The one time Ron Hansen made it to the Kentucky Derby was in 1990, and he was aboard a former $40,000 claimer named Video Ranger. The colt went off at 65-1, although you would never have guessed those odds from the prerace attention the jockey was getting. Reporters were lining up at the barn, where Hansen, a leading rider from the Bay Area who never quite made it to the top nationally, was spinning yarns, each more ridiculous than the last.
There was his courtship, for instance. He told the visiting press that he had met his wife at Bay Meadows as he was coming off the track with a loser. "This girl comes up and spits on me," he said. "I didn't like getting spit on, but she looked pretty good." So they met later at a nearby watering hole, the Hillsdale Inn. And the rest was...even more ridiculous.
He told the swelling crowd of reporters that their wedding, conducted a few months later in Las Vegas, was performed entirely in the nude. The minister, too, he assured them. The press wrote this down: buck naked. No 65-1 ride in history got more attention than Hansen did.
Of course, the bridal party had been fully dressed and nearly every other aspect of his wooing had been colossally exaggerated for the Derby media. But that was Hansen (who had also vowed, in case he won, to strip in the Churchill Downs winner's circle). Long after Hansen finished a surprising fourth on Video Ranger, which was stunt enough for most jockeys, it was remembered that he had supposedly been married in the altogether.
"He never discouraged attention," fellow jockey Ron Warren recalls, laughing at everyone who ever believed Hansen. "And if he could exaggerate a story, make it bigger, he would."
Still, those close to Hansen think a story has developed, a story so big it's beyond Hansen's capacity for exaggeration, beyond his playfulness too. In the nearly three weeks since he disappeared, presumably walking away after an early morning, high-speed ride ended in an auto wreck on the San Mateo Bridge near Bay Meadows, there have been fewer and fewer chuckles. Every day he doesn't show up, an eerie light is cast on his legacy of pranks and put-ons. "I'd like to think Ron's on a beach somewhere, drinking mai tais," says another Bay Meadows jockey, Jack Kaenel. "But it's not lining up that way."
Hansen has been a popular and successful figure in Bay Area racing ever since he moved his tack from Longacres near Seattle to Bay Meadows in 1986. From 1988 to 1991, while Russell Baze, the Bay Area's perennial leading jockey, was riding on the richer Southern California circuit, Hansen took over as the top jockey, winning three riding titles at Bay Meadows and two at Golden Gate Fields. Even when Baze returned to the scene, Hansen held his own. His mounts, which have included almost 3,700 career wins, have earned more than $36 million.
"He was a natural," says Joe Judice, a jockey close enough to Hansen to have been invited to the wedding. "One of the best." Kaenel agrees: "Horses ran for him. He was the best judge of pace I ever knew. Talent-wise, he could compete with anybody."
He has also been a controversial figure, at various times getting banned from one track amid allegations, ultimately found to be groundless, of race fixing; beating a Breathalyzer test after he'd been spotted in a nearby bar before he was scheduled to ride; and generally lighting up the post-race nightclub scene. "Ron was a party animal," says Judice. Says Warren, "I can only hang with him until it gets dark."
Hansen's most recent troubles began in the dark, on the night of Oct. 1, after he'd ridden eight races at Bay Meadows. Information pieced together by police and reporters from track officials and the pals who had followed Hansen to The Van's restaurant and bar near the track is far from conclusive. A track commentator named Jamey Ough told a local paper, The Daily Review, that Hansen had been drinking Cokes before switching to beer, and that he left The Van's at about 1 a.m. and drove to the nearby Hillsdale Inn, a motel that also has a bar. Ough said that before Hansen left The Van's, there may have been "strangers sitting at the corner table that seemed suspicious."
One track official disputes this. "There hasn't been anyone suspicious in there in 25 years—it's just us [people from the track]." Anyway, he says, any story that begins with Hansen drinking Cokes is automatically suspect.
Police and other press reports say that after he had been at the Hillsdale Inn, Hansen called his wife, Renee, and told her he would be staying at a friend's apartment across the street from the Hillsdale Inn. This was not uncommon on Friday nights, since he was often due at the track for early workouts on Saturday mornings. Indeed, Hansen's agent, Wayne McDonnell, who lives near the track, says Hansen has crashed on his couch plenty of times.
In fact Hansen did drop by McDonnell's place that night—possibly on his way from The Van's to the Hillsdale Inn—around 1:30 a.m., according to the agent. "It was like he was just checking on me," says McDonnell, who was groggy from sleep and remembers seeing Hansen for "about 10 seconds" before the jockey was on his way. According to Billy Cambra, an outrider at Bay Meadows who is a friend of Hansen's, he and Hansen went to yet another friend's apartment, from which Hansen left at about 2 a.m., supposedly to move his car to a proper parking space.
At that point the chronology yields to mystery. At 2:30 a.m. Hansen's 1990 Jaguar XJS reached speeds as high as 100 mph, according to California Highway Patrol reports, as it crossed the San Mateo Bridge, heading east, presumably toward his home in Alameda. Switching lanes, the Jaguar struck a Toyota, which crashed into the concrete bridge siding and flipped over. Hansen's car was recovered farther east on the bridge, a mile from the scene of the wreck, its hazard lights blinking, its keys gone, its driver's seat drawn up close to the steering wheel. Hansen's wallet was in the glove compartment. A witness saw a man walking toward the east end of the bridge, about three quarters of a mile from the abandoned Jaguar.
