by Brad Dison
Frank Hayes was an apprentice jockey originally from Ireland. Rather than a full-fledged jockey, Frank was employed as a stable hand and horse trainer. In 1923, the twenty-year old had been working with horses for about five years, had raced only occasionally, and had never won a race. Frank’s passion was to become a professional jockey. Frank’s boss saw that he had potential and offered him a chance to prove himself in an upcoming race. In his determination to win, Frank took drastic measures in his preparations for the race. To qualify to ride in the race, Frank had to weigh 130 pounds or less. At 145 pounds, Frank was too heavy. He needed to lose weight quickly. Frank used every trick known to jockeys, and, according to newspaper accounts, lost fifteen pounds in 24 hours, a feat which hardly seems likely or possible. Whether Frank lost fifteen pounds in a single day or over a period of a few days, his quick weight loss was extraordinary. By the time of weigh-in, according to the judges Frank weighed exactly 130 pounds. He was able to compete.
On June 4, 1923, Frank was “piloting” a horse called “Sweet Kiss” in a steeplechase at Belmont Park, a major thoroughbred horse racing facility in Elmont, New York, just east of New York City. Steeplechasing originated in Ireland, and took its name from the church steeple used for orientation in plotting the course’s direction. While thoroughbred racing typically uses an oval track, a steeplechase track is made up of obstacles for the horses to jump, usually hedges or fences with pools of water on the far side.
On that day in 1923, the odds were twenty to one against “Sweet Kiss.” It was a long shot. The horses lined up in their starting gate and awaited the sound of the pistol. Pow!!! The gates opened and the horses were off. Another horse, Gimmie, gained a slight lead from the start. Frank held his body as close as possible to Sweet Kiss’s back to lessen wind resistance. Patrons of the horse race could see little more of Frank than his bright silk jockey uniform as he and Sweet Kiss sped past them. The horse and jockey seemed to soar gracefully and effortlessly over each of the twelve obstacles on the two-mile track. The crowd roared with cheers. In the final turn, Sweet Kiss took the lead. When Sweet Kiss leaped gracefully over the final obstacle and straightened out for the run to the finish line, Frank swayed in the saddle. He slipped to one side for just a moment but quickly recovered.
The crowd cheered as Frank and Sweet Kiss crossed the finish line at Belmont track. Sweet Kiss won by a length and a half. Frank showed no emotion although it was the first time he had won a horserace. By all accounts, Frank piloted Sweet Kiss to an easy victory. After crossing the finish line, Sweet Kiss trotted then walked toward the judges stand. Rather than sitting up in the saddle like all of the other jockeys, Frank remained in his racing position, close to Sweet Kiss’s back. The crowd continued to cheer for Frank and the horse. Suddenly, Frank fell from the horse onto the track. Attendants hurried onto the track to attend to Frank. They quickly realized that Frank would never race again.
You see, during the race Frank suffered a massive heart attack. He died just as Sweet Kiss landed his last jump of the race. Doctors attributed Frank’s death to his incredibly quick weight loss. Three days later, Frank was buried in his bright silk jockey uniform. Frank Hayes holds the Guinness World Record as the first (and only) jockey to ride to victory… after his own death.
1. Buffalo Courier (Buffalo, New York), June 5, 1923, p.11.
2. Des Moines Tribune (Des Moines, Iowa), June 5, 1923, p. 16.
3. The Standard Union (Brooklyn, New York), June 6, 1923, p.10.
4. “First Deceased Jockey to Win a Race,” Guinness World Records, accessed April 2, 2021, https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/first-deceased-jockey-to-win-a-race.