Cafe Reviews

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

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Three of his mounts have died of heart attacks during races. "When they go, they lay on you heavier and heavier. But they run a straight line. They must have some kind of reflex action. They finally stop. You pull so hard on them to keep their heads up."

And he's had "a whole lot" of horses break down on him during races.
"The majority of them seem to stay up after they snap a leg," Keene says. "They just seem to jab that stump into the ground. They are bred to run, even when they can't. They are fighters."

All jockeys get injured if they stay in the game, Keene says, but in June 1980, he had an especially terrible spill. He was 53 at the time.

"I saw the pictures later and I put it together in reverse," he recalls. "I was coming up on a horse, and I saw a rider rear up and start to steady his horse. I couldn't see everything, but his horse and my horse went over a fallen horse, and I was on the belly side of it. It's kind of like the world has dropped out from under you. His horse was strugglin' to get up, but he wasn't making it. My first thought was to get away from him. I started to move, but my leg didn't go with me."

The broken leg was the least serious of Keene's injuries.
"I remember the other rider saying, `Are you . . . ,' then boomp, he fainted," Keene says. His left eye had popped out of its socket.

"I still didn't know my eye was laying on my cheek. It's a bad sign when everyone comes up to you and says, `Goddd!' My kid kept saying, `You're gonna be all right,' but I could see he didn't believe it. Nobody seemed to want to talk with me. Finally, I figured that I'd broke my head, too."

Doctors put Keene's eye back into place with wire and silicon. He still can't feel much in the left side of his face ("I won't drink coffee out of that side of my mouth because I can't feel nothing. Big deal."), but he can see out of the eye. As soon as his body healed enough months later, Keene returned to his job of maneuvering speedy, high-strung, half-ton animals through perilously narrow spaces.

"I've seen riders' careers ruined by a wreck, but I don't think it was the rider," Keene says. The jockeys were willing to ride, but owners were leery of giving them mounts. "It was people's attitudes toward them--scared attitudes."

Keene has been around racing far too long not to recognize how callous the business is.

"You got to go through hundreds of horses to find a Triple Crown horse," he says. "To get a three-year-old to run 1 1/4 miles without falling apart mentally or physically isn't easy. All of them are on the edge. Some go berserk. Can't stand the pressure. Most of these cheap horses out here at TP either couldn't stand the pressure, or they never even got that far."

That, Keene naturally adds, doesn't hold true for the track's jockeys.
"This is an awfully nice place to winter, and we have over a hundred riders trying to get mounts," he says. "Maybe twenty or so are making a good living--$2,000 is a bad week. Maybe another thirty are breaking even. The rest better not be depending on it."

Keene is one of "the rest" these days. He's been aboard the winner in eleven races during Turf Paradise's current meet, which ends May 20. By contrast, leading jockey Sandi Gann has brought home more than 130 winners.

Keene became a regular rider at the Phoenix track in the 1980s. The number of his mounts has tapered off only in the past few years. These days he takes what he can get.

"Jack's old enough to be grandfather to some of these jocks," says former track publicist Stephen Reilly, "but he still beats them now and again. To say Jack is experienced is about as big an understatement as I can think of."

He's experienced, but not famous.
"If he had wanted to push the fame aspect, he could have been as big as any of them, Shoemaker or Eddie Arcaro," Julie Sodowsky says. "I feel a little bad that he's not famous, because he's a really good rider. He's able to squeeze it out of a horse better than almost anyone. What's important to Jack is his self-image, and he has that."

Like the danger, Keene deals with his lack of fame philosophically. A jockey, he says, is often only as good as the horse he's riding.

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Penelope Corcoran