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Thursday, May 5, 2005 01:40 am

The son also rises

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PHOTO BY PETER SCANLON

Kyle Kaenel doesn’t walk through barns so much as he swaggers, John Wayne-style, as if someone has kicked him in the butt so hard that he can’t sit down.

He’s 17 and lighting it up in his first year as a jockey in Phoenix, 2,000 miles from home in Pinckneyville, Ill., and living on his own, having dropped out of high school to take a shot at a dream. He’s collected nearly $70,000 in purse money, but it hasn’t gone to his head. Grooms, trainers, fellow jockeys — everyone seems to like him. That much is clear from the teasing he gets as he strolls past the stables.

It’s an off day in mid-April, and Kaenel’s riding will be limited to a couple of exercise laps at Turf Paradise. After riding five or more races a day since last fall, he welcomes the respite.

“No more sloppy joes for that kid!” a track worker cries out as Kaenel walks past. “He can afford the school cafeteria.”

Kaenel grins. “I just came out here for experience,” he says in a slight drawl that marks him as a Midwestern boy. “I never dreamed I would be where I’m at now.”

With 106 victories since October, Kaenel owns the track’s top winning percentage and has finished in the money in half of his 477 starts. He could easily have won more races than anyone else at Turf Paradise if he hadn’t spent three months at Santa Anita in California, where he won a disappointing five times in 56 chances at one of the world’s toughest tracks. When he returned to Phoenix, he kept winning until he had nothing left to prove. His next stop on his path to an Eclipse Award — horse racing’s equivalent of an MVP — will be Chicago’s Arlington Park.

Kaenel has a chance to be the best. Racing, quite literally, is in his blood. His father was once among the most famous jockeys in America, riding with — and beating — hall-of-famers such as Angel Cordero Jr. and Laffit Pincay Jr. But he threw it all away. Kyle Kaenel has no intention of doing the same.

He answers questions like a seasoned pro instead of a novice who rode his first race in September, choosing his words carefully and keeping his answers short. Rarely without a smile, Kaenel’s polite, soft-spoken — a picture of humility who’s fast becoming a man while his friends back home study for algebra tests.

Kaenel is in a hurry to make it big, and with good reason. He’s one growth spurt away from retirement.

He’s cagey about his height but doesn’t quibble with 5-foot-9, a giant in the world of jockeys. If he grows into his boots, his riding days will be over.

“I think he wears, like, a size 10,” says fellow jockey Kelly Bridges. “His career’s going to be short-lived, I think. He’s tall and skinny, and he half-looks like Gumby out there.”

Weight is an obsession in thoroughbred racing — five pounds, railbirds say, equals a length or more in a mile-long race. Anything over 120 is fat. At 110 pounds, Kaenel is beyond scrawny, and he works hard to keep it that way. He never eats a full meal. The milk he pours over a half-mug of cereal each morning goes down the sink — just enough to moisten the flakes, and that’s it. He eats candy for energy and drinks Gatorade between races. Dinner is a salad. Lunch appears only in his dreams. Sometimes he gets the shakes from lack of food.

There are certainly easier ways to make a living. Like every other rider, Kaenel says that the money isn’t the most important thing.

“It’s a rush,” he says. “It’s a thrill, not knowing what will happen next.”

What can happen next is horrific. Most every veteran jock’s body is crisscrossed by scars — ask how many broken bones and many jockeys shrug, saying they’ve lost count. The Jockeys’ Guild logo includes an outline of a wheelchair. It’s the deadliest organized sport in America — 130 jockeys have died on tracks since 1940, when the guild started keeping count.

Kaenel is living on spec. Finish out of the money and collect just $45, the standard riding fee, for risking your life. Win consistently at Turf Paradise and you can clear $5,000 a week for threading needles at 40 mph atop 1,200 pounds of thoroughbred, with better than five tons of horseflesh surrounding you. It takes a certain nerve, or a certain insanity.

“Am I scared? No,” Kaenel says. “Nervous? Maybe a little.”

Twenty-four hours later, everything changes. In the eighth race, Kaenel is right on the rail, right where he needs to be, when disaster strikes.

Long before he expected, Kyle Kaenel learns what it really means to be a jockey.

From his bed in the ICU on the morning after, Kaenel can’t remember what happened. All he knows is, his season — maybe even his career — is over.

His mother and stepfather have flown in from southern Illinois. His brother Mike is coming from Korea, where he serves in the Air Force. Sister Jacklyn arrives from Dallas, tears streaming as she walks into John C. Lincoln Hospital Phoenix.

