Paradise Lost

Page 5 of 6

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."

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Bruce Rushton