True Crime in Horse Racing: Disappearance of Ron Hansen
Ron Hansen was one of a kind, a jokester that lightened every jockey’s room he entered. The talented rider had a quick wit and a penchant for living life to the fullest, which tended to lead to trouble — or at least the rumblings of such. His disappearance prompted questions about what happened to this leading jockey — and who might have wanted him gone.
This month, True Crime in Horse Racing looks at the life and loss of jockey Ron Hansen.
Successful in the Saddle
Born one of six kids in Utah, Hansen started his career before he was even a teenager. At age 11, he won a Quarter Horse dash at a bush track in Idaho, despite fracturing his arm on the starting gate days earlier. Within a few years, the 5’4” jockey had dropped out of high school to start riding professionally, first in Montana. Later, he made his way to western Canada, riding in Alberta. Hansen won the Sovereign Award for apprentice jockey in 1978 and led the jockey’s list as a journeyman rider the following year.
During his time in Canada, the jockey met his first wife, Natalie, the daughter of trainer Ron Brock. The couple had a son, Ron Hansen Jr., but soon the lure of the riding life took its toll on their marriage. Hansen’s work took them from Canada to Washington to Minnesota, eventually landing in San Francisco. The jockey made the northern California circuit his home, challenging Russell Baze for the top spot among the region’s riders and winning titles at Bay Meadows, Golden Gate, and Pomona. Among his stakes winners were Simply Majestic, who Hansen rode to victory in the Kensington Handicap, the Silky Sullivan Invitational, and the Longacres Mile.
In a career where he logged nearly 3,700 victories from just over 20,000 mounts, Hansen found himself in a boat familiar to many jockeys: success brought problems that were tough to solve. By the time he settled at Bay Meadows, his drug and gambling habits made life difficult for his family, breaking up his marriage to Natalie. His hard-scrabble beginnings made Hansen generous with his money; he regularly would give money to grooms and hot walkers, helping out anyone who might be having a hard time.
As good as Hansen was in the saddle and as generous as he was with the people around him, trouble seemed to follow him wherever he went.
His skills as a rider brought Ron Hansen enough resources to care for his ex-wife and their son, but it also opened the door to drugs and other vices. He did a stint in rehab for cocaine in the 1980s. A try at riding at Santa Anita Park did not pan out because Hansen’s after-hours activities prevented him from maximizing his time at the Southern California racetrack. Rumors of race fixing dogged him despite his insistence that he had never engaged in such activities. Similar allegations had gotten Hansen barred from Golden Gate Fields in 1990, but he was subsequently cleared by the California Horse Racing Board and returned to riding.
Weeks after the CHRB cleared him of race fixing allegations, Hansen was in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, scheduled to ride Video Ranger in his one and only trip to the Run for the Roses. There, his jovial personality was on display, feeding the media wild stories about himself and showing the world what had made him so beloved back in the Bay Area. Underneath all that, though, hard living and the issues that come with it had dogged Hansen. He had already been involved in a hit-and-run accident in Canada and had a DUI and reckless driving charges on his record in California. Despite the legal issues that came with his nighttime activities, Hansen enjoyed his nights out after a hard day at the racetrack.
The jockey rode eight races on the Oct. 1, 1993 card at Bay Meadows, coming up empty in all of them. Nevertheless, he was looking forward to the next day’s races, where he would ride Slew of Damascus in the Bay Meadows Handicap. This Friday evening, Hansen visited two taverns and then stopped by two friends’ homes. At some point that evening, he called his second wife, Renee, and let her know that he would sleep at a friend’s house near the racetrack rather than try to come home. Hansen then walked out of one friend’s apartment to move his car — and never came back.
Rather than stay overnight, Hansen drove toward his home in Alameda. Along the way, he attempted to pass a car on the San Mateo Bridge, but he was going too fast and clipped the car’s bumper. Hansen did not stick around to see the aftermath of the accident; while the car he hit flipped, the persons inside suffered only minor injuries. About a mile down the road, close to the end of the bridge, he abandoned the car and walked away. Police found the damaged car, hazard lights flashing, with the jockey’s wallet inside, but no keys and no Hansen. He was nowhere to be found.
When he did not show for his mounts at Bay Meadows the next day, people became concerned about the jockey’s welfare. His wife filed a missing persons report. Rumors about his whereabouts began to swirl. Had he checked himself into rehab? Was he hiding out, afraid of the repercussions of that hit-and-run? Had something nefarious happened to him? Over the next few weeks, neither his credit cards nor his ATM card had any activity on them, but the jockey had any number of friends and acquaintances that would be willing to spot him some money.
As the weeks and months wore on, though, those who knew him began to fear the worst. Searches of the area around where he disappeared yielded no sign of Hansen. He missed his mother’s birthday, and Renee had not heard from him since that Friday night in October. Ron Hansen quite simply had vanished into thin air, leaving his friends and family wondering what had happened to this jockey, husband, and father.
On January 20, 1994, a man harvesting brine shrimp happened upon the remains of a man in a salt marsh near the San Mateo Bridge. Dental records indicated the body was that of Ron Hansen, but investigators were unable to determine a cause of death. Though the unfounded rumors about race fixing still rumbled below the surface, those who knew the jockey suspected that Hansen had abandoned his car after the accident on the bridge, fearful that he would be caught and face time. He either jumped or fell over the railing into an area where he became trapped, a sad end to a colorful life.
Nearly three decades after his death, Hansen remains a tragic figure, a talented rider waylaid by the misfortunes of success.