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RALPH NEVES (1916 – 1995) Jockey Who Died and Came Back to Life

In American History, Biography, California History, Horses, Movies, People, Uncategorized on November 29, 2019 at 11:07 AM

As the saying goes, when we get injured, we’re encouraged to “get right back on the horse.”  Ralph Neves really took that to heart. For him, that wasn’t just good advice; it was logical. He was a jockey, and there was a race to run with a big prize at stake. Never mind he had been declared dead just hours before.

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Ralph Neves

 

Neves’ personality was full of grit and determination. When he was five,  his family moved from Massachusetts to California. Nothing is known about his mother. His father, who worked as a plasterer, allowed his son to do his own thing. Neves learned how to ride horses and dropped out of school to start earning money. He joined the rodeo and then did stunts for movies. The basic pay for stunt doubles was $10 a day, but Neves got $50 every time he fell off a horse. One day that added up to $200 because the director needed four takes to get the shot.

JUST HORSING AROUND           When Neves saw the potential for something that fit his temperament better, he made the transition from movies to horse racing. He won his first race when he was 18 years old. He signed a contract for $15 a month for three years, with $5 a month raises after the first year. Then Neves was picked up by Charles S. Howard, owner of the horse Seabiscuit, for $200 a month for two years. Howard wanted Neves to race in New York, but Neves jumped out of a bathroom window en route to get back to California.

Neves did things the way he wanted to, and that was reflected in his aggressive, reckless racing style. In 1935, a year after he started racing, The Seattle Times characterized him as a “…cocky, confident little youngster. When he mounts a horse, the possibility of failure never enters his mind. … He is a fearless rider and never hesitates to take a chance. Oblivious of danger to himself, he sometimes leans toward the rough side.”1  Neves was often fined for riding the horses too hard and whipping them too much. He was suspended for five to ten days at a time so often that once, to make their point, the track stewards suspended him for six months. Winning was everything, and he didn’t care what anyone else thought about him.

 DOWN AND OUT               On a spring day in 1936, Neves proved just how much winning meant to him. At the Bay Meadows track in San Mateo, California, Bing Crosby offered $500 and a gold watch to the jockey who won the most races in a multi-day meet. Neves was determined to win the prize. On May 8, he was in first place, only two wins ahead of another jockey. Riding Flanakins in an early race, Neves was leading the pack going into the far turn. For some reason, Flanakins faltered, throwing Neves into the wooden rail. He couldn’t get out of the way and was trampled by the horses coming up from behind.

In those days there was no ambulance waiting next to the track. Neves’ lifeless body was put in the back of a pick-up truck and taken to the track infirmary. He did not have a pulse, but the track doctor gave him a hopeful shot of adrenaline and had him transferred to the hospital and then to the morgue. Neves was wearing his ripped pants, one boot, and a toe tag to identify his corpse. The track announcer informed the crowd that jockey Ralph Neves was dead, and everyone stood for a moment of silence.

KEEPING HIS EYE ON THE PRIZE       Miraculously, Neves regained consciousness. When he realized what he was missing by being in the morgue, he walked out and took a taxi back to the racetrack. Neves was determined to get back on the horse, literally, and not let a near-fatal accident keep him from winning the meet. After everyone in the locker room recovered from what they thought was seeing a ghost, the officials refused to let Neves participate in any more races that day. The following day, however, Neves rode in five races. He didn’t win any, but he got enough second and third places to get the overall title for the meet and win the $500 and gold watch.

Neves continued his career as a jockey, interrupted for a short time by serving in the cavalry during World War II. And, he continued to sustain injuries. In the army he fell off a horse and broke his back at Fort Riley, Kansas. In 1959 he fell during a race and needed emergency brain surgery. Since winning was everything, Neves did whatever it took to win. In 1957 he had to go on a major diet to get down to 105 pounds to qualify for the Santa Anita Handicap, riding Corn Husker. He won by half a length.

While he’s best known for cheating death for the win, Neves was honored for his overall contributions to horse racing. In 1954, he received the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award (named after the jockey who famously rode Seabiscuit to victory against War Admiral in 1938) for bringing recognition to the sport. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1960 with the nickname “Portuguese Pepperpot.”

Neves hung up his silks in 1964 at 48 years old. During a career that spanned 30 years, Neves rode 25,334 horses, winning 3,772 races and earning over 13 million dollars. When he started winding down, he took up golf and needlepoint. For all of the injuries he experienced, he made it to 79 years old. He was under treatment for lung cancer when he died the second time, in his sleep.

QUESTION:  What is something you’ve done that seemed impossible? How did you do it?

© 2019 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

1 Cronin, Brian. “Did jockey Ralph Neves die in a race accident and come back to life?”     LATimes.com, June 6, 2012. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2012-jun-06-la-sp-sn-ralph-neves-20120606-story.html

Christine, Bill. “Former Rider, Now 70, Was So Tough That He Came Back From the Dead: Ralph Neves Was No Stiff as Jockey.” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1986. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1986-10-29-sp-7878-story.html

Christine, Bill. “Long Ride Over for Jockey Neves : Horse racing: Declared dead after a race, he dies of cancer 59 years later.” Los Angeles Times  July 8, 1995.  https://www.latimes.com/archives/la- xpm-1995-07-08-sp-21661-story.html

Ralph Neves Bio, National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.  https://www.racingmuseum.org/hall-of-fame/ralph-neves

Ralph Neves, 78, Hall of Fame Jockey by Associated Press New York Times Archive July 10 1995  Archived April 24, 2019.   https://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/10/obituaries/ralph-neves-78-hall- of-fame-jockey.html

Whirty, Ryan. “Jockey Ralph Neves’ strange tale” ESPN.com  May 5, 2011. http://www.espn.com/espn/page2/story/_/id/6486411/sportCat/horse

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Neves

https://www.jockeysguild.com/george-woolf-award/

Photo Credit: 

TenderFriend[CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Young_Ralph_Neves.jpg