The Portuguese pepperpot
by Mary Bartz
Apprentice Ralph Neves, who rode Comradeship, was so chagrined
at his mounts failure to respond to his last minute urging that he struck
him over the head with his whip after crossing the wire. He was fined $10. He
was given a $15 fine earlier in the day when he shut off Millard at the far
turn in the third race.The Seattle Times, July 25, 1935.
e was called the Portuguese
Pepperpot . . .
With good reason. His fiery
temper and daredevil riding style made him stand out even among jockeys, for
whom taking risks is a way of life. Even before he began riding, Ralph Neves
was a hustler, looking for work anywhere he could find it. He had to be.
Nothing in his life had come easy. Born in Massachusetts, he moved to south San
Francisco as a child and came of age in the middle of the greatest depression
this country has ever known. Jobs were hard to come by and workers were easily
replaced. On the other hand, racing was a burgeoning industry; spurred on by
public demand and states desperate to replace some of the revenue they had lost
in the economic downturn. There was little effective surveillance of races, so
rough riding was commonplace. Racetracks were places where a man who was
willing to do whatever it took to win could succeed. Such success eventually
brought Neves a place in the National Racing Hall of Fame and now, a place in
the Washington Racing Hall of Fame.
arrived at Longacres in the summer of 1934, he already possessed a varied and
colorful work history. His first knowledge of horses had been gained years
before, under the supervision of trainer J. J. Buster Millerick at
the Millerick Bros. ranch in California. There, horses were trained for the
rodeo work, as well as for the racetrack and young Neves first mount was
a trick donkey, trained to put on a show while rodeo clowns attempted to remain
astride. His ambition was to ride this animal, and his success in doing it
brought him to the attention of Millerick, who began his training.
Later, after Millerick had let him go, he found work as
a stunt double for actor Frankie Darro in the film Broadway Bill, which
was filmed at Tanforan. According to Neves, the work paid $10 a day, but he got
a $200 bonus for taking a fall from the horse at the finish line, where
Broadway Bill drops dead after winning the race. A rope strategically stretched
across the track ensured that the fall was timed and positioned to produce the
After finishing work on the movie,
he came north to Longacres, arriving in time for the new tracks second
meeting. At the same time, the stable of C. B. Cowboy Irwin, thrown
into disarray by Irwins sudden death, regrouped under the management of
Irwins wife and was shipped to Longacres. The two joined forces, and
Neves schooling as a jockey was placed in the hands of Manny Keller, Mrs.
Irwins son-in-law. Keller taught Neves always to save ground along the
rail, reinforcing the lesson with a pop from a bullwhip whenever his student
failed to obey his instructions. So effective were Kellers methods that
hugging the rail became Neves signature throughout his riding career.
Neves scored the first of his 3,771 career
victories aboard Liolele on July 28, 1934. Within a year, he had become one of
the leading jockeys on the west coast, riding that winter at the newly opened
Santa Anita racetrack, and leading the jockey standings at the 1935 spring
Tanforan meeting. Under the care of trainer Tom Smith, who had rejoined the
Irwin stable at the Bay Meadows meeting that followed Santa Anita, the horses
were flourishing as well. Everything was set for an outstanding 1935 meeting at
Neves is a cocky, confident little
youngster. When he mounts a horse, the possibility of failure never enters his
mind. He cant see how the horse can possibly lose with him on its back.
He seems to impart something of this spirit to his mounts. He is a fearless
rider and never hesitates to take a chance. Oblivious of danger to himself, he
sometimes leans toward the rough side.Seattle Times, June 20, 1935.
Neves riding accomplishments did not come
without associated costs. His reckless style had made him as familiar a
presence in the stewards room as on the racetrack. Headlines from The
Seattle Times that summer trumpeted four winners in a single day for Neves
(something he managed on four separate occasions), while the stories that
followed documented a continuing series of penalties meted out by the stewards
for rough riding.
Jockey Ralph Neves was fined
$25 yesterday . . . for rough riding in the third race . . . The fine brought
Neves total to $215 for the season, giving him the undisputed course
record.Seattle Times, August 10, 1935.
By mid-August, Neves had the lead not only in the
Longacres standings, but in the national standings as well, a first for a rider
based at Longacres. He would finish the year ranked fourth among the
nations jockeys by number of wins. Among the major races he won were the
Renton and Seattle handicaps aboard Instigator, and the Tacoma Handicap with
Thistle Duce. Instigator also provided his mount in the inaugural running of
the Longacres Mile that summer, a race in which he finished eleventh.
