Paradise Lost

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

"I was right behind you," says Joel Campbell, who's wearing a baseball cap from Arlington Park, where Kaenel had planned to race next. "It wasn't your fault. There was room. The horse just sold you out."

Three days after the spill, Kaenel leaves the hospital. Instead of flying to Chicago, he'll be going home to Pinckneyville. But he has some unfinished business in Phoenix.

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.

On Saturday, Kyle Kaenel returns to Turf Paradise to say goodbye. He plays cards in the jockeys' room and jokingly challenges all comers to arm-wrestling matches. He's the center of attention as the jockeys swap hospital war stories, the pain of broken bones that dissolves into narcotic bliss when the morphine hits the arm, the lectures about eating right. Kaenel says the worst part was when a hospital worker accidentally yanked his catheter tube. "My mom said that was the only time she's seen me cry," he says.

But today, Kaenel is smiling again. And so is everyone else.

He loses his audience as the jockeys are called to ride. Kaenel makes his way outside to find his mother and get ready for the lull between the seventh and eighth races, when he'll once again be in the winner's circle, this time to receive a silver belt buckle for being the track's top apprentice jockey. Every jockey at the track is at his side during the brief ceremony.

Even in a halo and with a brace around his torso that forces him to walk like Frankenstein's monster, he's still the same kid who never forgets that manners are important. While bettors walk right past, he pauses and wipes his feet before entering the covered area of the grandstand.

He confesses that he thought he had a shot at winning the Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice if he'd gone on to Chicago and ridden well. He won't consider the possibility that his career may be over. He's facing three months in the halo, then several weeks in a neck brace. "Maybe we can make another run at the Eclipse," he says. "It's still pretty early in the year."

He says he's eating better -- had a full coffee mug of cereal this morning instead of his usual half-cup. The accident, he insists, is already out of his mind. He watched the replay just once. "What happens, happens -- you've got to push that out," he says. "That race is done."

He's tired, and his body hurts. He's been at the track for eight hours when he should be getting some rest. Tomorrow, he will fly home to Illinois. But they're lining up at the starting gate for the eighth race, and Kaenel just has to watch.

He walks, alone, to a television monitor and sits down. The race ends in a photo finish. Tall Pines, the horse he would have been on, takes second. He keeps looking at the screen, not saying a word, as well-wishers tell him he would've won.

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