You don’t need to be a diehard fan of horse racing to know the sport has historically had some issues when it comes to ensuring the health and well-being of the animals it couldn’t exist without.
The fact that those horses can’t exactly consent to that line of work makes it easier to understand why plenty of animal rights activists have attempted to sound the alarm over the years, but that particular pastime almost poses plenty of hazards for the people tasked with riding them.
“Being short” is probably the biggest prerequisite if you want to be a horse jockey, a profession where you need to meet minimum weight requirements (typically between 122 and 126 pounds depending on the specific race) while still possessing the strength to control an incredibly muscular animal that tends to weight around 10 times as much as the person riding them in a competition.
However, you also need to possess nerves of steel and a borderline disregard for your own safety thanks to the wide variety of ways you can end up in harm’s way during a race; it’s one thing to merely get tossed off a horse, but being tossed to the dirt in the middle of a crowded pack is another entirely.
Experts estimate around two jockeys die from race-related incidents on an annual basis while another 60 end up paralyzed each year thanks to similar mishaps. However, it’s hard to think of many that are stranger than the one that transpired at the historic Belmont Park in 1923.
The horse jockey who won a race despite dying in the middle of it
Frank Hayes was a trainer and stablehand at Belmont who had never actually competed in a race before being offered the chance to do exactly that on June 4th, 1923.
The owner of Sweet Kiss had found himself with an unexpected vacancy at the jockey position ahead of a steeplechase race, and Hayes jumped at the chance to fill in. However, the 22-year-old had less than a day to prepare and spent most of it doing what he could to lose as much weight as possible en route to shedding ten pounds in a 24-hour span.
Hayes was understandably in pretty rough shape when he arrived at Belmont for the race, but he insisted on climbing aboard Sweet Kiss (which was listed as a relative 5-1 longshot) despite being in seemingly no condition to compete.
Hayes and Sweet Kiss unexpectedly pulled out to the front of the pack after the five horses competing left the starting gate, and after engaging in a back-and-forth battle with the 3-5 favorite Gimmie, the duo ultimately edged out the rest of the field to secure the victory.
However, plenty of spectators noticed Hayes had gone limp shortly after Sweet Kiss had hopped over the last hurdle and headed into the final stretch, and Belmont attendants rushed to his aid after he fell off of his saddle and onto the ground after crossing the finish line.
It was at that point they realized Hayes was unresponsive, and while doctors attempted to resuscitate him, he was declared dead thanks to what was ultimately diagnosed as a fatal heart attack he’d suffered before the race had officially reached its conclusion (the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes him as the “First deceased jockey to win a race”).
It doesn’t get much stranger than that.