So brilliant was Neves performance in 1935 that
Mrs. Irwin received a series of offers to purchase his contract, among them one
from the stable of Mrs. Charles S. Howard. The Howard stable was then being
trained by Neves old mentor Buster Millerick. Soon Tom Smith would leave
the Irwin stable to train for Howard, taking with him memories of the
tempestuous young jockey. For the moment, though, all offers were refused and
Neves remained with the Irwin stable. Any connection with the famous stable of
Seabiscuit and *Kayak II would have to wait until later.
Before then, Neves had a date with destiny, to ride the
race that has become his most famous. Not a classic or a record setting
performance, but the race in which he died and came back to life. On May 8,
1936, Neves was riding Fannikins in a race at Bay Meadows. At the time, he was
in a tight race for the riding title with Johnny Longden, Jackie Westrope and
John Adams. At stake was $500 and a gold watch that Bing Crosby had promised to
present to the leading rider at the meeting. Neves was fifth in the race,
heading into the first turn behind a wall of four horses. The outside horse
broke a leg and, stumbling into the neighboring runner, precipitated a falling
domino effect that brought all four horses down immediately in front of Neves
and Fannikins. Fannikins balked, throwing Neves onto the track and then fell on
top of him.
So much is known from film of the
race. What happened afterward has been told so many times and embellished so
much in the telling that the outlines of the truth are hard to pick out. In the
account of Bert Thompson, who was then his valet, Neves was removed from the
track in a pickup truck and taken to the first aid room. There he was examined
by the track doctor and pronounced dead. The track announcer made the
announcement to the stunned crowd and requested a moment of silence. In a
longshot attempt to revive him, the doctor injected adrenaline into his heart.
Neves revived and demanded to ride the balance of his mounts on the card. The
shaken stewards refused to let him return to riding until the following day.
Meanwhile, it was decided that he should spend the night in a nearby hospital
under observation. He remained overnight, then exited the hospital through a
window in his hospital gown the next morning and hailed a cab back to the
Some accounts relate that he revived in
the local mortuary and ran screaming into the street, complete with toe tag, to
hail a cab. Neves himself maintained for years that he was chased by track
officials up and down the stretch in front of the grandstand, while he demanded
not to be taken off his mounts. Next day, however, he resumed riding and
ultimately won the riding title, the $500 and the gold watch. The headline on
the story in the San Francisco Chronicle read: Ralph Neves
Died But Lives, to Ride and Win.
There is an
interesting epilogue to the story of Neves and Fannikins. Bert Thompson
credited that incident with inspiring him to improve the safety standards at
racetracks. At the time, a pickup was used to remove Neves from the track
because Bay Meadows had no ambulance available. In addition, there he had no
money or insurance to pay the hospital. The Jockeys Guild was organized a few
years later in response to the latter problem, and later in his career,
Thompson focused on the former problem. As national manager of The
Jockeys Guild, he ensured that an ambulance was available at all tracks
at all times and worked with an inventor to create and produce an improved
safety helmet for jockeys.
Neves continued to ride
regularly at Longacres through 1938, though his record was frequently
compromised by repeated suspensions. Among the highlights of this period was
the stunning upset of Indian Broom he engineered aboard Primulus in the Seattle
Handicap of 1936. Prior to the race, Indian Broom had set a world record at
nine furlongs, defeated two Santa Anita Handicap winners and was considered one
of the leading members of that years classic generation.
There was a heated competition for the Longacres riding
title of 1937 among Neves, Allen Gray and John Adams. Gray would eventually win
and Adams, that years national champion and a future Hall of Fame member,
would finish second, while Neves total would suffer due to suspensions
issued by the stewards. While it raged, however, the battle was not confined
exclusively to riding. On one occasion, when Neves had failed to give
Grays mount racing room, Gray imposed a penalty above and beyond that
meted out by the stewards. Meeting Neves outside the jockeys quarters, he
threw a hard right, knocking Neves to the ground.
Neves, incidentally, forfeited a $50 fine . . . The
fine was held in escrow and was to have been returned to Neves if he behaved
himself for the remainder of the season.Seattle Times, July 30, 1937.
In 1938, the final year at which he regularly rode
at Longacres, Neves managed to stay in the good graces of the stewards enough
of the time to again run away with the riding title. His mounts that year were
topped by Longacres Mile winner Triplane, owned by Allen Drumheller. But the
major story of the summer was the ongoing attempt by track president Joseph
Gottstein to lure the mighty Seabiscuit to the northwest to race. That effort
eventually failed and the winners purse in the premier race in the
northwest stayed in Washington for the first time in the its history.
