The Dead Man Who Won A Horse Race

In 1923, jockey Frank Hayes began his first-ever steeplechase alive and well. He placed first, his horse winning by a head, but unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to see the winner’s circle, perishing sometime before he crossed the finish line
The Dead Man Who Won A Horse Race

Everyone wants to be remembered as a winner. While we all know that life can’t be a series of uninterrupted victories, there’s always that hope in the back of one’s head that, when the cold hand of death arrives, your legacy will be that of a champion. Francis “Frank” Hayes managed that, but not how he would have wanted. 

Born in Ireland in 1901, Hayes was a horse trainer and stableman working in New York when he got the chance to enter a steeplechase as a jockey. He would be riding Sweet Kiss, one of the horses he looked after for owner A.M. Frayling, racing at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. (Yeah, Belmont is in Elmont, it’s a bit silly.)

Hayes quickly shed as much weight as he could to help his chances, and on June 4 1923, he set out on the two-mile course, an outsider at 20:1 odds. A few minutes later, Sweet Kiss thundered across the finish line, a length ahead of the favorite, Gimme. Sweet Kiss continued for another few hundred feet before stopping, at which point Hayes slid off and fell to the ground. The racecourse physician ran to the fallen man. He was dead, at just the age of 22.

As the New York Times reported the next day, “Death was pronounced to be due to heart disease, the attack probably having been brought on by severe training to make weight and the subsequent excitement of riding his first winner.” (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle went for something more dramatic, printing, “The grim reaper paid a sensational visit to the Belmont Park track yesterday.”)

Hayes had dropped 13 pounds in a few days, the last 10 in just 24 hours. This is rarely a good idea even on a bigger person, but he hadn’t exactly started out huge. He’d gone from 143 pounds to 130, shedding 10 percent of his body weight. This, in 2023, is something quite widely recommended — the CDC suggests most people could stand to lose a 10th of their mass — but (a) not necessarily people as small as Hayes; and (b) certainly not that fast. Half a pound to two pounds per week is generally what’s considered safe, and Hayes did many times that in far less time.

What about, as the New York Times and other newspapers speculated, the excitement of it all? Excitement can be a killer, and is treated by your body in a similar way to fear or stress, with huge hormone releases. Adrenaline and noradrenaline flood your body, triggering the same fight-or-flight response as when you’re in danger. If you have heart issues, this can be pretty terrible — your heart rate can spike or become irregular, potentially triggering a heart attack. In 2012, an Ohio restaurateur had a heart attack just hours after a surprise visit from President Barack Obama, and a New England Journal of Medicine paper looking at German soccer fans during the 2006 World Cup found that they were three times more likely to have cardiac incidents on exciting days.

If Hayes never expected to be able to ride in a race, getting on Sweet Kiss must have felt like a dream come true, an unexpected moment in the spotlight for someone more accustomed to working behind the scenes. Some combination of that excitement, the extra strain placed on his body due to swift weight loss and the intense work involved in a race — jockeys’ hearts can hit 180 beats per minute when racing — was too much for Hayes.

But the other question raised by all of this is, if Hayes died mid-race but Sweet Kiss still won, how important is the jockey really? Racing techniques had changed a lot in the decade or so preceding Hayes’ death. Jockeys had formerly sat in the saddle, but now crouched above it with their weight on the stirrups, pumping their arms and legs like pistons as their horses moved to try to render themselves effectively weightless. If a horse can win a race ridden by a corpse — literally a dead weight — is all that work for nothing? 

“Horses are herd animals,” says Simon Nott, a freelance racing journalist specializing in betting, “so their natural instinct is to run.” He points to the example of National Hunt racing in the U.K., which involves jumps over fences and ditches. These races often feature a lot of horses, several of which will fall or lose their jockeys in the process. “Horses that fall often continue to race, and in many cases, jump the obstacles without a jockey on board,” Nott explains. “In this case, as nobody knows exactly when the jockey died, I’d guess it was later in the race when he was riding a finish rather than halfway round. I’d imagine a flat horse (i.e. one that runs courses without jumps) would soon stop running at full flight once a jockey had stopped urging it.”

In other words, Hayes was probably giving it his all right until the end. He was buried in Brooklyn in his racing silks, a jockey’s burial for a man who went out a winner. There is no absolute consensus on the greatest jockey of all time — compilers of some lists go by prize money, others by straight win numbers, others by more subjective markers of quality — but two contenders are Russell Baze and Sir Gordon Richards. Baze won 12,844 of his 53,578 races (earning just shy of $200 million in the process), and Richards 4,870 of 21,843. While both are inarguably incredibly impressive, in terms of win percentage, Baze had a victory rate of 24 percent and Richards 22 percent.

If Hayes made it far enough through his race to see the finish line, he died with a 100-percent winning record, and remains the only dead man to ever win a horse race. It was a short career, but a hell of a ride.

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