A Dead Jockey And Under-Appreciated Horse Win The Belmont! #MindOfMarlar
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It’s a story that could easily have found itself written into a television sitcom – had television existed at the time. But it would be equally appropriate for a story in a horror comic… yet those had not yet come into existence either.
At New York’s Belmont Park on June 4th, 1923, Frank Hayes secured his place in history as the only jockey to have ever won an official horse race posthumously. For those who graduated from public high school, posthumously means he did so while being dead. Apparently Hayes suffered a fatal heart attack during the race, but he stayed on top of the horse right through to the finish… of the race, that is. And, well… through to his own finish too.
Hayes, as a young stable boy, always aspired to be a horse racing jockey. His passion for horses drove him to grab an exciting and career-making opportunity when it came his way: to compete in a 2-mile, 12-jump race at Belmont Park. His chosen companion for this momentous race was Sweet Kiss, a 7-year-old mare that had previously not garnered much favor from her owners – or the bookies – boasting an ego-crushing 20-1 odds. Not only was the fix not in – it wasn’t considered even remotely close to the entrance.
But Frank Hayes was a dreamer and a go-getter with more energy than a caffeinated squirrel. Despite the odds stacked against them, he believed in his new partner, Sweet Kiss. Not that it mattered – it was really the only opportunity for him to jump into horse racing. Pardon the pun.
Despite his lifelong goal to be a horse jockey, Hayes had another hurdle to get over (again, sorry for the pun): he weighed 142 pounds – well above the acceptable limit for a jockey. So, Hayes scrambled — I’m guessing literally — to shed weight as quickly as he could (some reports say he only had just over one day’s notice) in order to get down to the 130 pound maximum allowed weight to be able to compete. That’s a goal of losing 10-12 pounds in only about 24 hours. Simply cutting out the carbs wasn’t going to suffice; cutting off an appendage would’ve been quicker, and probably easier. Frank embarked on a strenuous weight loss regimen including intense exercise, extreme dieting (probably starving himself), and, in the final few hours, an extreme push that saw him deny himself even liquids while doing whatever he could to sweat profusely in order to lose water weight – all without the help of Richard Simmons’ and his “Sweating To The Oldies” program. If you’ve ever seen the coming-of-age wrestling movie Vision Quest from 1985, you have an idea of what poor Frank probably went through… but instead of trying to impress Linda Fiorentino, Frank’s dream gal had four legs and ate oats for breakfast.
Somehow, incredibly, without amputating one of his limbs to make it happen, Hayes was able to shrink himself down to the weight limit in order to compete in the race. To everyone’s excitement and surprise, on June 4th, 1923 Sweet Kiss – with that despicable 20-1 odds – ran a brilliant race, crossing the finish line first – even beating the favored competitor, Gimme, by a horse head.
The crowd roared and cheered, Sweet Kiss’ owners were ecstatic, race officials were in awe, the spirit of the not-yet-born Seabiscuit swooned, and everyone ran down to the track to give congratulations. They were all oblivious to the reality of the situation.
As the winners’ circle beckoned though, it became apparent that something was terribly wrong. Frank Hayes lay motionless in the saddle. Had he fainted from glee? Had he passed out from all of the excitement? It was only after he slumped out of the saddle onto the ground that a doctor was rushed in; at which point the truth was revealed: Frank Hayes was dead.
Unsure of exactly when and where on the track it occurred, it was obvious that Hayes had suffered a heart attack and died during the actual race. Remarkably, he had slumped against Sweet Kiss without falling off until after the race had concluded. Experts did note a slight swerve in Sweet Kiss’s path towards the final jump, which they attributed to the jockey’s forward slump.
While newspapers at the time cited “exertion and excitement” as contributing to Hayes’ demise, none were aware of his health condition, caused by the extreme lengths he went to just hours before competition in order to meet the weight qualifications.
Despite this being only his second-ever race, Frank Hayes became a legend – the first jockey to achieve victory while deceased in the saddle.
As for Sweet Kiss, she never raced again. Despite her win, the tragedy that took place that June day in 1923 deterred any jocks (apparently a superstitious lot) from taking her reigns. Some even took to calling the horse “Sweet Kiss of Death”. It’s a good thing horses don’t speak human, because, man… that would’ve cut deep.
A week after the race, Frank Hayes was buried in the same riding silks he wore that fateful but glorious day – the same he wore during the first and only win of his career, even though he never had the chance to celebrate.