On June 4, 1923 at New York’s Belmont Park, the 22-year-old (or 35, according to some newspaper reports at the time) won the only race of his career on the horse Sweet Kiss.
He also became the only man to ever win a race despite being dead.
Brooklyn’s Hayes, a stable hand turned stand-in jockey, achieved the unthinkable and rode the 20-1 shot to a surprise victory over fan favorite Gimme. While that in itself shocked the crowd, what was to come would be even more shocking.
After Hayes crossed the finish line, he tumbled from the saddle.
Reports at the time said track doctor John A. Voorhees rushed over to examine Hayes but pronounced him dead immediately and said he had suffered a heart attack.
“The grim reaper paid a sensational visit to the Belmont Park track yesterday,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“The exertion and excitement proved too great,” said the New York’s Daily News, which also described Hayes as “well-liked … favorite in the saddling room and stable and took a great pride in his calling.”
It’s believed Sweet Kiss never raced again. In fact, lore says it earned the nickname “Sweet Kiss of Death.”
More than 95 years later, and it’s still not clear when exactly Hayes died.
“The fact that we have a photograph of Hayes on Sweet Kiss mid-jump that day is pretty incredible as the photographers of that period for which we are the repository of record did not specialize in steeplechase coverage.”
“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,” it says.
There were conflicting reports at the time surrounding the cause of the jockey’s death. While some said it may have been from the excitement of the race, other reports pointed to heart failure as a result of having to reduce his weight to 130 pounds.
“He was confronted with the task of taking off nearly 10 pounds in 24 hours,” the Buffalo Morning Express wrote. “This morning he 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.”
A week later, Hayes was buried in the same riding silks he wore during his first win — which was also his last.