Updated on 07/24/2016 11:21PM

Hovdey: A dream dissolves into the ultimate darkness


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.”