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The sport of horse racing has provided a plethora of historic moments throughout time. One such moment was produced on a racetrack across the Atlantic 95 years ago when a morbidly mad record was created by an Irish American by the name of Frank Hayes.
It was a warm Summers day in June 1923 and the course at New York’s Belmont Park witnessed a steady steerage of serious gamblers, horse racing fanatics and city families exiting the concrete jungle for a few hours. The second race on the card had J.S Cosden’s ride ‘Gimmie’ as the clear favourite with punters. Everyone thought the beast and rider were unbeatable, but little did they think a 20/1 outsider would upset the odds and create history, for all the wrong reasons.
Frank Hayes was born in 1888 into an Irish-American family in New York. From a young age he knew his life was destined to be spent with horses. He lived in downtown Brooklyn with his elderly mother and sister, but was rarely at home. He dedicated all his time and energy into horse racing, but frustratingly he never made it as a first rate jockey.
Frank Hayes was employed as a stable hand for horse breeder James K.L. Frayling who saw potential in the Brooklynite as a trainer of thoroughbreds. While Hayes enjoyed schooling horses, many of them race winners, his passion lay in the saddle. He wanted to ride his four legged pupils past the winning post rather than watch them from behind a pair of binoculars. When a victorious jockey would come into the winning enclosure after a race to a joyous reception, Hayes, the mastermind behind the victory, quietly cooled down the horse and led the beast back to his stable while the jockey took the plaudits.
At the start of June 1923, Hayes saw an opportunity to ride one of the horses he had been training for a race in Belmont Park. The bay mare ‘Sweet Kiss’ was the horse of Miss A.M. Frayling and she wanted to see her horse ride out in the New York track on June 4th. However, she was finding it hard to get a jockey at short notice.
Hayes offered to ride but she declined, stating his weight would hamper his chances of even finishing in the top five, but Hayes persisted and eventually after much persuasion Miss Frayling agreed to let him ride Sweet Kiss.
Immediately, Hayes set in motion an extreme weight loss campaign in order to meet weight requirements for the race. In just a matter of days he slimmed down from 142 pounds to 130.
When race day came Hayes decked himself out in the racing silks of Miss Frayling. In the jockeys room at Belmont, his counterparts would later recall how excited he was to finally debut as a jockey at 35 years of age. When the horses and riders gathered at the starting post, Hayes turned to his fellow jockeys and remarked: “today’s a good day to make history.” Then the starter waved the flag to begin the race and history indeed was made.
With the steeplechase in full swing, the order of the day was starting to play out as the favourite, Gimmie led the charge. Once the two mile course and its 12 jumps were almost fully cleared, Hayes and Sweet Kiss suddenly took the lead on the final turn.
The seven-year-old mare was leading by just a head and the spectators rose to their feet as the 20/1 shot beat Gimmie. Hayes was slumped forward on the horse as they passed the winning posts and many thought he had been whispering into the mares ears.
The horse continued to run before easing into a cantor for another 100 yards and eventually, Hayes who was now slumped over the horses neck, toppled over onto the ground face first.
The track physician Dr John A.H Voorhees ran to the scene and declared the jockey dead of possible heart failure.
The story was considered unbelievable. Here was this outsider; a 20/1 mare who had taken the lead near the end of the race and managed to hold on to it while carrying a dead body. But the result went without contest and as a mark of respect to Frank Hayes, Belmont’s jockey club declared him the winner.
Three days later Hayes was buried in the silks he wore on his first and only winner. The history he spoke about making had indeed transpired and to this date he remains the only dead man to win at a competitive sport.
As for the mare Sweet Kiss, she instantly gained a new name: Sweet Kiss of Death. Miss Frayling found it hard to get jockeys to ride her, no doubt due to superstition, so the mare was retired albeit with an impeccable record: unbeaten. One race. One win. One body.