Paradise Lost

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

His last glory came on the mule circuit in 2003, when he won a world championship in Winnemucca, Nevada.

Two months later, Cowboy was exercising horses at a Sacramento track when he dropped his whip during a morning session, got off to retrieve it and couldn't get back on his horse. A test showed he had a blood-alcohol content of .264, more than three times the legal limit for driving a car. It was his second alcohol offense within two weeks. California racing authorities revoked his jockey's license, and he hasn't raced since.

"Alcoholism ruined his career, it ruined his marriage -- it ruined his life," says Debbie Crough, Cowboy's ex-wife. She divorced him in 1997.

Before heading home, Kyle Kaenel watches one more race at Turf Paradise.
Peter Scanlon
Before heading home, Kyle Kaenel watches one more race at Turf Paradise.
The St. Christopher's medal Kaenel wore on his jockey's helmet couldn't save him from a serious spill.
Peter Scanlon
The St. Christopher's medal Kaenel wore on his jockey's helmet couldn't save him from a serious spill.

Cowboy remains a gypsy, traveling from Florida to Utah to California and points in between to earn his keep by working with horses. At last report, he was in Oklahoma. Kyle Kaenel says his father watches his races on television and calls with pointers. He provides a phone number, but Cowboy isn't there, and no one returns two voice mails.

"That's the number he always calls me from," says Kaenel, who says he has no other way of reaching his dad. He's reluctant to discuss his father's crash-and-burn career. "I don't like talking about it," he says evenly, his smile evaporating.

Aside from their talents on the track, the father couldn't be more different from the son, who says he wants no part of the off-track fast life.

"Doesn't drink, doesn't party -- goes straight home after the races," says trainer Troy Bainum, whose family has befriended Kaenel since he arrived in Phoenix, taking him on outings and keeping him entertained when he isn't at the track.

Allowing her son to leave home for a jockey's life wasn't easy for Kyle Kaenel's mother. Crough had always wanted him to finish high school, go to college. But his destiny was obvious, and his time precious. If he waited until graduation and kept growing, he might never get the chance. And so she let him go, on the condition he get his GED.

"That's all Kyle wanted to do growing up," she says. "I don't want to stand in the way of his dreams."

Debbie Crough knew her son had it when he first got on a horse at age 3 and a half.

"Jack and I put him on the back and he took off galloping," Crough recalls. "He just had this perfect form on the horse. We were both looking at each other, saying, 'Holy crap! Did you teach him that?'"

Even before he mounted a horse, Kaenel would don goggles and racing helmet, straddle the arm of the family sofa and bounce up and down as he pretended to ride, slapping the upholstery behind him to urge on his imaginary pony. When he rode a bicycle, he carried a real rider's whip, flailing it behind him as he pedaled.

He carried that whip everywhere. At 7, he insisted on using it in a fairgrounds mule race, against his mother's advice. Sure enough, the mule reared up on the first tap at the starting line. The reins and whip flew free and they were off. Somehow, Kaenel held on, reaching behind him to grip the back of the saddle all the way around the track so he wouldn't fall. He finished first.

As a toddler, Kaenel spent a lot of time at tracks when his dad was racing. But Cowboy wasn't around much after 1995, when his son turned 8. Cowboy left to ride in California, leaving his family behind in Kansas, far from the nearest track. Kaenel rode bulls, breaking his nose and winning a championship belt. But his access to thoroughbred racing mainly came through television.

After divorcing Cowboy, Crough remarried and moved her family to southern Illinois three years ago, within driving distance of several tracks. Kaenel started working with racehorses on a farm near St. Louis and first rode on a track last spring, galloping horses in workouts. At Churchill Downs.

"That's why I'm really so in awe of what he's doing -- it's really amazing how fast it took over," his mother says.

He started as a pro in Kentucky and won his first race in September aboard a 30-1 long shot. On a hunch, his mother made the four-hour drive and laid down a bet. She briefly considered giving the betting slip to her son, but cashed it. "$95 is a lot of money," she says, sounding considerably sheepish. Her son, she says, is making more than she does as an emergency room nurse.

Kaenel came to Turf Paradise in October. He's had no trouble getting mounts, usually aboard favorites. To keep races close, handicappers determine how much lead weight each horse should carry under its saddle, but apprentice jockeys like Kaenel get a five-pound advantage, powerful incentive for trainers to give beginners a chance. But Kaenel has proven he doesn't need a break. After his disappointing results at Santa Anita, he returned to Phoenix and won two stakes races, where the purses are high and weight exemptions for apprentices don't apply.

He has ridden no matter what. In October, he took a spill, got up with barely a scratch and kept on winning, fearless as ever. In late March, he scored eight victories in two days despite running a temperature of 101, bringing his tally to 13 wins in four days.

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