Robert Hess Sr. in the Winner’s Circle at Golden Gate Fields in 2020. Photo: William Vassar/ Vassar Photography

Bob Hess Sr., an iconic figure in the world of Bay Area horse racing, died Saturday morning after being diagnosed in mid-November with COVID-19, Golden Gate Fields racetrack announced.

Hess was 86.

Described by the racetrack as “consistently among the leaders” in Northern California horse racing dating back to the 1970s, Hess came to Golden Gate Fields in 1971 “and was a highly respected conditioner throughout his career.”

Berkeleyside spoke with Hess while he was in the ICU in November. He said he initially thought he had a cold, but later tested positive for COVID-19. In the early days of his illness, Hess was in and out of the hospital but ultimately was admitted to the ICU.

When Berkeleyside spoke to Hess from the ICU, he said his main symptom was chest congestion.

Bob Hess Sr.: “You take the good with the bad”

Hess told Berkeleyside he was looking forward to being released from the hospital so he could eat at his favorite restaurant, Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley’s Fourth Street neighborhood.

“They cook special for me,” Hess said. “I’ve eaten there over 8,000 times.”

Hess began his training career at Agua Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico, in the 1960s. When that track burned down in 1971, he told Berkeleyside, his family moved north and he ended up at Golden Gate Fields.

Hess described the world of horse racing to Berkeleyside as tumultuous and said it takes a certain demeanor to be able to withstand it.

“You’re up one day and down the next,” he said. “If you can’t handle that you’re in the wrong business.”

Hess, who has about a dozen horses stabled at Golden Gate Fields, told Berkeleyside he had been lucky to have the support of his wife and family to help ground him throughout his career.

Hess came down with COVID-19 amid a widespread outbreak at Golden Gate Fields that initially resulted in more than 200 coronavirus cases. But he refused to blame anyone for getting sick and said he was just focused on getting well.

“You take the good with the bad,” he told Berkeleyside from his ICU bed. “That’s what happens.”

Hess is survived by Maria, his wife of 56 years, and their four children, horse trainer Bob Jr., Howie, Erica and Anna.

Bob with his wife Maria and their horse Maggie’s Magic. Photo: William Vassar/ Vassar Photography

In response to the widespread Golden Gate Fields outbreak in November, the racetrack has been working closely with the city of Berkeley and has done two additional rounds of testing to identify cases at the racetrack and ensure that anyone who tests positive can be isolated.

Several days of testing one week ago identified at least 40 new COVID-19 cases at Golden Gate Fields. And more testing has taken place over the past few days. Workers told Berkeleyside over the past few days that the process was going smoothly and had become increasingly efficient and organized with time.

Despite the high number of COVID-19 cases, there have been very few reports of hospitalizations resulting from the Golden Gate Fields outbreak in November. Despite hundreds of known cases, Berkeleyside has heard about only a handful of people who were hospitalized. More than 95% of the cases were completely asymptomatic, the track has said.

Golden Gate Fields in 2010. Photo: Emilie Raguso

David Duggan, general manager at Golden Gate Fields, told Berkeleyside on Saturday that the racetrack would be putting together a memorial to recognize Hess at the right time in the appropriate manner.

“He’s a longtime horseman and a very, very nice man with a great character,” Duggan said. “We miss him terribly here and we’re absolutely floored with this news this morning.”

Live racing at Golden Gate Fields was suspended in November and remains on hold until Dec. 26, which is the opening day of the racetrack’s winter meet.

A ‘wealth of knowledge’ with nearly 1,600 wins

The statement from Golden Gate Fields about Bob Hess Sr.’s death on Dec. 5 appears below in full.

ARCADIA, Calif. (Dec. 5, 2020)–An iconic figure at Golden Gate Fields for five decades, trainer Bob Hess Sr. succumbed to the effects of COVID-19 early Saturday morning at age 86. Consistently among the leaders in Northern California dating back to the 1970s, Hess, who was the father of trainer Bob Hess Jr., began his training career at Agua Caliente in the 1960s, came to Golden Gate in 1971 and was a highly respected conditioner throughout his career.

Initially hospitalized in mid-November with COVID-19 following a test administered by track officials, Hess was subsequently released and then re-admitted when symptoms returned. This heartbreaking news comes just one day after Golden Gate officials announced the continued suspension of live racing through Dec. 25.

“Our hearts and prayers are with the entire Hess family at this time,” said David Duggan, general manager at Golden Gate Fields. “To lose a longtime trainer and friend is simply heartbreaking to our entire horse racing family.”

Hess, who was born Oct. 10, 1934, was fluent in both Spanish and English. He leaves his wife of 56 years, Maria, and four children, Bob Jr., Howie, Erica and Anna.

When advised Hess had passed away this morning, jockey Abel Cedillo was moved to tears.

“When I was riding up north, he was like a second father to me,” said Cedillo, a Guatemalan native who was the leading rider at Del Mar’s recently concluded Bing Crosby Meeting. “I had so much respect for him. I’m shocked. I’m going to really miss him.”

Golden Gate Fields’ director of racing, Patrick Mackey, echoed the sentiments of many in the California racing industry.

“Bob was a wonderful horseman who was always there for his fellow race tracker,” he said. “His stories were legendary. He was a wealth of knowledge and imparted that knowledge to many over the years. He was a great man and his presence here at Golden Gate Fields will be sorely missed.”

Over a distinguished career that saw him saddle 1,592 winners from 10,448 starters, Hess’s runners earned more than $17.2 million. His last winner came on Oct. 29 at Golden Gate with the Thoroughbred Just Like Fred and his final starter ran there on Nov. 8.

Services for Bob Hess Sr. are pending.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...