By Pete Pedersen
At 4:08 p.m. May 5, 1955, a pencil-slim, 44-year-old, Robert Hyatt McDaniel hoisted Ralph Neves into the saddle aboard Aptos. It was the sixth race at Golden Gate Fields near Albany, Calif.
McDaniel, the most successful trainer of Thoroughbreds in modern racing history, did not stay to see Aptos run. He left the track, talked idly with an usherette on the way out, climbed into his cream-colored Cadillac, and headed, presumably, for his home across the bay in San Mateo.
At 4:21, Aptos catapulted across the finish line in front. It was the last winner ever saddled by McDaniel, who even then was approaching the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
At 4:35, he braked his Cadillac to a stop. It was at the highest point of the bridge, midway between Yerba Buena Island and San Francisco, a terrifying distance above the icy waters of the bay.
McDaniel stepped from his car to the railing and plunged into the great unknown.
Why did this man, at the height of his career, choose death? The answer is locked in the soul of Robert McDaniel, never to be revealed.
He left no note, no explanation. He simply drove away from the racetrack one sunny afternoon to keep a rendezvous with death. Perhaps it was a sudden whim, his last adventure.
McDaniel, known on the racetrack as “Red,” was America’s leading trainer by wins the previous five years. At his death he led the nation for 1955. His 211 winners in 1953 were an all-time record.
Born in Enumclaw, Wash., and raised on a dairy farm, he began riding races at the age of 13, weight 100 pounds. He started training horses in his early teens.
McDaniel rode his first winner at Willows Park, Victoria, B.C., in 1926. He broke his leg in a spill in 1929, then trained for several years at Agua Caliente. He returned to the saddle briefly in 1933. He became a jockey agent, handling such crack riders as Noel “Spec” Richardson, Jack Westrope, and Red Pollard. It was during this time that he learned the intricacies of the condition book. That knowledge became a major key to his success when he began training a large public stable.
McDaniel became so proficient as a “halter-man” (claiming horses) that new rules were written to curtail his operation. But his success continued. He claimed such horses as Blue Reading, Stranglehold, and Stitch Again, and developed them into money-winning stakes runners. Stitch Again, a $3,500 claiming acquisition, almost stole the 1947 Santa Anita Handicap, finishing second to Olhaverry.
Just two months before his death, McDaniel won the Santa Anita Handicap with the Irish-import Poona II. He referred to the Helbush Farm’s Irisher as “the greatest horse I ever trained, another Phar Lap.” No horse exemplified McDaniel’s skill as did Poona II. He took him over as a maiden in this country with an ordinary background. In the space of a few months, Poona II set a world record at 1 1/16 miles, established an American turf record, and won Santa Anita’s famed Hundred Grander.
The day of McDaniel’s death he had 68 horses in training, representing 21 owners. It cost over $600 a day to maintain his stable. He had 38 employees and an annual payroll of $125,000 (a fortune in those days).
On the racetrack he was known as a “loner.” Still, he was regarded with deep affection by those who made their living in horse racing. An easy touch, he peeled off greenbacks with abandon.
“Don’t worry about when you pay me back,” he would say. “You probably need it more than I do.”
McDaniel liked to make a bet, but was never hurt by wagering. He won a remarkable share of his bets, for no man was such a successful student of horse and race conditions. He was a wealthy man at his death.
There had been ugly rumors that McDaniel used a stimulant on his horses that defied detection. He just laughed at such whispers. He said, “My secret chemical is hard work and my ability to read—to read the condition book.”
There was no answer to the tragic death of Robert Hyatt McDaniel. Nor is there likely to be one. But there was a bizarre twist to the little man’s final day on earth. A colt he trained was placed in the entries that morning. The horse’s name: Forthebest. His breeding: Good Ending—Bye Bye Kiss.
Pete Pedersen is a former California steward and winner of the 2002 Eclipse Award of Merit.