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."