Updated on 07/24/2016 10:21PM

Hovdey: A dream dissolves into the ultimate darkness

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On the afternoon of May 5, 1955, R.H. “Red” McDaniel saddled a horse named Aptos in the sixth race at Golden Gate Fields, climbed into his cream-colored Cadillac, and beat a hasty retreat to the nearby San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. When he reached the high point of the span, he pulled his car to a stop, walked without hesitation to the vertiginous rail, and promptly vaulted to his death.

McDaniel was 44 at the time and well on his way to a sixth straight national championship. He left no suicide note behind, only riddles that ranged from gangsters to gastrointestinal ulcers.

“Many of McDaniel’s colleagues believed that an excess of extremely hard work may have exacted a terrible toll,” wrote John McEvoy in “Great Horse Racing Mysteries: True Tales From the Track.” Others suspected cancer, depression, or the final, successful gesture in a series of attempts to do himself fatal harm.

McDaniel’s body was recovered from San Francisco Bay not long after he jumped with a stopwatch and parimutuel tickets in his pockets. Aptos had won his race. The trainer was relatively young, and the game was his oyster, bending to his genius with the condition book and his regular use of the preternaturally talented Willie Lee Shoemaker. McDaniel had everything to live for, as the wisdom goes, but it wasn’t enough.

There are few things more private than suicide. Maybe nothing. Albert Camus wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

The lobby for the right to end one’s own life in certain circumstances is strong, with compelling philosophical support. On the other hand, I’ve always leaned toward the reaction of the Tom Hanks title character in “Joe vs. the Volcano,” when the mysterious girl asks “Why not?” to the idea of suicide.

“Because some things take care of themselves,” Joe says. “They’re not your job; maybe they’re not even your business.”

Then again, I’ve never had my heart torn apart by the death of a 2-year-old Thoroughbred making only the second start of his career after a maiden win that had the business buzzing from coast to coast. The Chilli Man, a son of the Tapit stallion Trappe Shot trained by Monique Snowden, was heavily favored to win the Emerald Express last Sunday at Emerald Downs and then was to be sold by owner Heidi Nelson to Dean Reeves of Mucho Macho Man fame. Reeves’s trainer, Kathy Ritvo, was on hand at Emerald to receive her exciting new shooter.

But then, barely a quarter of a mile into the 5 1/2-furlong race under Joe Steiner, The Chilli Man’s left foreleg gave way at the ankle. With both sesamoids fractured and the supporting tissue ruptured, The Chilli Man could not be saved.

“He was just a really good-looking horse, and so very impressive in his first race,” Ritvo said Tuesday on her way to Saratoga. “It was a terrible tragedy what happened to him. But then, what happened afterwards, there are no words.”

Ritvo had trouble saying it out loud. A few hours after The Chilli Man was euthanized, his trainer apparently drove to the rugged Green River Gorge north of the town of Enumclaw, Wash., walked to the middle of the bridge spanning the chasm, and jumped to her death. Monique Snowden was 37.

Red McDaniel was from Enumclaw.

By all accounts, Snowden and her horses were inseparable. She had been training her own stable for only a few years, and the results had been promising.

“We all know this is a game of incredible highs and lows,” said Vince Bruun, Emerald Downs director of media relations. “Monique seemed to take the highs higher and the lows lower. You can understand that. What you can’t understand is why she did what she did and how much pain she must have been in.”

When it comes to the subject of suicide, Ritvo demurred.

“It’s probably unfair of me to speak about it,” she said. “I spent six months or longer fighting every day for my life, to get healthy.”

Ritvo battled through most of 2008 while suffering from a deterioration of the heart muscle and awaiting a transplant operation required to save her life. Five years after the successful heart transplant, she saddled the 5-year-old Mucho Macho Man to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

“For me, every day is a good one,” Ritvo said. “When something like that happens with a horse, any horse, it’s a tragedy, but you have to pick up the pieces and keep going. I wish there was something that could have intervened between the time that everything went down with the horse and what happened later. When things go wrong, I try to find a lesson out of it and move forward. But it’s hard to find a lesson out of any of this.”

The dots of Red McDaniel’s suicide were tough to connect. He had it all and jumped anyway. Still, it is probably a mistake to be content with the idea that the death of The Chilli Man caused the death of Monique Snowden. He might have driven her to the bridge, but as for what came next, who knows? Joe Steiner, a veteran who has seen it all, is among many in the Washington racing family hurting for answers.

“The night of the race, I put my arms around her and said, ‘Just breathe, Monique,’ ” said Steiner. “ ‘You’ll get through this. We’ll get through this.’

“All I can take away from what happened is to be grateful for every day, for my wife and my little boy,” Steiner added. “And how important it is to pay attention to each other and recognize the signs when someone close to us might need our help, whether they ask for it or not.”

