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Horsewoman Millie Vessels Is Dead at 72 : Racing: She took over management of Los Alamitos after her husband's death in 1974.

January 22, 1992|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Millie Vessels, 72, who sustained Los Alamitos Race Course's reputation as the leading quarter horse track in the country after her husband's death in 1974, died Monday night at a hospital in Fallbrook.

Mildred N. Vessels became ill in June, according to Earl Holmes, the manager of the family's Vessels Stallion Farm in Bonsall. Holmes said that Vessels was admitted to Fallbrook Hospital shortly before Christmas. Both Holmes and a nursing supervisor at the hospital said that Vessels had been suffering from respiratory problems.

Vessels took over the operation of Los Alamitos, the track that the family had started in 1951 on Orange County farmland that was acquired for $500 an acre, after her husband, Frank, shot himself in their sprawling Long Beach home.

Vessels, known for her acerbic wit, developed a hands-on management style.

"At her optimum, she was as good about knowing what the public wanted as any person I've ever been around," said Bruce Rimbo, a former Los Alamitos executive who is now executive vice president of the Woodlands, a track in Kansas City, Kan.

In 1984, Vessels and her son, Frank Nelson (Scoop) Vessels III, sold Los Alamitos and a golf course next to the track to Hollywood Park for $58 million. Hollywood Park sold the 297-acre property to a group headed by Lloyd Arnold for $71 million in 1989.

"The value of the land had appreciated to the extent that it hardly paid to keep it any longer," Millie Vessels said at the time of the sale.

Before the deal was made with Hollywood Park, Vessels attended several meetings of the California Horse Racing Board, which was being lobbied by Santa Anita to reject the sale. Finally, at a meeting in Albany in early 1984, the board approved the sale by a narrow margin.

Coming out of the room, Vessels said: "I'm relieved. All I've been hearing lately is other people telling me what I'm going to be doing with the rest of my life."

The Vessels family continued ownership of the breeding farm, a golf course and the 832-acre San Luis Rey Downs horse training center in Bonsall.

When the Vessels family was running non-betting races at Los Alamitos in the late 1940s, Millie sold hot dogs to fans and horsemen from outside her kitchen door on the track grounds. Local authorities had a problem with her selling beer, because she was a woman, but they didn't disapprove of the impromptu sandwich concession.

In later years, Vessels tired of that story.

"People don't want to hear all that old stuff about me selling hot dogs," she said in a 1984 interview.

When the trend was toward $5 exactas in the 1980s, Vessels had Los Alamitos go back to the $2 exacta, because she thought the cheaper bet would be more popular. More recently, thoroughbred tracks in the area have returned to the $2 exacta.

"She was a dynamic lady," Rimbo said. "When I was there, I always felt that Los Alamitos was even cleaner than Millie's home. Cleanliness was something that she insisted on for the fans."

The Vessels family bred and raced many important horses, including First Down Dash, who won the quarter horse world championship in 1987. First Down Dash won eight of nine races that year and now stands at Bonsall. His first crop of horses earned $2.3 million.

The Vesselses also raced Timeto Thinkrich, who won the 1973 All-American Futurity at Ruidoso Downs, N.M., in the second year that the race was worth $1 million.

Three times--with Go A Mite in 1967, Go Fartherfaster in 1973 and Cash For Milady in 1983--the Vesselses won the Ed Burke Memorial Futurity, one of Los Alamitos' major races.

Millie Vessels was a former director of the American Quarter Horse Assn. She was a leading fund-raiser for the Long Beach Community Hospital Foundation.

Born in Blythe, Calif., Vessels and her Danish-Norwegian immigrant parents moved to Long Beach when she was a child. She married Frank Vessels Jr. in 1948.

She once remembered how they worked together in building the track.

"We helped with everything," she said. "From driving the tractors to draining the rain from the top of canvas coverings to hauling the trash to the city dump after the races."

When the track opened for betting in 1951, it rained 10 of the first 11 days. Awnings were in danger of collapsing under the weight of the water, so Millie Vessels went around, from place to place, punching drainage holes in the awnings with a stick that had a nail at the end.

In addition to her son, survivors include one grandson. Funeral arrangements were incomplete Tuesday, but one family friend said that a private service probably will be held Friday.

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