Did jockey Ralph Neves die in a race accident and come back to life?
HORSE RACING URBAN LEGEND: A jockey was declared dead after falling from his horse but recovered and won five races the following day.
A big part of the world of sports legends is the all-too clever newspaper headline. In the past, I’ve covered the story of the Dizzy Dean head injury that supposedly led to the headline “X-ray of Dean’s head shows nothing” (click here for the real story). Today, we look at another classic headline, this time courtesy of the May 9, 1936 edition of the San Francisco Examiner. It read “Neves, Called Dead in Fall, Denies It.”
Jockey Ralph Neves was, indeed, thrown from his horse during a race and declared dead on the scene. That is only the beginning of Neves’ tale.
Ralph Neves (1916-1995) had already lived quite a life by the end of his teen years when he made his way to the Longacres racetrack in Renton, Wash. in 1934. Neves had worked in rodeos and as a stunt man in films, all involving a reckless disregard for his own safety in riding. Neves began to race for the stable of C. B. “Cowboy” Irwin (who had recently passed away, with his widow forced to try to run his stable). He won his first race in July of 1934 and by 1935 was one of the top jockeys on the West Coast.
Neves was known for more than just being a great jockey, he was also one of the most fined jockeys on the West Coast, as he was such a fiery personality that he often drove the horses a bit too hard/whipped them too much. It wasn’t just the horses that he pushed perhaps a little too far - he pushed himself the same.
The Seattle Times wrote about him in June of 1935, “Neves is a cocky, confident little youngster. When he mounts a horse, the possibility of failure never enters his mind. He can’t see how the horse can possibly lose with him on its back. He seems to impart something of this spirit to his mounts. He is a fearless rider and never hesitates to take a chance. Oblivious of danger to himself, he sometimes leans toward the rough side.”
Neves’ most famous race was held on May 8, 1936. Neves was in first place in a close race for the riding title at Bay Meadows (a track in San Mateo) with a few other jockeys. The prize was $500 and a gold watch awarded by Bing Crosby, so Neves naturally had quite the incentive to win.
In one of the early races of May 8, Neves was in fifth place behind four horses bunched together. The outside horse broke its leg, sending it into the other three horses, causing them all to begin to fall. This startled Neves’ horse, Flanakins, who threw Neves into a wooden rail. Neves was then trampled.
His seemingly lifeless body was taken from the track by the Bay Meadows track physician, Dr. J. A. Warburton, and two other physicians in the crowd. They had no ambulances by the track back in those days, so Neves’ body was taken to the back of a pick-up truck and driven to the track infirmary. The Bay Meadows announcer, Oscar Otis, told the crowd, “We regret to inform you that jockey Ralph Neves is dead. Please stand in silent prayer.”
There is much debate over what happened next. The problem is that Neves, naturally, was completely out of it, so he didn’t know himself what happened exactly. Some doctor gave him a shot of adrenaline. The debate is whether the shot was given to Neves at the infirmary or if Neves had already been transferred to a local mortuary (toe tag and all) before a doctor acquaintance of Neves gave him a shot. If he didn’t make it to the mortuary, then it was Warburton who gave him the shot. If he did, then it was Dr. Horace Stevens who gave him the shot.
Later in his life, Neves claimed that it was Stevens, but, again, Neves was not exactly in his right mind at the time, so it is a bit difficult to put much weight in his recollections. Whoever gave him the shot, someone gave him the shot and he was revived or, if you prefer, resurrected.
Warburton had a great quote to the Associated Press, “Whether Neves was dead depends on what you call death.” Neves then tried to get back to the racetrack to compete in the final race of the day. The track administrators would not allow it.
The next day, though, Neves competed in his five races. For years, even the National Racing Hall of Fame incorrectly noted that Neves WON all five of the races he competed in the next day. That is not true (and Hall of Fame has since corrected it). He did not win ANY of his races the following day. However, he did have enough second and third place finishes (he finished “in the money” in all five races) that he won the overall riding title, netting him the $500 and the gold watch. The San Francisco Chronicle’s take on it was “Ralph Neves – Died But Lives, to Ride and Win.”
Neves raced for many more years and he had a fine career. He raced in over 25,000 races and finished with nearly 4,000 victories (3,772 to be precise). As alluded to above, he was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1960 - four years before he retired for good. Despite his brief dalliance with death, Neves never stopped being a reckless rider. He had a number of other injuries in his career, including a notable fall in 1959 that led to him requiring brain surgery.
By the way, I guess I made a mistake earlier in the article. I should have written “Ralph Neves (1916-1936, 1936-1995).”
The legend is... STATUS: Mostly true with some notable embellishments.
Thanks to Mary Bartz’s excellent account of Neves’ career for his induction into the Washington Racing Hall of Fame.
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