Paradise Lost

Page 4 of 6

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.

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Bruce Rushton