Paradise Lost

Kyle Kaenel has the pedigree and nerve to be a top jockey. But he may never race again

Kyle Kaenel doesn't walk through barns at Turf Paradise so much as swagger John Wayne style, as if someone has kicked him in the butt so hard that he can't sit down.

He's 17 and lighting it up in his first year as a jockey, 2,000 miles from home and living on his own, having dropped out of high school to take a shot at a dream. He's collected nearly $70,000 in purse money, but it hasn't gone to his head. Grooms, trainers, fellow jockeys -- everyone seems to like him. That much is clear from the teasing he gets as he strolls past the stables.

It's an off-day in mid-April, and Kaenel's riding will be limited to a couple of exercise laps. After riding five or more races a day since last fall, the respite is welcome.

Kyle Kaenel, horse starer.
Peter Scanlon
Kyle Kaenel, horse starer.
Kyle Kaenel in the winner's circle again, this time aboard Easy Pickins. Trainer Troy Bainum stands beside the horse, left.
Peter Scanlon
Kyle Kaenel in the winner's circle again, this time aboard Easy Pickins. Trainer Troy Bainum stands beside the horse, left.

"No more Sloppy Joes for that kid!" cries out one track worker as Kaenel walks past. "He can afford the school cafeteria."

Kaenel grins. "I just came out here for experience," he says in a slight drawl that marks him as a Midwestern boy. "I never dreamed I would be where I'm at now."

With 106 victories since October, Kaenel owns the track's top winning percentage and has finished in the money in half of his 477 starts. He easily could have won more races than anyone else at Turf Paradise if he hadn't spent three months at Santa Anita in California, where he won a disappointing five times in 56 chances at one of the world's toughest tracks. He came back to Phoenix in March, kept winning, and has nothing left to prove here.

Kaenel has a chance to be the best. Racing, quite literally, is in his blood. His father was once among the most famous jockeys in America, riding with -- and beating -- hall of famers like Angel Cordero and Laffit Pincay at Del Mar and other top tracks. But he threw it all away. Kyle Kaenel has no intention of doing the same.

He answers questions like a seasoned pro instead of a novice who rode his first race in September, choosing his words carefully and keeping his answers short. Rarely without a smile, Kaenel's polite, soft-spoken -- a picture of humility who's fast becoming a man while his friends back home study for algebra tests. The sign in the jockey room reading "Do Not Spit On Floor, Walls Or In Ash Trays" wasn't posted with him in mind.

No offense, but Turf Paradise is a get-what-you-need-and-get-out track, where the horses are slow, the crowds sparse and the racing surface infamous for rock-hard dirt clods the size of baseballs that fly up and leave bruises. Some jockeys wear cups to protect themselves. April 24, Kaenel says, will be his last day here. Then he's going to Chicago to race at Arlington Park. Not as glamorous as Santa Anita, but a step up from Phoenix.

Kaenel is in a hurry to make it big, and with good reason. He's one growth spurt away from retirement.

He's cagey about his height, but doesn't quibble with five-foot-nine, a giant in the world of jockeys. If he grows into his boots, his riding days will be over.

"I think he wears like a size 10," says fellow jockey Kelly Bridges. "His career's going to be short-lived, I think. He's tall and skinny and he half looks like Gumby out there. He's enjoying it while he can."

Weight is an obsession in thoroughbred racing -- five pounds, railbirds say, equals a length or more in a mile-long race. Anything over 120 is fat. At 110 pounds, Kaenel is beyond scrawny, and he works like hell to keep it that way. He never eats a full meal. The milk he pours over a half-mug of cereal each morning goes down the sink -- just enough to moisten the flakes and that's it. He eats candy during the day for energy and drinks Gatorade between races. Dinner is a salad. Lunch appears only in his dreams. Sometimes, he gets the shakes from lack of food. The sauna box in the jockeys' room is no help -- instead of sweating, he says he just burns.

Kaenel hasn't resorted to flipping, a track term for forced vomiting, or drugs. But plenty of jockeys have. Some eat Lasix, a drug that reduces pulmonary bleeding in thoroughbreds and makes humans urinate. Laxatives are also common. Besides reducing hunger pangs, cocaine and amphetamines give a buzz that substitutes for the satisfaction most people get from eating, jockeys say.

There are certainly easier ways to make a living. Like every other rider, Kaenel says the money isn't the most important thing.

"It's a rush," he says. "It's a thrill, not knowing what will happen next."

What can happen next is horrific. Most every veteran jock's body is crisscrossed by scars -- ask how many broken bones and many shrug and say they've lost count. The Jockeys' Guild logo includes an outline of a wheelchair. It's a deadly sport -- 130 jockeys have died on tracks since 1940, when the guild started keeping track.

Finish out of the money and collect just $45, the standard riding fee, for risking your life. Win consistently at Turf Paradise and you can clear more than $5,000 a week for threading needles at 40 mph atop 1,200 pounds of thoroughbred, with better than five tons of horse flesh surrounding you. It takes a certain nerve, or a certain insanity.

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