The Bizarre True Story Of How A Dead Jockey Won A Horse Race

There have been many memorable moments in horse racing history throughout the years. Some of them were epic, others were scandalous, and a few were just absolutely odd. There was Quixall Crossett, the horse who lost more than 100 consecutive races, the jockey who prematurely celebrated his victory only to realize the race wasn't over, and the jockey who had a wardrobe malfunction while racing and accidentally mooned the crowd (via TCD Horseracing).

There is one incident, though, that seems like it was taken straight out of a movie. In the early 1920s, a jockey named Frank Hayes was elated to participate in his first horse race ever. It was a close race, but the young man emerged the winner. The only problem, however, was that he was dead by the time he crossed the finish line, making him the first — and only — dead jockey to win a horse race.

Who was Frank Hayes?

Frank Hayes was born in Ireland, and his family emigrated to the United States in 1916, settling in Brooklyn, New York. Hayes had an interest in horses from a young age and wanted to be a jockey, and to reach his goal, he started working at a horse track. According to Medium, he started out by doing menial tasks at the stables, and he eventually became a stable hand. He closely worked with horses and was in charge of taking care of them and preparing them for races.

Hayes worked with a 7-year-old horse named Sweet Kiss at the stables. The horse had never won a race, but Hayes believed that with some training, she can achieve her very first win. He worked with Sweet Kiss for several months until she was fit enough to compete. However, no jockey wanted to ride a horse that had no winning record. Hayes was able to convince his boss to let him participate in an upcoming race and ride Sweet Kiss (via History of Yesterday). His boss agreed, but Hayes' weight got in the way of his dream. He weighed 142 pounds, which was 12 pounds heavier than a jockey's ideal maximum weight of 130 pounds; the additional weight would prevent Sweet Kiss from performing at her full potential.

Frank Hayes' first and last race

Frank Hayes didn't let his weight get in the way of his dream of participating in his first race with Sweet Kiss. He had two weeks to shed 12 pounds, and he did it by using his free time to go running, as reported by History of Yesterday. The race took place on June 4, 1923, in Elmont, New York's Belmont Park. The day before, Hayes hadn't reached his ideal weight of 130 pounds, so he spent hours jogging. He was evidently tired and weak by the time he mounted Sweet Kiss before the competition (via Buffalo Morning Express).

Sweet Kiss was not favored to win, but that didn't bother Hayes. She performed so well, in fact, that she beat a horse named Gimme and made it first to the finish line. Hayes' boss was ecstatic and hurried over to him, only to discover him slumped over on the ground. According to Medium, Hayes had a heart attack in the middle of the race, and he was already dead by the time he won the race. Despite the unusual circumstances, Hayes was declared the winner, and no one objected.

The cause of death

Newspapers reported about how a dead man won a horserace. A Times Union article from the June 5, 1923 edition read that Frank Hayes "died a victim of his almost fanatic enthusiasm and worship of horsemanship." It was later revealed that the young man had a heart attack in the middle of the race, and it might have been caused by his desperate attempt to shed weight in such a short amount of time.

However, Hayes' mother, Margaret, disagreed with the reports that said her son died after the drastic actions he took to lose weight, according to Medium. Margaret revealed that her son suffered from a weak heart. Margaret said she had repeatedly asked him to give up riding horses because of his condition, but Hayes was determined to be a jockey. There were also reports that Hayes' heart gave out because of excitement. According to CNN, Hayes was buried wearing the riding attire that he wore during the race that he won.

When did Frank Hayes die?

There are conflicting reports on when exactly Frank Hayes died. According to a report from the Horse Network, spectators during the race noticed Sweet Kiss swerve a little before jumping over the final hurdle in the race. Many assumed that was the time when Hayes had a heart attack and slumped over the saddle, resulting in Sweet Kiss swerving slightly. Dr. John Voorhees, the physician who examined Hayes immediately after the race, said that the jockey's death was instantaneous.

The race was one of the most shocking in history, and a photographer was able to capture Sweet Kiss in the middle of a jump. The photo is part of Keeneland Library's collection, and as head librarian Roda Ferraro told CNN, the photographer was lucky to have captured the shot, as most of the photographers back then didn't specialize in covering horse races. Guinness World Records named Hayes the first and only deceased jockey to win a race.

What happened to Sweet Kiss?

Just like Frank Hayes, Sweet Kiss only participated in one race throughout her life, but the jockey was able to prove that the 7-year-old horse was a winner. Although Sweet Kiss wasn't the favorite to win the race, there were still a few who bet on her, and they took home a winning total of $1,775 (via History of Yesterday), which is equivalent to about $28,000 in today's money.

Despite showcasing incredible talent during her first race and proving she was a winning horse, no jockey wanted to ride Sweet Kiss after Hayes' death. They had superstitious beliefs and didn't want to risk dying by riding the horse, as reported by Headstuff. After reports of Hayes' death spread, people renamed the horse Sweet Kiss of Death. Sweet Kiss was retired by her owner after her only one race, which resulted in an "unbeaten" record.