Former Rider, Now 70, Was So Tough That He Came Back From the Dead : Ralph Neves Was No Stiff as Jockey
Ralph Neves was around at the wrong time, all right. When Santa Anita runs the seven Breeders’ Cup races worth $10 million Saturday, the 70-year-old Neves will be watching on television at his home near the San Francisco airport and remembering what his riding career was like.
It took Neves 31 years, and more than 25,000 races, for his mounts to earn $13.7 million.
But on the other hand, it’s probably just as well that Neves had his career in a different, less affluent era--before the days of the sophisticated film patrols and during a time when stewards couldn’t call what they couldn’t see. Neves was grounded enough as it was, and sometimes, he said, the suspensions were just on general principles--because his name happened to be Ralph Neves.
Mention Neves’ name to riders who competed with him, though, and word pictures of the old jockey vary little. “The Portuguese Pepperpot,” is the way Neves is remembered in racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but the alliteration is too soft, too stylish for a hard-bitten rider who competed with little style. Talk to Bill Shoemaker and others for a while about the pepperpot, and Nails Neves is the image that’s conjured.
“If you tried to get a horse through on the rail with Ralph, you could count on getting crucified,” said the 55-year-old Shoemaker, whose career started in 1949, 15 years before Neves’ retirement. “He wouldn’t let you through if your horse was last and his was running next to last.”
A seventh-grade dropout, Neves rode on the Northern California rodeo circuit and as a movie stunt man fell off horses, at $50 a fall, before he legally rode at race tracks for the first time in 1934. He was voted into the Hall of Fame because of a career that included 3,772 wins--a total surpassed by only 20 other riders--and 173 stakes victories.
But despite all those achievements, his hold on history is related to just one race, not even a major race, and a race that Neves didn’t win.
It was the race in which Ralph Neves died, and then came back to tell about it.
It was 50 years ago, May 8, 1936, when Neves was thrown against the rail at Bay Meadows, run over by four other horses and pronounced dead at the scene. A hospital rejected him because he had no discernible heartbeat or pulse, and Neves woke up in a mortuary, with a corpse’s identification tag attached to his big toe.
“They treated me like I was a stiff,” Neves said recently.
Doubtless embellished and embroidered over the years, the story now has implausible twists and several contradictions, mainly because its leading character, Neves, was unconscious during most of it. But the bare bones of the tale are not apocryphal. There were several thousand people at Bay Meadows that day who saw what they saw and heard what they heard.
What they saw was Flanakins, a horse ridden by Neves in an early race on the card, leading the field through the far turn. Flanakins either tripped or broke down, sending the 105-pound jockey flying into the wooden rail.
“The horse tried to make a U-turn,” Neves said. “He was swaying like a car that’s had a flat tire. I remember falling, but I don’t remember hitting the rail or the ground.”
After Neves had been trampled by the trailing horses, three physicians, one representing Bay Meadows and two from the crowd, rushed to his battered body. Neves’ life signs were nil.
What the crowd heard later in the afternoon from the track announcer was this: “We regret to inform you that jockey Ralph Neves is dead. Please stand in silent prayer.”
By this time, Neves had been taken to a nearby hospital, then transferred to a mortuary. Neves was told later that Horace Stevens, a physician the jockey was supposed to dine with that evening, arrived at Bay Meadows with his wife after the accident, then followed the trail of Neves from the hospital to the mortuary.
At the mortuary, according to Neves, Stevens gave the jockey a shot of adrenaline in the heart.
It’s here that the story breaks down a bit. Why did Stevens and his wife leave Neves after trying to revive him? Stevens is dead now, so we may never know.
In any event, Neves says he was only half-conscious when he wandered out of the mortuary, dressed only in one boot and a torn, bloody pair of pants.
Improbably, Neves got into a cab in this dishabille and told the driver to take him back to Bay Meadows. The cabbie must have driven the entire trip with eyes as big as Eddie Cantor’s.