Hansen did not show up at the track the next day, which was thought odd, since he was scheduled to ride Slew of Damascus, the 5-2 second choice in the day's feature, the $200,000 Bay Meadows Handicap. Hansen was well known as a high-octane reveler, even after his marriage and the birth of his son, Blake, two years ago. At 33 he was no longer the kid who used to challenge himself with all-nighters, but he was still a marvel of performance on the racetrack. Friday night's carousing was not sufficient to make friends doubt his boast in The Van's that he would ride Slew of Damascus "coast to coast."
Slew of Damascus did indeed win the feature, and his new rider took home the jockey's $11,000 share of the purse. On Sunday the Bay Area papers—which had their hands full with the kidnapping of a 12-year-old girl in Petaluma, 35 miles north of San Francisco—managed a small item that said the victims of the crash involving Hansen's car were largely unharmed. That might have coaxed the jockey to come forward, if he was hiding out. But the mystery only deepened.
"Ron's done a few things and been pretty sly about getting away with them," says Ron Warren. "At first I figured this was just another deal he'd get out of. Now I don't know."
Getting in and out of things was Hansen's genius. In 1990 Golden Gate Fields banned him amid allegations of race fixing, evidence that he had associated with a convicted embezzler (Hansen made good on $28,000 worth of the fellow's bad checks) and rumors that he had tics to a Dominican gambling syndicate. The race-fixing allegations came soon after Las Vegas casinos reported being stung for some $500,000 on Bay Meadows races. Doug Schrick, another jockey under investigation for race fixing, said that Hansen had tried to bribe him, telling him that if Schrick cooperated in rigging a race, the two of them could "cash a big ticket."
Hansen persuaded California racing officials that the allegations had been fabricated by Schrick, whose girlfriend Hansen had stolen, and Hansen was cleared. Schrick was suspended for 10 years for bribing jockeys in other races.
Also in 1990 Golden Gate officials got an anonymous tip that Hansen was "sopping it up" in the White Knight, a bar near the track, before the day's races. Investigators found Hansen at the bar, grinning...and drinking a nonalcoholic beer. Was this another case of Hansen pulling a prank—was he the anonymous tipster?—or another instance of his beating the system? "I mean, the guy's drinking all morning," says Warren, "and then he blows a .02 [in the Breathalyzer, .06 below California's legal limit]."
With Hansen, you never knew where the fun ended and where real life began.
Despite the ominous passage of time, the police aren't sure about the disappearance either. Authorities have searched the shallow waters under the bridge (three feet at low tide) and searched the bay from a helicopter. But the police, who have received 500 tips that Hansen has been sighted in Canada and Utah, among other places, seem to believe that Hansen is alive. "Of course, there is always the chance he is not O.K.," said city of Alameda police lieutenant Greg Garrett last week.
As the days go by, theories bloom and die. The idea that Hansen, who has been convicted of drunk driving and reckless driving, might panic at an accident scene is not unthinkable. But it seems highly unlikely he would stay away from his family so long once he knew no one was seriously injured. "I know it sounds odd, calling Ron a party animal and a family guy," says Kaenel, "but he had the energy for both." Says Judice, "Come here, look at his locker. Pictures of him and his wife—at Caesars Palace, of course—and his son." Hansen's wife says she's baffled. "Blake keeps asking Mommy to find his daddy," she told a reporter last week. "I just keep telling him that I don't know where he is. I'm clueless."
The theory that Hansen disappeared into a drug-rehabilitation facility has also been put forth and does not seem implausible. He has admitted checking himself into a Salt Lake City facility in 1984 for treatment of cocaine abuse. But McDonnell says that as far as he knows, Hansen wasn't using anything stronger than beer. "Listen," says McDonnell, "I've suspected everything, but nothing fits."
Certainly Hansen did not seem suicidal. Fellow jockeys describe him as terminally upbeat. "Quick-witted," says Judice, "always with a good comeback." Says another jock, Gary Boulanger, "He makes you laugh a lot. If you screw up, he'll tell you and then laugh about it."
If there was occasionally dangerous behavior—he once shattered a mirror with a shot glass at Spenger's, another race-trackers' hangout—there was more often evidence of fun-loving generosity. "People in racing loved it when he walked into a room," says McDonnell. "You wanted to be there just to hear what he'd say. I'm telling you, he'd just walk down a shed-row, and he'd make some groom's day." And not just with a joke. Kaenel says that if a backstretch worker came up to Hansen and asked for $50 or for a ride across the bridge, it was as good as done.
Friends want this to be just one more caper—"Top of his list, if it is," says Judice—and they're willing to forgive him for it. But the days stretch into weeks, and the little man Judice calls a "Jesse James guy, a little outlaw" begins to seem more like a victim than a scamp.
"I cross that same bridge every day," says Judice. "And every day I glance at that spot. I can't get it out of my mind." And the days pass, without Hansen striding down a shedrow, headed for an early morning workout. It's disquieting, but somehow you hope the laugh will be on us. And no matter how many days have gone by, everybody who knows Hansen agrees that that's the way to bet.
After a crash involving Hansen's car, a search of San Francisco Bay turned up no clues.