Home Hall of Fame Ralph Neves – The Portuguese pepperpot

Ralph Neves – The Portuguese pepperpot

by Mary Bartz

Apprentice Ralph Neves, who rode Comradeship, was so chagrined at his mount’s 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

He 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.

When Neves 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 maximum drama.

After finishing work on the movie, he came north to Longacres, arriving in time for the new track’s second meeting. At the same time, the stable of C. B. “Cowboy” Irwin, thrown into disarray by Irwin’s sudden death, regrouped under the management of Irwin’s 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. Irwin’s 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 Keller’s 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 Longacres.

Neves is a cocky, confident little youngster. When he mounts a horse, the possibility of failure never enters his mind. He can’t 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 nation’s 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 racetrack.

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 year’s 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 year’s 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 Gray’s 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 winner’s 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. Howard’s 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 Howard’s *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 wouldn’t 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. Hill’s 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 jockey’s 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 Park.

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.

“Neves was fearless, crazy. You’d better never get behind him, because he’d 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 Farm’s 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!”

The 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 world’s leading money winner when regular rider Longden was suspended prior to Bay Meadows Derby, Round Table’s 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 Vanderbilt’s 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 Doctrinaire.

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 Pepperpot.

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

WASHINGTON THOROUGHBRED, November 2003, page 874