Ralph Neves was understandably disoriented when he woke up in the morgue.
The slab was cold and the tag around his toe pressing into the skin. His heart, declared stopped an hour before, was racing so hard it was nearly beating out of his chest. The last thing Neves remembered, he was riding a horse at Bay Meadows on May 8, 1936. He looked down and saw one bare foot, one still in his riding boot and blood all over his pants.
But he could deal with that later. Bing Crosby had promised the winningest jockey of the season a $500 gold watch. And 19-year-old Ralph wanted that watch, whatever the cost. He hobbled out of the morgue, a retinue of shocked doctors and nurses on his heels. He spotted a train station nearby and made a break for it. Parked there was a taxi driver he happened to know. Neves hopped in, and told the driver to get him back to the racetrack.
Off they sped.
In 1936, Bay Meadows in San Mateo was Northern California’s finest new racetrack. Opened two years prior, it drew huge crowds of eager Bay Area horse racing fans. It was a breeding ground for talent of both the equine and human varieties; both famed jockey Bill Shoemaker and legendary thoroughbred Seabiscuit ascended to fame there.
Its rising star was Ralph Neves, a teenage son of Portuguese immigrants who moved to California when he was five. By 13, he was already lying about his age in order to ride professionally.
“I was hungry,” Neves told the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, “and too nervous to steal.”
Casting agents noticed he bore a resemblance to actor Frankie Darro, who was playing a jockey in the 1934 Frank Capra film “Broadway Bill.” Neves, then 17, was tapped as a body double for the racing scenes.
Young Ralph Neves poses for a portrait in 1940.
Neves wasn’t known for his technical skill. His trademark was hard riding. He loved shooting out to an early lead and wasn’t above dirty tactics; he was often in trouble with the stewards for aggressive maneuvers, like the time he struck a competing horse with his whip.
The spring of 1936 was a good one for the 19-year-old. With two days left in the Bay Meadows racing season, he was the top jockey at the meet. Soon, he’d have that watch from Bing Crosby himself.
So it was with great excitement that he mounted Flannikins in the third race of the day. They made it out of the starting gate without incident, but as the race unfolded, something went wrong. Newspaper accounts vary, but it seems like Flannikins threw Neves and the jockey’s head smashed into the railing. He crumpled to the ground, unconscious, as the rest of the field thundered over him.
The track physician J.A. Warburton was first on the scene. He checked Neves’ pulse and shook his head. The young man was dead. He was stretchered off the track as the crowd looked on in stunned silence. Track announcer Oscar Otis came on the PA system.
“We regret to inform you that jockey Ralph Neves is dead,” he said. “Please stand in silent prayer.”
It was a somber trip to transport Neves’ body to a nearby hospital on the peninsula. By then, a doctor friend of Neves’ had heard the bad news and was on his way to the hospital too. When he got to the hospital morgue, Dr. Horace Stevens must have seen a sign of life, a flicker of an eyelid or shallow breath. He grabbed a syringe of adrenaline and injected it into Neves’ supposedly still heart. Neves sat up, wide awake and decidedly alive.
Neves later said he didn’t remember much about what happened after falling from Flannikins. He only pieced together the tale with the help of witnesses. Once at Bay Meadows, dropped off by either the world’s most trusting or near-sighted cab driver, he made a break for the jockeys’ room. Unfortunately, there are no contemporary accounts of how his fellow jockeys reacted upon seeing the bloody, very corporeal form of their dead friend. Perhaps their screams drove him out, because Neves’ next stop was the racetrack itself. He sprinted out to the dirt track, took a lap in front of the crowd of 20,000 and then passed out near the spot where his accident had occurred.
He was taken back to the track’s first aid room to patch up his scrapes and calm him down. Neves insisted on finishing the day’s races, but the stewards, understandably, wouldn’t let him. He was sent home for the day.
The next day, Neves was back on the job, ready to win the season and armed with a few newspaper clippings reporting his death. “Neves, Called Dead in Fall, Denies It,” read the headline in the San Francisco Examiner. Neves rode his full slate of mounts. He finished five times in the money, good enough to clinch his spot as the meet’s top jockey.
He won the watch.
Although it was undoubtedly the most famous incident of his life, Neves had a long, illustrious career after his “death.” He won nearly 4,000 races, had a 15% winning rate and was inducted in the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1960. He retired four years later, his body beaten by decades of falls. His nickname was “The Prince of Broken Bones.”
Death, of course, eventually came again for Neves. After a battle with cancer, he passed away on July 7, 1995.
He remains only jockey in American racing history to be declared dead and return to race again, toe tag and all.
Katie Dowd is the SFGATE Senior Manager. Email: email@example.com | Twitter: @katiedowd
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