Paradise Lost

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

"Am I scared? No," Kaenel says. "Nervous? Maybe a little."

The wise guys say he's a natural. Always knows where he is on the track, so he can position himself for the win without endangering others. Doesn't back off when things get tight on the backstretch, and goes boot-to-boot with the best to slip between horses with no margin for error. He's a paint-on-the-pants rider, sticking tight to the rail, the best position on the track. Yes, Kaenel has plenty of nerve.

"We've bumped him off the fence and he just refuses to come off," says Bridges as he nurses a beer at the grandstand bar.

Cowboy Jack Kaenel, Kyle's father, in the winner's circle aboard Zany Tactics in 1987.
courtesy of Turf Paradise
Cowboy Jack Kaenel, Kyle's father, in the winner's circle aboard Zany Tactics in 1987.
During a rare day off, Kaenel heads out for a morning exercise session.
Peter Scanlon
During a rare day off, Kaenel heads out for a morning exercise session.

Twenty-four hours later, everything changes. In the eighth race of the day, Kaenel is right on the rail, right where he needs to be, when disaster strikes. He's thrown from his mount. The horse is fine. Kaenel isn't.

Long before he expected, Kyle Kaenel learns what it really means to be a jockey.

From his bed in the ICU on the morning after, Kaenel can't remember what happened. All he knows is that his racing season -- maybe even his career -- is over.

His mother and stepfather have flown in from southern Illinois. His brother Mike is flying in from Korea, where he's serving in the Air Force. His sister Jacklyn arrives from Dallas, tears streaming as she walks into John C. Lincoln Hospital in north Phoenix.

Kaenel's father? The man once hailed as America's next superstar jockey, the one the PR men and racing writers always mention when reporting Kyle Kaenel's latest exploits?

He's nowhere in sight. And no one is surprised.

Cowboy Jack Kaenel was once a household name. It still is to serious race fans. DNA like that can open doors.

"When I heard the name, I said, 'Absolutely,'" says Steve Nolan, Kaenel's agent, who agreed to represent Kyle Kaenel last fall and lined up his rides at Turf Paradise.

Cowboy (so named by a New York sportswriter impressed by his trademark hat and skill on the track) shocked the thoroughbred world by winning the 1982 Preakness Stakes. He was just 16 and remains the youngest winning jockey in Triple Crown history. He rode Aloma's Ruler, a lightly regarded horse that bested the favorite ridden by Bill Shoemaker, widely acknowledged as the best jockey in American history.

Some dismissed the half-length win over Shoemaker as a fluke, but there was no denying Cowboy's chutzpah, or his racing smarts. He stacked-'em-and-backed-'em, going off the front early, fooling the field into thinking his mount would tire, then kicking into top gear at the end. By then, it was too late for everyone else.

Cowboy celebrated his big win with champagne and cocktails. No jockey was flashier or more confident. He was supposed to be the next Steve Cauthen, only better, and Cauthen had won the Triple Crown aboard Affirmed four years earlier (no horse has won it since). He corrected Howard Cosell when he called him "Jackie," and disappeared with Miss Preakness for a night on the town. He wore a Stetson in the winner's circle and drew a fine for violating Pimlico's dress code, but Cowboy didn't care. He had plenty of money, which he blew on Cadillacs, jewelry and a motor home so he could travel the country in style.

It was a long way from the Midwest tracks and fairgrounds where Cowboy learned his craft. What looked like overnight success was, in fact, the product of a childhood spent with no permanent address as his father, a horse trainer, moved from one bush track to the next. Cowboy began racing when he was 11, never getting past the ninth grade. He lied about his age at 15 so he could get a license to race at big-time tracks and start collecting serious money.

The racing life can be as dangerous after hours as when the horses are running neck and neck. Racetracks are filled with temptation for a young jockey with money. There's plenty of booze, women and idle hours. And Cowboy liked to have a good time. By the mid-1980s, he was skipping races with no notice. His career became a series of comebacks as he struggled with weight, ballooning to 150 pounds, then shrinking back to riding form with rubber suits, long steam-room sessions, and induced vomiting. He frequently boasted about the time he lost more than 13 pounds in less than four hours.

There were a few flashes after the Preakness. In 1987, Cowboy came to Turf Paradise and set the world record in the six furlongs on a horse named Zany Tactics. Two years later, he jockeyed Brown Bess to an Eclipse Award, the MVP of horse racing.

But alcohol was taking its toll. By the 1990s, Cowboy was riding at second-tier tracks, and spiraling into ever-deeper trouble. His license was twice suspended in Nebraska for showing up drunk. In 1998, two months after the second suspension, Nebraska yanked his license again and ordered him into inpatient treatment after a drunken driving arrest. He'd run a stop sign and driven off the road, with three of his kids, including 10-year-old Kyle, in the pickup.

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