Sweet Kiss of Death: The Story of Jockey Frank Hayes

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Perhaps the most astounding horse race victory in history was won by a dead jockey. Frank Hayes, an Irish immigrant who resided in Belmont Park, New York, shocked the world when he won a steeplechase — and was pronounced dead at the finish line. It was June 2, 1923.

Old newspaper accounts state that Hayes was 35 at the time, although CNN has questioned this, stating that he may have been 22. He was a stable hand for racehorse owner Mr. James K.L. Frayling. After five years, Hayes eventually became a stand-in jockey.

Allegedly, Sweet Kiss was chosen for the race, and Hayes asked to be its rider. However, Sweet Kiss’s owner, Miss Frayling, refused Hayes because it could only carry up to 130 lbs. Hayes, on the other hand, weighed 145.

Frank Hayes’ Determination to Ride Sweet Kiss Ultimately Killed Him

So, Hayes decided to lose weight. He got his body down to 130 lbs, and the story goes that he lost 11 of those lbs. in the final 24 hours before the race. He convinced Miss Frayling to allow him to ride her horse.

The pair would go on to win the race against 20 – 1 odds.

The steeplechase was 2 miles long and featured 12 fences. Towards the end of the race, Hayes and Sweet Kiss made their way to the front of the pack. It appeared that Hayes was whispering in the horse’s ear and together, they leaped over the last fence. Then the crowd favorite, Gimme, rushed up, head-to-head with Sweet Kiss.

Hayes and Sweet Kiss Appeared to Make a Stoic Last Push

Allegedly, the final push to cross the finish line is what did Hayes in. He won by a head, but 100 yards past the finish, Hayes fell off the horse, already deceased.

A physician named Dr. John Vorhees ran to Hayes and pronounced him dead. The reason, he said, was heart failure.

The next day, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an article about the incident. “The grim reaper paid a sensational visit to the Belmont Park track yesterday,” it read. The paper claimed that “loyalty to his employer and zeal to ride Sweet Kiss unquestionably” contributed to the sudden death. It added that Hayes spent two days prior to the race “enveloped in sweaters in order to reduce to the proper poundage” while in intense heat.

The Buffalo Morning Express elaborated that Hayes “spent several hours on the road, jogging off surplus weight. He strove and sweated and denied himself water and when he climbed into the saddle at post time he was weak and tired.”

The New York Daily News described Hayes as “well-liked” and a “favorite in the saddling room and stable and took a great pride in his calling.” It added that “the exertion and excitement proved too great.”

Hayes made it into the Guinness World Records, which states that “despite his sudden death, Hayes somehow remained in the saddle long enough for the 20–1 long shot to jump the final fence and cross the finish line in first place, making him the only jockey to ride to victory after his own death.”

Did Hayes Suffer From Low Electrolytes?

It’s assumed that the rapid weight loss and extreme exertion is what caused Hayes’ heart to fail. Rapid weight loss can often lead to serious electrolyte imbalances, thus leading to heart problems.

Hayes had never won a horse race before, making his first victory his last. Sweet Kiss allegedly went into retirement, as no one dared ride her after what happened to Hayes. She was nicknamed “Sweet Kiss of Death.”

To this day, no one knows for sure at which point of the race Hayes died. But one thing is clear, he was the first and only jockey to win a horserace while officially dead.

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