Neves wanted to ride the rest of his mounts, because Bing Crosby had promised a $500 watch to the jockey with the most wins at the end of the meeting. This was the next-to-last day of the season, and Neves was only a couple of wins ahead of Allen Gray.
When Neves arrived at the jockeys’ room, of course, he wasn’t allowed to ride again that day. Sent to first aid, he was treated for the external injuries.
Neves says he rode the next day. He didn’t have any winners, but he finished in the money five times and still beat out Gray to win Crosby’s watch.
And Neves’ heart?
“I can feel it missing a beat every now and then,” Neves says.
On the race track, Neves never missed a beat. A horse knew when he had been ridden by Ralph Neves, because the sting from his whip lingered for days after the race.
Neves even tried to whip Native Diver, the first California-bred to earn $1 million. Their careers barely crossed--Neves just ending his and the Diver just starting out.
Native Diver was not a horse who appreciated being whipped, and his trainer, Buster Millerick, didn’t like his jockeys using their whips, period.
After one of Native Diver’s early races, Millerick took Neves’ whip away from him. “You Portuguese s.o.b.,” Millerick said. “Just keep this horse between the fences and he’ll run.”
Neves sent flowers when the 80-year-old Millerick died last month. Jack Millerick, Buster’s uncle and a rodeo stock supplier, had given a young Neves some of his first riding lessons.
Neves’ father, a Boston plasterer, moved the family to Northern California when Ralph was 5. Neves caddied for a man who sold tip sheets at the track and through him was introduced to the backstretch.
Neves bounced from one grade school to the next because of his rodeo work. When he left a school, he’d tell the principal it was because the family was moving.
In 1934, several months before his 18th birthday, Neves wanted to go to Longacres, near Seattle, to ride, but his father, who considered the sport too dangerous, wouldn’t approve a contract. Years later, after Neves was established, he found that his father was frequently going to the track to watch him ride.
“He never asked me for passes,” Neves said. “He didn’t want me to know he was going out there.”
But as a youngster, unable to get licensed without his father’s permission, Neves was hired as a stunt man for two movies--"Broadway Bill” and “The Lemon Drop Kid"--that were being filmed at the old Tanforan track near San Francisco. “Broadway Bill” featured Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy and Frankie Darro, whom Neves facially resembled.
The pay was $10 a day, but one day Neves made $200 more, falling off a horse in four takes for a scene in which Darro was supposed to be riding.
The pay at Longacres, where Neves started riding after he turned 18, was hardly better: purses of $300, $5-a-mount jockey fees. Neves had signed a three-year contract with Mrs. C.B. Irwin for $15 a month the first year and raises of $5 per month for the last two years. “I never got the first $15,” Neves says.
Neves was fingered by the stewards from the start, not for bareback tactics during races, but for showing expertise that belied his youth. “This kid must be a ringer,” one steward said. “What’s his real name?”
With $25,000 as a starting point, Mrs. Irwin negotiated the sale of Neves’ contract to Charles S. Howard, a native Georgian, a Spanish-American War veteran and a man who started with a neighborhood bicycle-repair shop and wound up with one of the world’s largest Buick dealerships. Howard’s racing stable included Seabiscuit, Kayak II, Noor and Mioland.
Neves’ new contract with Howard was for two years at $200 a month. But in California, Howard already had George Woolf and John Adams, future Hall of Famers, riding for him. Howard wanted Neves to ride his horses that ran in New York.
A reluctant Neves and one of Howard’s trainers started the 3,000-mile automobile trip to New York. Somewhere in the desert, they stopped for gas and Neves went to the men’s room. He was gone such a long time that the trainer went to look for him. All he found was an open window that Neves had used.
Nobody learned until later, but Neves had gone from the gas station to the bus station, for a ride back to California.
Hubert Jones, a former jockey who used to work for Howard and one of the stewards who will officiate at the Breeders’ Cup Saturday, told that story.
