Hellion on Horseback

By Morton Cathro
In the early months of World War II, before the horse cavalry became fully mechanized, young equestrians such as Paul Mellon, George "Pete" Bostwick, and Oleg Cassini, among others from the Eastern establishment, converged on Fort Riley, Kan., to hone their riding skills and earn commissions in the United States Army cavalry.

Into this temporary bastion of fox-hunting, polo-playing blue bloods rode another officer candidate, jockey Ralph Neves. A rough-hewn, maverick Westerner from the wrong side of the tracks, Neves may have been the most reckless horseman to kick up dust at the remote prairie outpost since George Armstrong Custer galloped through en route to ignominious immortality at the Little Bighorn.

After the war, Mellon was destined to become an Exemplar of the Turf as philanthropist and owner/breeder of Horses of the Year Mill Reef and Arts and Letters, et al. Bostwick became a famous steeplechase rider and polo champion, and Cassini went on to design Jacqueline Kennedy's "Camelot" wardrobe.

Neves overcame poverty and a back injury suffered at Fort Riley to resume a tumultuous career that led to eventual enshrinement in racing's Hall of Fame. He also overcame other injuries, countless fines and suspensions, the eternal wrath of the stewards, and--famously--even death itself.

Over a span of 31 years, he captured 173 stakes among his 3,772 winning rides, posted a career percentage of 14.9%, then retired sixth on the list of lifetime wins, behind only Longden, Shoemaker, Arcaro, Brooks, and Atkinson. But statistics tell only part of his story.

"Neves was an original, a true daredevil," remembers senior steward Pete Pedersen. "One of my fondest memories is of that day in 1934 (July 28) when I saw Ralph Neves break his maiden on Liolele at Longacres. He became the immediate hero of us youngsters..."

But Neves soon turned into an anti-hero, a "cocky, confident little youngster," said a 1935 account in the Seattle Times, "a fearless rider who never hesitates to take a chance. The possibility of failure never enters his mind..."

The Times sports pages thereafter contained a litany of transgressions by the hot-tempered rider, who once hit a malingering mount over the head with his whip. Example: "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."

Neves added to this record when he traveled south to the big-time, where he soon earned the sobriquet "Portuguese Pepperpot" while winning riding titles and incurring suspensions at Hollywood Park, Del Mar, Bay Meadows, and Tanforan.

Neves considered the rail his private property. "On many occasions," Pedersen remembered, "he would be mired far back in the field, and would shift in and hang another horse on the fence. The offended jockey would scream: 'We weren't going anyplace! Why'd you do that?' 'Just practicing,' Ralph would reply."

Shoemaker, who rode against Neves for 15 years, once said, "If you tried to get a horse through on the rail with Ralph, you could count on getting crucified." Charlie Whittingham called Neves "crazy...wilder than a peach orchard boar."

Interspersed with winning rides on stakes stars such as Round Table, Native Diver, Find, and Sweepida, were many months spent recuperating from brain surgery, implantation of a metal plate in his head, correction of double vision, and numerous other operations that earned Neves a second label: "The Prince of Busted Bones."

Today, Neves may be best remembered as the hero of the oft-embellished urban legend that actually is true: He once was pronounced dead after a spill at Bay Meadows, only to be revived and ride the next day. He died for the second and final time July 7, 1995, at age 77.

At Fort Riley, they keep a list of "hauntings" said to have occurred there, including the following: "For many years, people have reported seeing a lone rider who gallops madly across the field in the morning, only to disappear as quickly as he appeared..."

One can't help but wonder, if the lone rider isn't the ghost of Custer, surely it must be that of Neves.