing. An assistant told Fraser that McDaniel had just left.

"I thought that was kind of funny," said Fraser, who's now a vice president at Bay Meadows. "Red's horse hadn't run yet, and there were still two races left. It was very unusual for him to leave before the last race."

It was not unusual for McDaniel to miss the winner's-circle ceremony after a horse won. Landers or Wyndle would be down there, anyway, to talk to the jockey and they could be in the picture-taking.

McDaniel had a favorite barroom stunt. Facing the bar, he would plant his right hand on the edge, with his left arm at his side, and vault over the bar.

Three motorists saw McDaniel leave his parked car and go to the bridge railing, but they couldn't reach him in time. They also saw McDaniel vault into the bay the same way he used to clear bars.

The Coast Guard recovered McDaniel's body and brought it to Pier 9. His suit contained his driver's license, some papers, the tickets on Aptos and a stopwatch.

Shoemaker, back from Kentucky, went to the funeral. "There wasn't much mourning for Red," says Oscar Otis, the retired columnist for the Racing Form. "He wasn't exactly a guy who had a million friends. Most of the talk on the backstretch the next day was why he went to the Bay Bridge. It's so much easier going off the Golden Gate."

But Red McDaniel was a methodical man. And the Bay Bridge was closer.

Racetrack people thought McDaniel was a millionaire. But his estate was valued at $140,000. Later, Evelyn McDaniel needed a job and she worked several years for Earl Scheib, the car painter and owner and breeder of horses. Scheib's office said that Evelyn McDaniel died a few years ago.

Ralph Neves was once pronounced dead after a spill at Bay Meadows in 1936, but escaped from the morgue and is still around to laugh about it.

"Funny thing about that Aptos race," Neves said. "The horse jumped a shadow in the stretch. Jumped it like a frog. Then Red jumped. Funny thing."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°