First and foremost, Bob Hess, Jr. didn't grow up passionate about horse racing. He was simply a little boy who idolized his father, Bob Hess, Sr., and would do anything to spend time with dad.
The elder Hess, who turns 85 this year, has been training racehorses since the 1960s and is still active in Northern California. When Hess Jr. was just six years old, the pair could be found at the track together every weekend, a son following his father day in and day out like a shadow.
“I've always admired him, and he's still my best friend,” Hess Jr. said. “That led me to fall in love with our great sport of horse racing and our great horses. It was originally just a desire to spend time with my dad, then out of respect for him and love for him and the horses, I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Hess played baseball through college and graduated with an economics degree from Stanford University, but he never forgot the lessons he learned in his father's barn. After graduation, Hess officially became his father's assistant trainer in 1983, then went out on his own four years later.
Today, Hess Jr. has 30 horses in Southern California, along with strings of 10 at both Gulfstream Park and at Keeneland. He sent out the leading claimer at the recently-ended Santa Anita meeting, 5-year-old Zuzanna, to three wins and a second from four starts this year.
The mare was claimed for just $8,000 in September of 2018 by a partnership including TVG host and analyst Kurt Hoover, running fifth that day at Los Alamitos. Hess gave her some time off, and she returned to racing with a victory in late March at Golden Gate fields.
Hess moved her up to the $25,000 claiming level for her next start at Santa Anita, and Zuzanna won gamely by three-quarters of a length. In her next start she was second, beaten 1 ¼ lengths in an allowance optional claimer, and she finished out the meet with a 1 ½-length triumph in a $25,000 starter allowance.
“Bob's done a fabulous job with her,” regular rider Kent Desormeaux told Santa Anita publicity. “I'm grateful to him for having the respect to put me on horses he likes.”
Historically, Hess Jr. and Desormeaux have nearly a 38-percent strike rate together dating back to the early 1990s. Their first big horse together still ranks as Hess' favorite, a 10-time winner from 33 starts named Slerp.
“He won stakes races short, long, and rarely lost a photo,” Hess said. We claimed him for $40,000, and he earned over $600,000 for us, back when that meant a lot more.
“I just loved his heart. He was the epitome of 'give you everything he's got every time,' he never ran a bad race. Kent Desormeaux was on him once, and a horse fell in front of him. He'll tell you, Slerp saved Kent's life. He was so athletic he was able to jump over the horse, and all Kent did, instead of hitting the brakes or anything, he just threw the reins at the horse and let the horse save himself and Kent.”
Slerp won eight stakes races, two of which were graded, and only finished worse than fourth three times through his career. One of his favorite memories with Slerp was a race at Gulfstream Park on the day before the Breeders' Cup in 1992. Slerp lost the $100,000, seven-furlong sprint stakes by “an absolute centimeter,” finishing second to a horse named Light of Mom in 1:20.64. His six-furlong split, at which point Slerp was in front, was 1:08.56. The next day, Thirty Slews won the Breeders' Cup Sprint with a six-furlong time of 1:08.21.
As much as Hess loved the chestnut, that feeling was apparently not mutual.
“He did not like me, he tried to attack me all the time,” Hess said, laughing. “I don't get bitten too often, and I have a scar on my right bicep that he gave me, but we loved him… He was a neat horse, he loved his hotwalker, he loved Kent, and he loved his groom. He was my first good horse. When he slept in his stall, he'd grab a bundle of straw and suck on it all night like a pacifier.”
Other talented horses Hess has trained include Grade 1 winners D'wildcat and River Special, as well as Charles Town Classic winner and near-millionaire Imperative. The top horse in his barn right now is probably graded stakes winner Heavenhasmynikki, but Hess truly enjoys the competitive nature of horse racing at every level.
“I have a great group of clients and some really, really nice horses,” he summarized. “If you have only top horses, they don't run as often and you don't have as much action, so I have a good mixture of everything.
“That's the beauty of our sport. I think it's the most emotional, passionate dollar that can ever be spent. You can buy stock, you can buy a boat, you can buy cars, but truly, owning and training racehorses, it's like watching your family compete in sports. I think that's the great thing about this game, and it's something that cannot be matched anywhere else in life, I believe.”
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