A modern-day example of a steeplechase race. Photo by John Holloway
June 4, 1923 was an unusual day for thirty-five-year-old jockey Frank Hayes.
Hayes was riding a bay mare named Sweet Kiss, a horse owned by Miss A. M. Frayling, in the steeplechase race at Belmont Park on Long Island, New York. Steeplechase is an interesting race as it is as much a speed race as it is an obstacle course. In this race, the horse and rider have to make jumps over fences and ditches of water. The particular race Hayes was participating in was a two-mile course. This was only his second time wearing racing silks. He was considered long shot with 20-1 odds.
The race was very close. The race favorite was J. S. Cosden, who was riding Gimme. Throughout the race, Gimme and Sweet Kiss were separated only by two or three lengths. It was a nail-biter. Rounding the last turn, Sweet Kiss almost collided with Gimme but was able to right himself. With the finish line approaching, the two dug in. Sweet Kiss crossed over first by a length and a half. Both horses slowed into a walk. Hayes had won his first race!
The excitement and sweet taste of victory was short-lived. The spectators noticed that Hayes was bent over Sweet Kiss. The general thought was that he was adjusting a stirrup. Next thing they saw was Hayes dropping to the ground while the horse stepped over him and continued to walk. A crowd went to help Hayes, among them was Dr. John A. Voorhees the track’s physician. Dr. Voorhees quickly examined Hayes and pronounced him dead.
In a New York Times article dated the day after his day, said that he had actually dead right after crossing the finish line and bringing Sweet Kiss to a walk. However, others say differently. According to Guinness World Records, Hayes died during the race – before Sweet Kiss crossed the finish line. He is now cited as the only jockey to win a race while dead.
The official ruling was that he dead of heart disease. The New York Times also speculated that it was due to the rigorous training jockeys often do to maintain a certain weight level as well as the overall excitement of a big race – and, perhaps even, winning the race. So, June 4, 1923, was a bittersweet day for Frank Hayes.
New York Times, “Jockey Dies as He Wins His First Race; Hayes Collapses Passing the Winning Post,” June 5, 1923.
Guinness World Records, “First deceased jockey to win a race.”