Cafe Reviews

EATING MCDOWELLA COOK'S TOUR OF PHOENIX'S FUNKIEST RESTAURANT ROW

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The prerecorded trumpet call announces the post parade. Deb Meredith helps Keene onto his mount.

"Jack has really moved him up for us," she says after horse and jockey hit the track. "We feel good with Jack on him. He likes to run when Jack is up. I hope this one goes smooth."

Keene actually hopes for some rough going. "If it's a good horse, you want smooth sailing, no problems," he says. "With a horse that's not too shiny, you hope for a crowd and maybe you can sneak by."

The final odds are posted as the horses enter the starting gate for this six-and-a-half furlong, $3,200 claiming race. Fallbrook Flyer is rated an 18-to-1 shot, the ninth-best of the twelve horses.

He runs in the middle of the pack for the first half-mile, then Keene maneuvers the horse into position to make a stretch run. But Fallbrook Flyer doesn't respond to the jockey's whip. All the horse has in common with 1989 champion Sunday Silence is that both are four-year-old thoroughbreds. Fallbrook Flyer has won but once in fourteen career starts, and has earned only $1,139 in prize money. Even his sex life is a loser. He's a gelding.

His long-shot odds turn out to be too optimistic. He finishes dead last.
"Thought he'd do better than this," Keene says. "He sure wasn't too shiny. Not too shiny."

The 5,777 racing fans in attendance won't see this old man make his trademark jaunty leap off a winning mount today. Fallbrook Flyer is his only ride on the card.

Keene grabs his tack and hurries to the scale at the finish line. He's done this 15,000-and-then-some times, and he wants to keep doing it until they won't let him anymore. According to a racing guide, he's the nation's second-oldest active jockey. (A 68-year-old from West Virginia rode in a few races last year.)

Jack Keene has never ridden in a Triple Crown race. Though he's competed against the greats--the Bill Shoemakers, the Johnny Longdens--he's spent much of his career at minor tracks such as Turf Paradise.

"I'm not a big name," Keene says. "Never was. Never was. I didn't have to be `the best.' Hell, I laid up a lot of winters, and I've always gone at my own pace. I do what I want to do."

He's been doing it for nearly fifty years.
"An average jock goes less than three years," he says. "You make it ten, you'll probably go twenty, then quit if you got any sense. Then there's kooks like me."

JUMPIN' JACK KEENE officially won his first horse race in 1946. World War II had just ended. Joe Louis was the heavyweight champ. Donald Trump hadn't been born yet.

Keene had been riding horses for several years by then. "They say Dad put me on a horse before I could walk, but I can't remember that," he says. "I do know that I've always been around horses."

He's speaking from the jockey room at Turf Paradise. It's a sanctuary. Valets fold towels, a jockey concentrates on a jigsaw puzzle, and another reads a boxing magazine in front of his "stall"--what's elsewhere called a locker.

The son of a northern Indiana farmer, Keene started riding at county fairs when he was twelve. His diminutive stature was right for a jockey. In the summer of 1943, the sixteen-year-old took a train by himself to Chicago.

"I was the most ignorant, countrified kid who ever went into Chicago," Keene recalls. "It took me hours to find the racetrack. I thought you pulled into town and you were where you wanted to be."

Keene made $2 a day that summer as a "hot walker," leading horses around after a workout. He slept on a cot at the Hawthorne track's tack room. By the end of the season, he'd earned a promotion to exercise boy.

Keene returned to his hometown and high school that fall. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, hoping, he says, for an opening in flight school. That didn't happen, and he started riding full-time at the Chicago track after he was graduated from high school.

"I was an indentured servant, like we all were, owned by a stable," Keene says, able to laugh about it now. "I was glad to be indentured at that time."

The racing circuit included Chicago in the summer, and New Orleans and Hot Springs, Arkansas, in the winter. Keene was not a rising star.

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Penelope Corcoran