You Can’t Kill the Portuguese Pepper Pot

by Jason Tougaw

Ralph started riding at 13, after he ran away from a Catholic school for orphans, where he landed when his father was institutionalized for schizophrenia, and found his way to a horse ranch in Oregon. He was ruthless on the track. In life, he was as charming as he was callous. He was 4'11" and dominated any room he inhabited.

In their Easter Sunday sermons, ministers in Des Moines and Saratoga Springs and Lafayette and Tempe stand before their parishioners and tell a resurrection story about my grandpa, The Portuguese Pepper Pot. A journalist once called my jockey grandpa, Ralph Neves, “the booter they couldn’t bury”—three times dead, told six times he’d never ride again, two lumbar vertebrae crushed, broken back twice, his skull cracked and partially replaced with a steel plate, leg fractured, hipbone smashed, ribcage caved in, lower body paralyzed, brain artery severed by a splinter of skull. Resurrection, the ministers intone, is a miracle for which we must rejoice. (They couldn’t have chosen a less devout man to illustrate the point.)

At San Francisco’s Bay Meadows arena, the ministers begin, one day in 1936 Neves could feel victory in the way his mount carved the wind, hollowing a tunnel through which horse and jockey would glide to the finish line. A single misplaced hoof cracked the tunnel open and brought horse and jockey tumbling back to earth. Without time for breath, much less thought, horse and jockey were ground into the soft dirt of the track by the four horses who had been following most closely.

You could hear a rumbling gasp in the crowd and then quiet as everybody watched a circle of doctors feel the Pepperpot’s pulse, look for fractures, perform mouth-to-mouth, pound his heart. After fifteen minutes, hope was pointless. The quiet of the crowd was interrupted here and there by solemn statements of disbelief: Not the Portuguese Pepper Pot. That kid had fire. Damn shame. He’s only twenty.

Forty minutes later, a voice lumbering with grief addressed the crowd: “Please join me in a silent prayer for Ralph Neves. Sadly, The Portuguese Pepperpot was pronounced dead at Mills Hospital just a few minutes ago.” The body was wrapped in a sheet and wheeled to the hospital morgue. A friend, Dr. Horace Wald, happened to be on duty and rushed to pay his respects. He unwrapped the sheet to get a final look at Neves’s 109 pounds, still clothed in blood-caked silks. For reasons he could never explain, he had brought with him a syringe of adrenaline. He took out the needle and administered a pointless shot into the heart of the dead jockey, then sat watching for a miracle. When none came, he replaced the sheet and returned to his rounds.

“I knew I was in the cold room,” Neves said later. “Something made me jump up and run out the door. That’s all I know.” Startled hospital staff noticed the apparition in jockey silks who slipped through the hallway, but he was out the door, hailing a taxi, before anyone found the bearings to respond. Two hours after his death had been announced, Neves galloped his two tiny feet down the track in front of the stands, a stream of jockeys, attendants, and Bay Meadows officials trailing him. The crowd gasped, then cheered, as Neves beat his arms at the wind—pounding for the tunnel he’d fallen through. When they finally caught him, Neves was incoherent, in a deep state of shock and delusion.

“Medically, you can’t explain Ralph,” said Wald. “Nonprofessionally I’d say he’s alive because he enjoys life too intensely to give it up. He simply refuses to quit.” Medically, no, the ministers say on Easter. Resurrection is a matter of faith. “What’s my name spelled backward?” Neves asked Wald over a vodka martini. “Seven. Lucky Seven. God can’t kill me. He’s tried.”


From the manuscript of my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland at Donadio & Olson).

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