“Ralph was a reckless rider,” Jones said. “He would admit that he didn’t know how to rate a horse. He just rode hard, all the time.”
So hard that the stewards were all eyes. There was a period when Neves was being suspended so often--5 and 10 days at a time--that he was told that the next rough-riding violation would mean six months on the ground.
It was more than a threat. The stewards not only gave Neves six months, but they also ordered him to gallop horses in the mornings during the suspension.
Decades later, Neves still feels maligned. “They said I hit the other horse with my stick,” he said. “I didn’t do a thing. I couldn’t have hit that other horse with a fishing pole. They didn’t even allow the (other jockey’s) foul claim, but they gave me the days.”
Fellow jockeys were as impatient as stewards over Neves’ style. One day at Santa Anita, Red Pollard felt that he had been shut off on the rail by Neves and his horse. When the riders returned to the jockeys’ room, Pollard grabbed the lightweight Neves, threw him over his knees and spanked him.
“You’re too little to hit,” Pollard said. Neves remembers the incident with no less chagrin than he had then.
Neves rates Johnny Longden as the greatest jockey he’s seen. “He could win coming from behind or on the lead,” Neves said. “You’d think Johnny’s horse was dead, and he’d still have some horse left. Johnny had something that all the rest of us didn’t have. I don’t know what it was, but he had it.”
On the track, Neves says that he and Longden were “friendly enemies.” In 1957, though, Neves treated Longden as a brother.
Longden’s Kentucky Derby horse was going to be Round Table, an undersized colt who had run third in the Santa Anita Derby. Before the Bay Meadows Derby in early April, Longden was about to get a suspension that would prevent him from riding the horse.
Neves went to the stewards, pleading Longden’s case. Neves says that it took George O’Bryan, his agent at the time, to remind him that if Longden didn’t ride Round Table, Neves would.
O’Bryan doesn’t remember that part of the story, but anyway, Longden did get suspended and Neves rode Round Table to victories in the Bay Meadows Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. In that Kentucky Derby, which is considered to have had one of the strongest fields in the race’s history, Shoemaker misjudged the finish line with Gallant Man as they ran second to Iron Liege. Round Table and Neves came in third.
Neves never won the Derby, though he might have in 1947. Tom Smith, the trainer of Jet Pilot, was unhappy with Eric Guerin and was going to replace him with Neves at Churchill Downs. Neves turned down Jet Pilot, who, with Guerin still aboard, won the Derby as the second betting choice.
What could Neves have had better to do on the first Saturday in May? “I had a good filly--Monsoon--to ride at Tanforan that day,” Neves said. “She had just won the Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita.”
And how did Monsoon run, 2,000 miles away from the Kentucky Derby?
“She threw in a bad one,” Neves said. “I turned down a few good ones, like Jet Pilot, in my time. But I lucked out, getting some good ones, too.”
O’Bryan, who handled Neves’ riding book for about six years, wasn’t around for Jet Pilot, but the decision didn’t surprise him.
“Ralph used to play gin rummy with Bill Kyne, the race track owner, and he might have stayed at Tanforan as a favor to him,” O’Bryan said.
“You’d have to say that Ralph was the last of the big spenders. In those days, you’d have to collect your stakes money from the owners personally, and sometimes Ralph wouldn’t even push it, if he thought the guy needed the money more than he did.
“And if Ralph won a big race, the sky would be the limit. He had a half-acre place near Santa Anita and he’d throw a party. There’d be steaks prepared to order for maybe 300-400 people.”
Neves sold his interest in a Pasadena restaurant in 1983. Three wives, three children and four grandchildren later, he lives here, with his sister Hazel, in a two-bedroom house that his father built in 1922.
An occasional visitor at the track, more for morning kibitzing than afternoon horseplaying, Neves shoots golf in the 90s and does needlepoint, making dining place mats and hooked rugs.
Ralph Neves doing needlepoint?
The stewards who handed out all those suspensions during his fiery career would get a big laugh out of that.