Paradise Lost

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

Trainers and fellow jockeys praise Kaenel's patience -- he lets others set the pace and doesn't make his move too soon. They also say he has good hands, the ability to communicate with the reins instead of the whip and will the horse into position. Horses, they say, want to win for him.

His touch is obvious when he first lays eyes on Yummy Yummy, a filly from California that he rode in an April 16 stakes race. Two days before post, he approaches the stall with Nolan and Bainum. While the two men chat, Kaenel seems in another world, gazing at the horse, as if nothing else exists. Their eyes meet and lock. The horse's ears prick up. Not a word is spoken.

Slowly, without taking his eyes from the animal's, Kaenel raises his hand to the stall door. Doesn't stick his arm inside, just his fingers. The horse looks down at Kaenel's hand, then back at his face before advancing to nuzzle the jockey's fingers. A stable hand interrupts, opening the stall to lead the animal away. Kaenel's attention remains on the horse as it moves down the barn away from him. Only after it walks outside and disappears does he look away and rejoin the conversation.

Kaenel receives his award for top apprentice jockey at Turf Paradise.
Peter Scanlon
Kaenel receives his award for top apprentice jockey at Turf Paradise.

Two days later, Yummy Yummy finishes second to last. That's racing.

You never know what will happen.

April 19 started as just another day at the track for Kyle Kaenel. It took him four starts before he finally brought home a winner in the seventh race. The eighth race looked promising. He was riding Manton, the favorite, a horse he'd won on just three weeks earlier. They were set to run a mile on the turf, and Kaenel drew a good starting position, second from the inside.

He recalls the bugle call signaling the field to the starting gate. He remembers trotting to the line. And that's the last thing he remembers.

With 11 horses, the field was crowded. Kaenel broke well out of the gate and moved straight to the rail, just where he was supposed to be. He was in the middle of a bunched pack, five horses behind and an equal number ahead as they went into the first turn.

It was freak, really. The horse suddenly not wanting to be there, seeing escape in the expanse of the infield and taking a sudden turn left, directly into the fiberglass rail. Scott Stevens, who was in the lead, says it sounded like a car accident as the rail disintegrated when the pony made contact, tangling its legs in the debris.

It's surreal, seeing a thoroughbred fly upside down and land on its back on the track, a beast turned gymnast, while the jockey goes airborne toward the infield grass. It's over in an eye-blink, the horse immediately rolling to its feet, uninjured save for a couple scratches on its neck. Kaenel isn't moving at all. The ambulance rushes to the infield where he lies prone.

He has a broken neck. A broken shoulder. A concussion.

Troy Bainum was one of the first to reach him.

"He was asking, 'Is it my fault? Is the horse okay?'"

Kyle Kaenel is lucky to be alive. If he'd landed on the track, he surely would have been trampled. He fractured the same vertebra that Christopher Reeve broke, but there's no damage to the spinal cord. He can feel his extremities and move his feet. The doctors say he'll leave the hospital in a few days. Kaenel is fitted with a halo to immobilize his neck, screws implanted in his skull to keep the top part of the device in place.

Everyone tries to avoid talking in the past tense, but Kaenel's dream may be over. Sitting in the ICU waiting room, Nolan quietly lays it out: He's young, tall for a jockey and bound to gain weight during months of recovery. Even if fear doesn't get in the way, getting back to riding form will be tough.

"He was well on his way to winning an Eclipse Award," says Donna Bainum, Troy's mother, who considers Kaenel as close as her own family. "He was that good."

The nurses are aghast at his low potassium levels, the product of prolonged starvation, and scold him to start eating right. If he doesn't, he won't heal. If he does, he may never race again.

Through a morphine haze, Kyle Kaenel is brave. He reaches up and shakes hands with visitors. His grip is firm. "This one nurse is a real bitch," he says. "She says if I move my head, I'll be paralyzed." Today, the smile doesn't come so readily.

Jockeys and trainers stream to Kaenel's room, right past the "family-only" signs that say no more than two visitors at a time. They bring a portable DVD player and movies. Later, they will donate riding fees from that day's races and bring several hundred dollars. More than anything, they bring encouragement and reassurance, telling Kaenel that this is rite of passage: Everyone gets hurt, they say, and he will race again.

They rattle off names of jockeys five-foot-eight and taller who have come back from serious accidents. They assure him the lectures about eating come with the territory. And they tell him what happened.

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