Danielle Belcher-Whited More than 1 year ago
How sad. Sometimes the heart is so broken that hope and promise just drain out.
Karen Wiechers More than 1 year ago
So true and so sad.
Keith Valentine More than 1 year ago
Very sad, maybe the biggest tragedy the sport has seen...you try and "process it" and can't but like some others have commented depression might have played a hand and for someone who loves horse like she did, who is so connected to their spirit, who had so much love...it was more than likely unbearable to witness...rip to Monique and best wishes and prayers to her family and all..
callstheraces More than 1 year ago
Suicide or an attempt at suicide is not a "cry for help" or the final act in a life gone wrong. It occurs when the ability to cope is outweighed by the inability to escape the pain (of all kinds) a person is going through. The darkness of thought is self perpetuating and touches the soul in a deep and profound way. The brief respites of sunshine seldom lighten the innermost mind in those situations. If there is an afterlife, I hope Monique and all of those who committed suicide are finally free of the anguish and anxiety they had to endure. If you have a friend who has gone down this path but is still with us, realize this does not define them as people. They are capable people, worthy of respect for enduring what they had and coming through as a wiser person for doing so. Suicide or an attempt at suicide is not a case of a right or wrong thing to do. Sometimes, it is the only way a person feels they have left to express how they feel.
Leslie Bliman-Kuretzky More than 1 year ago
So heartbreaking    :(
Charlene Shaw More than 1 year ago
Two key points in this piece to take away:  the breakdown of Chilli Man was most assuredly the catalyst, but not the reason ultimately, for this poor woman's desperate action.  And it is quite likely that no one will ever really know - just like McDaniel, just like Gregson, just like most every other suicide loved ones are left to solve.  Camus is absolutely right, Jay - great quote.  At the end of the day - we cannot know what is in the heart of anyone outside ourselves.  My condolences to her husband and family.
Kimberly Wales More than 1 year ago
Jay I commend you for your article written in truth and with class. What a tragedy this story is and as a writer myself, it is emotional to cover a story such as this. As a former assistant and trainer I know what it feels like to lose a magnificent horse. It leaves a hole in your heart and you never forget their names or what happened. As a former jockey and exercise rider I know how wonderful it feels to sit the back of these amazing animals and also the trauma of having them break down under you too. Joe Steiner is very fortunate that this accident didn't leadv to further tragedy. As he said, we should take a step back and just breathe right now. This is the time for mourning the loss of life and giving the family their time to grieve. With Gods grace they will some day heal. There will be plenty of time later to contemplate what really happened but we will never have the answer for something so horrific. 
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Ange More than 1 year ago
Nice Frank.
When one of your loved ones commits suicide, remember to put that on their headstone... "He took the selfish way out."
Jamie Coughlin More than 1 year ago
The tragedy is when someone has lost so much hope that they not only can't see any reason to live but any other way out of their pain.   This type of depression can strike anyone at any time without a reason.  
Lynda LaGrange More than 1 year ago
I hope you never have to expierence the pain of a loved one committing suicide. I have . it was far from cowardly act. It was the only way out of the abyss of darkness. Its a pain no one should have to feel. You Frank are ignorant making such a statement.
Sherry Mosco More than 1 year ago
There are many of us who feel the highs and lows of this sport. We all struggle with how to deal with it. The support of our track families and equine friends is what keeps us in the battle. The thought of one more race, one more ride, gets us up each day. We all have something to give even if it's that one moment when a horse puts his head to your chest to say thank you, thou have changed that moment for that horse at that time. Everyone remember it matters, we matter. Thank you for the wonderful words.
Kari Toye More than 1 year ago
Such a tragedy, thank you for your story.  Most of us that have trained horses have lived through the tragedy of the loss of a horse. We all ask the question,"why did she...........your story gives some enlightenment, we need that, 
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What in God's green acres' difference does it make?! A horse is gone, a promising trainer is gone, and nothing will bring them back, so why on Earth would you argue about sourcing a quote? I realize it's just racing around the DRF, but grab yourself a significant portion of perspective.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It means a lot of difference. The authorities are still investigating her death. What if it isn't ruled a suicide? Hovdey drops all this information like he was an eyewitness. He wasn't an eyewitness, so he should identify where he got that information. If he just presumed how things went down, that's very concerning.
TEDK215 More than 1 year ago
interesting point A, so Mr Hovdey, enquiring minds want to know. where do u get such info? or is it just ur embellished version of the story?
Cal MacDonald More than 1 year ago
Some people just have no sense of respect or care or even understanding of tact.  They just want something to complain about and found this sad tragedy a reason to do so.  Sad to think there are those like that out there that would worry about about the source of a quote than the tragedy of what happened or whether what they were saying was half-way tactful but unfortunately they are out there.   I agree, it doesn't make a hill of beans where the quote came from or how the writer got the information. I'm sure the writer didn't just make it up and really it's nobody's business here as to how the information for the article was compiled. The writer did a fabulous job on this article.