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Mildred N. Vessels Dies at 72; Owned Race Track

January 22, 1992|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mildred N. (Millie) Vessels, one of America's few woman racetrack owners who helped develop San Luis Rey Downs into a nationally known thoroughbred training center, died Monday at Fallbrook Hospital. She was 72.

Frank Vessels III said his mother was hospitalized in mid-December with pneumonia, and her condition worsened.

Mrs. Vessels, he said, had a love of quarter-horse racing all her adult life.

She was considered an astute businesswoman who single-handedly ran the family-owned Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County after the death of her husband, Frank Vessels Jr., in 1973.

In recent years, she lived and worked out of the Bonsall home her son built for her on the 2,500-acre San Luis Rey ranch. She was a major contributor to several Republican candidates and became noted for her interest in community affairs.

She often loaned the use of her sprawling San Luis Rey facility, which also includes a golf course and breeding center, for community functions.

After buying the property in 1981, she improved the country club and golf course, in the wooded river valley between Interstates 5 and 15, residents said.

"She was always the lady," said Dominic Savoca, a Bonsall community leader.

Mildred Nelson, born in Long Beach in 1920, became a horse-lover and met her future husband, Frank Vessels Jr., at a Santa Barbara parade--he was a mounted policeman and she a rider for a regional horse group, son Frank Vessels III said.

When the most senior Frank Vessels died in 1963, Mildred and her husband, Frank Jr., took over the running of the Los Alamitos racetrack.

In 1974, they helped found the racetrack industry program, a training course for track operators, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. After her husband's death in 1974, Mrs. Vessels created a memorial scholarship for him at the Arizona school.

Back home, she continued on as sole operator of the Los Alamitos track before selling the concern nine years later.

"My mother was a businesswoman if she was anything," said Frank Vessels III. "She was in business ventures all her life separate from the family, apartment buildings she bought and sold and painted herself.

"Running the track on her own was just another venture. She might have been small in stature, but she was big in will and might."

In recent years, Mrs. Vessels became known to workers at her stables as a gentle, even-handed owner, the Mama of the Backstretch.

"She was good to all her help, regardless of who they were--she worried if they had a good enough place to sleep or where their kids were going to school," said Earl Holmes, manager of the Vessels Stallion Farm, who has worked for the family for four decades.

"She didn't care if someone was top management or cleaning muck out of stalls, she treated everyone the same way--from the bottom up.

"She was one tough lady. She had a lot of cowboy in her."

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