In the weird and wonderful history of horse racing, Frank Hayes holds a unique place.
On June 4, 1923 at New York’s Belmont Park, the 35-year-old won the only race of his career on the horse Sweet Kiss. He also became the only man to ever win a race despite being dead.
Hayes, a stable hand turned stand-in jockey, achieved the unthinkable and rode the 20-1 shot to a surprise victory over hot favourite Gimme. While that in itself shocked the crowd, what was to come would be even more shocking. After Hayes crossed the finish line, he tumbled from the saddle. Reports at the time said the track doctor rushed over to examine Hayes, but pronounced him dead immediately and said he had suffered a heart attack.
Hayes apparently died somewhere in the middle of the race with still a circuit to complete and several fences to be jumped, but his body remained in the saddle throughout.
Sweet Kiss won by a head with Hayes still technically on top of her. After the discovery of Hayes’s death, all further post-race formalities were waived by the Jockey Club, the result being declared official without the customary weighing in.
There were conflicting reports at the time surrounding the cause of the jockey’s death.
While some said it may have been from the excitement of the race, other reports pointed to heart failure as a result of having to reduce his weight to 130 pounds.
“He was confronted with the task of taking off nearly 10 pounds in 24 hours,”! the
Buffalo Morning Express wrote.
“This morning he spent several hours on the road, jogging off surplus weight. He strove and sweated and denied himself water and when he climbed into the saddle at post time he was weak and tired.”
Newspapers reported on the astonishing sad race as follows.
“The grim reaper paid a sensational visit to the Belmont Park track yesterday,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“The exertion and excitement proved too great,” said the New York’s Daily News, which also described Hayes as “well-liked favourite in the saddling room and stable who took a great pride in his calling.”
It’s believed Sweet Kiss never raced again. In fact, lore says it earned the nickname “Sweet Kiss of Death.”
A week later, Hayes was buried in the same riding silks he wore during his first win -- which was also his last.