Commentary

Jockey Ralph Neves' strange tale

Updated: May 5, 2011, 3:27 PM ET
By Ryan Whirty | Special to Page 2

Horse racing cost Ralph Neves his life -- at least temporarily.

And he must be one of only a few people to have both "death" and "resurrection" sections under his name on Wikipedia.

Seventy-five years ago on May 8, Neves, who went on to be a Hall of Fame jockey, died and came back to life.

The headline in the May 9, 1936, San Francisco Examiner summed up the story succinctly: "Neves, Called Dead in Fall, Denies It."

Just a teenager at the time, Neves was riding a series of races at Bay Meadows in San Mateo, Calif., when he was thrown from his mount, cracking his skull against a track barrier. Then, according to reports, he was trampled by at least four horses.

By the time the track physician, Dr. J. A. Warburton, and two other doctors reached Neves, his body was limp and he had no pulse. They declared him dead, and the track announcer broke the solemn news to a stunned crowd.

"Whether Neves was dead depends on what you call death," said Warburton in an Associated Press report from the following day.

Turns out, a knock on the head and being trampled was not enough to kill Neves, known as the "Portuguese Pepperpot" and the "Prince of Busted Bones." Neves was transferred to the track infirmary, where Warburton gave it one last shot, so to speak, injecting Neves with a needle full of adrenaline nearly 10 minutes after the accident.

Not only did the jockey wake up, but after being taken to a local hospital, he ducked out, hailed a cab and returned to the track, where he demanded the chance to ride his last mount of the day.

Track staffers denied him and tried to persuade Neves to return to the hospital. The jockey refused, though he did agree to spend the night at a private San Mateo residence.

And the next day, he got right back on his mount

"I remember the horse stumbling, but didn't think we fell," Neves told the AP. "After that it was all blank until I woke up at the hospital. I thought I had retired from racing."

The incident may have no rival in horse-racing lore.

"There have probably been similar instances," racing historian and author Ed Bowen said, "but surely not many, and I do not know of any specifically to point to."

Neves went on to a stellar racing career in which he posted 3,772 wins. An aggressive jockey who liked to ride from the lead and fiercely owned the rail, Neves was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1960, four years before retiring. In 1995, he died at age 78.

While Neves will forever be known for his spunky attitude, that probably wasn't enough to give him a second shot at life.

"[Neves' style] and the fact that he started riding at age 13 would connote an aggressive personality," Bowen said, "but I would hesitate to make the connection between that and 'rising from the dead.'"

Ryan Whirty is a freelance writer for Sports Media Exchange, a national freelance writing network.

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