Last year Bob Hess won $1.5 million at the track -- and he doesn't even gamble. As one of the most successful young thoroughbred trainers in Southern California, Hess has had 10 stakes winners in the last three years. The 40 horses stabled in his barn at the Santa Anita Racetrack are worth about $2.5 million.
Hess, '87, has built his business through painstaking attention to detail. On most mornings, he arrives at the cluster of low cinderblock buildings that houses his offices and stables, at 4:45. He first checks that none of the horses are sick and supervises their feeding. Then he rides down to the track, accompanying four of his training jockeys on their mounts.
There, in the shadow of the grandstand, Hess canters back and forth, assessing each horse's strengths and weaknesses with a practiced eye. "The horses talk to you," Hess says. "If you listen to them, they'll tell you if they're ready to run."
Hess has been listening to horses for as long as he can remember. His father was working as a trainer at the Caliente racetrack in Tijuana when he was born, and Hess spent his childhood in and around stables and training tracks. He completed an economics degree at Stanford, but the day after his 1987 graduation took off for the Del Mar racetrack in San Diego with $800, his dad's truck and trailer and two horses. By 1990, he had won his first training title (awarded to the trainer with the largest number of wins at a given race meeting), the youngest trainer ever to do so in Southern California. But Hess is realistic about his early success. "It takes years and years to develop a trainer's skills," he says. "I'm just 32, but I've been with my father since I was 5 years old. The key thing is patience."
Hess demonstrates that patience as he tours the barn after the morning exercise. Ducking into the stalls, he kneels in the straw under each horse, his cellular tucked under his chin as he fields incoming calls from owners and track officials. He runs his hands along the legs and bends the ankles to probe for soreness.
A young mare licks his hand furiously. Hess notes she's after the salt on his skin and asks the groom to put a salt lick in the stall. Next door, he orders a bath of Epsom salts for a filly's arthritic ankle.
A few stalls down, Jesus Olivas applies "Kool Out Clay" to the knees of a young gelding named Virtuous Regent. The white plaster, designed to tighten and cool the leg, is then bound in foot-long bandages. Hess jokes with Olivas in the fluent Spanish he learned from his Mexican mother. Olivas, a small, muscular, black-haired man in his early 30s, smiles and nods but says little, keeping his eyes constantly on the horse.
Hess's last stop is a 5-year-old chestnut gelding named Global Performance. The horse restlessly paces his stall, bathed in the red glow of a heat lamp meant to keep his muscles warm and limber. He's skipped training because he will run the next day at Hollywood Park. "He's a mean, jug-headed horse, slick, a little ribby," Hess says, keeping his hand away from Global's chomping overbite.
Owners pay about $2,200 a month to stable and train a horse with Hess, who currently has about 30 people on his payroll, including a groom for every four horses, exercise riders, stable hands, a blacksmith and a couple of vets on call. The stabling fees barely cover his costs, but Hess also gets 10 percent of his horses' winnings.
Global's owner, Alena Richie, bought him in 1994 for $50,000 but, two weeks later, the horse cracked a bone in his right hind leg. After vets inserted two titanium screws in the leg, his racing career looked uncertain. But Hess patiently nursed and trained him and, in the last three years, Global has won more than $200,000. The question for Hess now is how he will do
tomorrow. Racing is divided into three levels -- claiming, allowance and, the highest level, stakes. Global has been stuck at the allowance level for almost a year and needs a win to move up.
It's Saturday afternoon, and Hess is parking his Mercedes beside the paddock at Hollywood Park. He makes the trip from Pasadena, where he lives with his wife, Sheila, and sons, Christian, 4, and Garrison, 6, five days a week during racing season. He looks natty in his light brown suit and tie as he walks over and greets Richie, Global's owner, under the olive trees in the paddock. A vibrant widow in her early 60s, she is thrilled when Global is paraded in. While her horse is being saddled, Hess talks her through his training and strategy for the next few races.
"Bob's a very intelligent trainer, but he always checks with me," she says later. "And he's honest. That's what's really important."
Hess consults quietly with the jockey, Chris McCann, a sharp-featured man in his late 30s with ginger hair peeking out under his hat. Then he strolls around, mingling with other trainers and owners. But all the time, Hess is watching horses, looking for the next champion. With eyes narrowed, occasionally mumbling admiration, he checks prices in the condition book.
"Bob's father is a great trainer," Richie says, watching Hess, "but he told me Bob had the eye. He could see a horse once and a year or two later see it out on the track and know who it was."
It's almost 4 p.m., and Hess climbs the steps into the half-filled grandstand, perching at the edge of a seat in an empty box. He peers intently across the track, past the spindly palm trees and the small lake with its pink flamingos, watching the horses as they shimmy into their gates. "If I was a gambler, I'd bet on second place," he says. "But we're not here to run second." The buzz in the grandstand dulls momentarily as the giant electronic board freezes the odds. The gates fly open.
The race is one mile on the grass. By the time the horses round the first turn, Global has inched into third. As they turn into the back straight, Global slips from third to fifth.
Hess watches impassively. "He's a strong finisher," he says confidently. Almost on cue, Global surges forward, neck stretched, giving his all, as he moves up from fifth to fourth. They gallop past the grandstand, wheezing like small steam engines. (There's no "thunder of hooves," which Hess confides is an audio track added for television.) Global edges up again from third to second. And that's it. A blur at the finishing post and it's over.
Hess walks quickly down the grandstand stairs to the track. Global canters toward him, snorting. Hess listens to Global's breathing, rubs his hand along the steaming flanks and over the hind quarters, then throws a blanket across his back and watches as he is walked off. Global didn't win, but Richie gets $9,800 for second. (The horse earned $78,000 in 1997.)
Hess could have done well for himself if he had followed his instinct and bet on second place. But then, he's not a gambling man.