Paradise Lost

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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.

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Bruce Rushton