True Crime in Horse Racing: What Happened to 'Red' McDaniel?
Editor's Note: This story contains details that could be disturbing to some readers, reader discretion is advised.
At first, the beige Cadillac was just another car on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, one of thousands that would traverse its span on a given day. Inside was a lone driver, a man who knew this bridge intimately, passing the shallow waters near Yerba Buena and looking past Treasure Island down below. The car slid into the outside lane and came to a stop at the Bay Bridge’s highest point. Beneath was San Francisco Bay’s deepest channel, an undulating expanse of water. A slight man, clad in a dark suit, his sandy hair receding, emerged and in a scant series of steps propelled himself over the rail.
On May 5, 1955, Robert Hyatt “Red” McDaniel jumped over the rail of the Bay Bridge, leaving behind a top training career, a barn full of horses, and a bevy of questions. Why had this leading conditioner taken this drastic action? What could bring a man to this?
This month, True Crime in Horse Racing looks at the life of this California trainer and the mystery behind his tragic death.
A Life of Horses and Hard Work
McDaniel was born in Enumclaw, Washington, in 1910, spending his early years on a dairy farm. The young man would ride a pony to herd the cows from pasture to pasture, encountering neighbor Ben Gunther riding the fields of his own farm. Gunther, who owned a stable of Thoroughbreds, pledged to help the young man learn how to ride, anticipating that McDaniel’s stature would be an asset to him later. The farmer was right; “Red” started his career the usual way, mucking stalls and working his way up to riding in the afternoons.
He started on the Washington and Oregon fair circuits, getting his first official win at Willows Park in British Columbia in 1926. A spill in 1929 shattered his leg, knocking him out of the game for a time. McDaniel recovered and returned to riding, but found his passion tempered by the injury and struggles with his weight. He turned to training soon after, taking on a string for Canadian owner George Slater in 1930. The Great Depression forced Slater out of the racing business, leaving McDaniel jobless. He became a jockey agent for riders like Red Pollard and others for a time and then tried to revive his jockey career but found that his skills were better suited for conditioning horses rather than riding them.
McDaniel opened his public stable, making his home in the California circuit of Tanforan, Golden Gate, Santa Anita, and Del Mar. He methodically built his clientele with owners of all stripes, claiming horses and then running them back in more advantageous spots. As a public trainer, he had to find ways to maintain the horses in his care, pay his staff, and then pay himself, operating on razor-thin margins for owners, like a pair of dentists who partnered to form their own stable; businessmen of various industries; and Mr. and Mrs. Harry James, he a trumpeter and she an actress better known as Betty Grable.
With his judicious use of the claiming system and the condition book, McDaniel was able to rise through the California ranks, topping the list of leading trainers in 1950 with 156 winners. He followed that up with four more training titles, logging 164 wins in 1951, 168 in 1952, 211 in 1953, and then 206 in 1954. Together with jockey Willie Shoemaker, McDaniel won the 1955 Santa Anita Handicap with Poona II, one of his 15 stakes winners.
His hard work had brought him training titles and a barnful of horses. He and his second wife, Evelyn, had two young children and a home in San Mateo. By all appearances, “Red” McDaniel had everything going for him, which made that fateful trip to the Bay Bridge even more mysterious. In the days after, speculation abounded while explanations were scarce. Was this a case of a man in despair or was there something nefarious behind McDaniel’s actions?
Hints and Ailments
Success brings out both admirers and detractors. What was McDaniel’s secret? Was it a concoction that eluded detection, secretly imported from an international source? Regulators were aware of those rumors and kept close tabs on the five dozen or so horses in his stable. McDaniel was one of the earliest subscribers to bute, or phenylbutazone, an analgesic for sore horses, but the substance was not illegal and there was no test for it anyway.
The trainer generally operated in the black, but running a stable like his was a stressful way to make a living. He was plagued by stomach troubles, complaining of a bleeding ulcer that caused discomfort and vomiting on a regular basis. McDaniel’s fondness for alcohol complicated the ailment; he professed to a friend that his inability to resist a drink was taking a toll on him. The stress of success coupled with his ongoing ailments could have left McDaniel reeling. On the outside, though, he rarely gave glimpses of any inner turmoil.
Later, though, earlier hints of McDaniel’s mindset emerged. His first wife left him for another trainer, which triggered the trainer to drink more despite remarrying and starting a family. He would occasionally make odd remarks about his stable foreman outliving him and had more than one outburst of anger that cost him an owner in the months leading up to that fateful May day. If anything illicit were at the heart of this, that information remained hidden. Though McDaniel had lent money to other racetrackers, he was repaid with no trouble and the trainer seemed to have enough cash on hand if he needed it. He even gave a large sum to a stable employee and instructed the man to give it to his wife.
Whatever prompted McDaniel’s drastic choice remained unspoken. He left no note, nothing to answer the questions his death elicited. The horse he saddled just 45 minutes earlier won, and uncashed tickets for that race were found in his pockets. He not only left behind a family, but also years of potential, a distinct feeling of what might have been.
Decades after his death, Robert Hyatt “Red” McDaniel was inducted into the Washington Thoroughbred Hall of Fame, his home state honoring the trainer who worked his way from exercise rider at Longacres to the country’s leading conditioner. His story is not unlike that of trainers like “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and Johnny Longden, who started their careers in the saddle and later found success on the ground. His unfortunate end and the mystery behind it overshadow the clear talent McDaniel demonstrated, a horseman who understood how to find a horse’s potential and take steps to realize it.
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