On May 8th, 1936, a horse jockey named Ralph Neves was riding in the third race of the day at Bay Meadows Racecourse near San Francisco, California. At stake was $500 cash, and a gold watch that Bing Crosby had promised to personally present to the meet’s winner.
Nineteen-year-old Neves (a.k.a. “the Portuguese Pepperpot”) was riding Fannikins, and the two were in fifth place as he headed into the fist turn behind a wall of four horses. As the horses in front of him pounded around the corner, the outside horse stumbled and fell against the horse beside it, causing a domino effect which brought all four of the leading horses down. Fannikins tripped when she tried to stop abruptly, which dumped Neves onto the track just before her crushing weight landed on top of him.
Track physicians rushed to Neves’ unmoving body, and loaded him into a pickup truck to shuttle him to the track’s first aid room. There, he was examined by a doctor, and pronounced dead. The track’s stunned spectators observed a moment of silence when the race announcer shared the solemn news with the crowd. But they hadn’t seen the last of Ralph Neves.
By the time Neves’ friend Dr. Horace Stevens arrived at the track hospital, the jockey’s bloodied body was laid out on a slab with his toe tagged. In a desperate, long-shot attempt to revive his friend, Dr. Stevens administered a shot of adrenaline directly into Neves’ heart. For several minutes it appeared to have no effect, and the discouraged Dr. Stevens left the hospital.
Sometime in the next twenty minutes, Neves sat up and walked out of the first aid room.
He headed across the grandstand towards the jockeys’ room, wearing nothing but his pants and one boot. When the crowd realized that the shirtless, bloodied, toe-tagged man who was staggering across the grandstand area was the jockey who had been declared dead about a half hour earlier, the crowd and the race officials rushed towards Neves. Shock turned to celebration. “At one point,” Neves later recalled, “I think everyone on the damn track was chasing me.”
Upon arriving at the jockeys room, where his colleagues were conducting a collection for his widow, Ralph Neves demanded to be allowed to ride the rest of his races. The astonished stewards refused to let him return to riding until he spent a night in the hospital under observation. In the morning, he left the hospital through the window in his room, dressed in a hospital gown, and took a cab back to the racetrack.
He resumed his racing to finish out the last day of the meet, and though he didn’t win any of his races, he did rack up enough second place finishes to capture the title and the watch. The headline on the story in the San Francisco Chronicle read: “Ralph Neves – Died But Lives, to Ride and Win.” Neves went on to ride for twenty-eight more years after being declared dead in 1936. He died in his sleep in 1995 at seventy-nine years of age, fifty-nine years after he was first declared dead.
NOTE: The basis of this story can be confirmed… Ralph Neves was declared dead that day, yet awoke and demanded to finish out the day’s races. But the story has been retold and embellished to the point that the exact details of the event are hard to come by. Much of this article was based on the eyewitness account of Neves’ valet, Bert Thompson.