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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.