In 1939, Neves finally signed with Howard, and was
reunited with Tom Smith. Howards first string jockey, Red Pollard, was on
the sidelines with a broken leg, and he was looking for a rider for Seabiscuit
in the upcoming Santa Anita Handicap. By the time the Big Cap rolled
around, Seabiscuit was on the sidelines with an injury and old adversary John
Adams rode Howards *Kayak II to victory while Neves finished far back on
Sorteado, the other half of the Howard entry. Later in the year, Sorteado made
up for this lackluster performance when he carried Neves to victory in the
Aloha Handicap (now the Sunset Handicap) at Hollywood Park, providing Neves
with one of his first major wins in southern California.
If you tried to get a horse through on the
rail with Ralph, you could count on getting crucified. He wouldnt let you
through if your horse was last and his was running next to last. I think he did
it just to keep in practice.Bill Shoemaker.
In 1940, H. C. Hills gelding Sweepida dominated
the western competition in the classic division, winning four stakes races with
Neves aboard. His victory in the Santa Anita Derby became Neves favorite
among the 173 stakes races he won in his career. As with his ride on Fannikins,
he had more riding on the outcome than the standard jockeys fee. Prior to
the race, Neves told Hill that he wanted the three-carat diamond stickpin that
Hill was wearing if he won the race. Moments later, he brought longshot
Sweepida home first and received the stickpin as his reward.
Neves took a break from riding to serve in the cavalry
in World War II. A fall from a horse at Ft. Riley, Kansas, resulted in a back
injury that bothered him for the rest of his riding career. Nor was that the
last of the serious injuries that he would suffer. He was sidelined for several
months in 1953 as a result of developing double vision after another spill.
And, in 1959, he was forced to undergo brain surgery after a fall at Hollywood
After the war, Neves resumed his riding
career, but his connections with Washington racing were severed as he confined
himself in large part to the tracks of California. There, he consistently
ranked among the leaders and, at one time or another, won all of the major
races offered, many more than once.
was fearless, crazy. Youd better never get behind him, because hed
never let anybody through. He was a very good rider, but he was wilder than a
peach orchard boar.Charlie Whittingham.
Then came 1957, a year that would encompass the best
horse he ever rode, the richest race he ever won and offer him another chance
at national recognition. The best race was the Santa Anita Handicap, and the
winner was Llangollen Farms Corn Husker, a converted jumper trained by
Whittingham. When Eddie Arcaro could not make the featherweight 105 pounds
assigned to the runner, Whittingham turned to Neves, who dieted drastically to
make the weight. After coming home a half-length in front, Neves dismounted and
said, Man, lead me to some food!
best horse was Round Table, who offered Neves his first ever mount in the
Kentucky Derby, finishing third in the classic. Neves inherited the mount on
the colt who would become the worlds leading money winner when regular
rider Longden was suspended prior to Bay Meadows Derby, Round Tables last
California start before the Kentucky classic. After Neves outstanding
ride in that race, owner Travis M. Kerr promised him the mount in the Kentucky
Derby. There followed a track record setting victory in the Blue Grass Stakes
before the Derby, and a win in the Will Rogers Handicap after the Derby, the
latter part of an 11-race win streak for Round Table.
1957 also brought Neves the mount on Alfred
Vanderbilts durable gelding Find, on whom he won the Sunset, American and
Inglewood handicaps that year. Three years later, Find would provide Neves with
his seventh and final mount in the Longacres Mile, finishing third behind
The closing years of his career
brought Neves in a full circle back to the man who introduced him to horses.
Buster Millerick trained Native Diver throughout a career that eventually
earned him entry into the national Hall of Fame, and in the early years of that
career, Millerick gave the mount to Neves on many occasions, including
victories in four stakes races at three and four. As an older horse, Native
Diver would go on to win many more races, including three consecutive runnings
of the Hollywood Gold Cup, but by then Neves had retired from the saddle, an
event that occurred in 1964. That same year, Neves made a final appearance at
the Longacres Mile, acting as honorary steward for the race won by Viking
Spirit. It provided an ironic ending to the Washington career of the Portuguese
Neves accomplishments on the
track were widely recognized. Though he never earned a national riding title,
he won riding titles at Hollywood, Del Mar and Golden Gate, in addition to
those at Longacres, Bay Meadows and Tanforan. When he retired, he was sixth on
the all time list in number of wins, behind only Longden, Shoemaker, Arcaro,
Steve Brooks and Ted Atkinson. He was honored with the George Woolf Memorial
Award in 1954 and was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1960.
The second and final report of his death came on July 7, 1995, more than 59
years after that first premature announcement at Bay Meadows.
He was a reckless rider . . . he would just
ride hard, all the time.Hubert Jones.
for a complete list of all the Washington Hall of Fame inductees.