After Sirhan was tried, convicted and sentenced, there was a groundswell of literary couch jobs, and while none suggested that he was going to be Bill Shoemaker incarnate, Sirhan himself thought enough of his horsebacking to once show up at Bob Wheeler's Santa Anita barn looking for work. Wheeler, one of the best trainers not to be elected to the Racing Hall of Fame, turned him down. At least that's what Henry Ramistella, a former jockey, told the Los Angeles police in an interview about 11 months after Kennedy was killed.
Under the name of Donneroummas, he was Sirhan Sirhan's boss at Granja Vista del Rio Farm near Corona, California. You don't need a state license to work at a farm. Granja Vista del Rio was no fly-by-night outfit. The nom de course for construction magnate Bert Altfillisch, Granja Vista campaigned a number of stakes winners, including Hombre Rapido, Granja Realiza and Pareja. Other investors in the operation were said to be Desi Arnaz, Buddy Ebsen and Dale Robertson.
At the farm, they began calling him "Sol," which was hardly fitting for a Jerusalem-born young man from a Palestinian Christian family. According to Larry Hancock, who wrote extensively about Bobby Kennedy's death, Sirhan and Altfillisch didn't get along. After Sirhan's arrest, authorities discovered a rambling diary/notebook at his home. "I believe I can effect the death of Bert Altfillisch," was one entry. Altfillisch, who was 87, died of natural causes in 2006.
Sirhan is either 5-foot-2 or 5-foot-5, depending on the source. Either way, at 120 pounds in 1966, when he was 22, he was the right size for a jockey. In September of that year, he was exercising a quarter horse at Altfillisch's farm when he was thrown and suffered serious head injuries and an eye injury that limited his peripheral vision. A worker's compensation claim resulted in a payment of $1,705, and he apparently had cashed the check only weeks before he shot Kennedy. At the time of his arrest, he had four hundred-dollar bills in his pocket.
Sirhan's riding career ended with that 1966 accident, which gave him more time to dabble in arcane disciplines such as theosophy and the Rosicrucians. Occult or cult, I'll let you decide. In Shane O'Sullivan's "Who Killed Bobby?" Sirhan was led down this path by Tom Rathke, another racetracker. They were inseparable for a few years at California tracks, until Rathke moved to Pleasanton, to work with horses at the Alameda County fairgrounds. Rathke told authorities that Sirhan's mother had told him that her son "wasn't himself" and had become "less communicative" after the riding accident.
Sirhan also developed an interest in hypnotism. He allowed himself to be hypnotized on stage at a Pasadena nightclub, not far from where he lived. He took classes at Pasadena City College. But he continued to go to Santa Anita, sometimes with Rathke, as the two of them tried to beat the horses. Sirhan supported his betting habit by working at a Chevron gas station. The New York Times said that when Sirhan went to the track he would bet "on every race." He would come away either "winning a bundle" or "losing everything in his pockets. Once he did so well he quit working. . . and lived off his winnings."
The last day of Bobby Kennedy's life, Sirhan was in Pasadena, about 25 miles from the Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy would celebrate his win in the Democratic presidential primary. Testimony during Sirhan's trial is in conflict with what O'Sullivan wrote, but it is clear that Sirhan was furious that Kennedy supported Israel in the Six-Day War and beyond. Based on what O'Sullivan wrote, Sirhan had no plans to visit the Ambassador. Early in the evening, he asked a friend if he wanted to play pool at Pasadena City College's Student Union. The friend said no. If they play pool, Kennedy lives. If Jack Ruby isn't first in line at a Dallas Western Union, to wire some money to a stripper who worked at his club, he doesn't get to the police basement in time to kill Oswald.
With the pool game off, Sirhan asks his friend to see his newspaper. He wants to check the race results, and see who's running the next day. The paper also has an item that says there's going to be an anti-Israeli demonstration not far from the Ambassador. Sirhan gets in his Mustang, which he had bought with some of the insurance money, and drives to the hotel. He begins drinking, O'Sullivan writes, and decides to leave. But at the car, he decides that he's too drunk to drive. He returns to the hotel, and is able to gain entry to a pantry in the kitchen just off the ballroom. Years later, a bellman told me he'd take me over to that pantry for five bucks. I told him I couldn't afford it.