Kaenel’s father? The man once hailed as America’s next superstar jockey, the one the PR men and racing writers always mention when reporting Kyle Kaenel’s latest exploits?

He’s nowhere in sight. And no one is surprised.

In racing circles, Jack “Cowboy” Kaenel is a legend. At just 16, he shocked the thoroughbred world by winning the 1982 Preakness Stakes on Aloma’s Ruler, a lightly regarded horse who bested the favorite, ridden by the great Bill Shoemaker.

Cowboy, flashy and confident, celebrated his big win with champagne and cocktails, then disappeared with Miss Preakness for a night on the town. He wore a Stetson in the winner’s circle and drew a fine for violating Pimlico’s dress code, but Cowboy didn’t care. He had plenty of money, which he blew on Cadillacs, jewelry, and a motor home so that he could travel the country in style.

The racing life can be as dangerous after hours as it is when the horses are running neck and neck. With plenty of booze and idle hours, racetracks are filled with temptation for a young jockey with money. And Cowboy liked to have a good time. By the mid-’80s, he was skipping races with no notice. His career became a series of comebacks as he struggled with weight, ballooning to 150 pounds, then shrinking back into riding form.

There were a few flashes of success after the Preakness, but alcohol was taking its toll. By the 1990s, Cowboy was riding at second-tier tracks and spiraling into ever-deeper trouble. Nebraska twice suspended his license when he showed up drunk, then yanked it again in 1998 when he ran a stop sign while driving drunk and drove off the road with three of his kids, including 10-year-old Kyle, in his pickup.

His last glory came on the mule circuit in 2003, when he won a world championship in Winnemucca, Nev.

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. Testing a blood-alcohol content of .264, 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.

Kyle Kaenel says that his father watches his races on TV 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 than the son, who says he wants no part of the off-track fast life.

Allowing her son to leave home for a jockey’s life wasn’t easy for Kyle’s mother. Crough had always wanted him to finish high school, go to college. But his destiny was obvious, 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 that 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 got on a horse, Kaenel would don goggles and a 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 racehorse. 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 at 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 that he wouldn’t fall. He finished first.

As a toddler, Kaenel spent a lot of time around tracks when his dad was racing. But Cowboy wasn’t around much after 1995, when his son turned 8. Kaenel rode bulls, breaking his nose and winning a championship belt. But his access to thoroughbred racing mainly came through television.

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.

“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. “Ninety-five dollars is a lot of money,” she says, sounding considerably sheepish. Her son, she says, is making more than she does as an emergency-department nurse.

Kaenel came to Phoenix in October. He’s had no trouble getting mounts, usually aboard favorites. And 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 fever 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 that 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 whom he rode in an April 16 stakes race. Two days before post, he approaches the stall with his agent, Steve Nolan, and trainer Troy Bainum. As 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 she moves down the barn away from him. Only after she 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, and he drew a good starting position, second from the inside.

He recalls the bugle call signaling the field to the gate. He remembers trotting to the line. And that’s the last thing he remembers.

With 11 horses, the field was crowded. Kaenel 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 horse made contact, tangling its legs in the debris.

It’s surreal, seeing a thoroughbred fly upside down and land on his 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 his feet, uninjured save for a couple of scratches on his neck. Kaenel isn’t moving at all. The ambulance rushes to the infield, where he lies prone with a broken neck, a broken shoulder, a concussion.

Troy Bainum, the trainer, was one of the first to reach him.

“He was asking, ‘Is it my fault? Is the horse OK?’ ”

Kyle Kaenel is lucky to be alive. If he’d landed on the track, he surely would have been trampled. He’s fractured a vertebra, but there’s no damage to the spinal cord. He can feel his extremities and move his feet. He’s fitted with a halo brace 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 into 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 and protein levels, the result 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.

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.

Three days after the mishap, Kaenel leaves the hospital. Instead of flying to Chicago, he heads for the other end of the state — back home with Mom in Pinckneyville. But first he has some unfinished business in Arizona.

Two weeks before the Kentucky Derby, Kaenel returns to Turf Paradise to say goodbye.

He plays cards in the jockeys’ room and jokingly challenges all comers to arm-wrestling matches. The jockeys swap hospital war stories, the pain from broken bones that dissolves into narcotic bliss when the morphine hits the arm, the shock when nurses find out how much you weigh. Kaenel says the worst part was when a hospital worker accidentally yanked his catheter tube. “My mom said that’s the only time she’s seen me cry,” he says.

But today Kaenel is smiling. And so is everyone else.

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 top-winning rookie at the track.

Even in his halo and with a brace around his torso that forces him to walk like Frankenstein’s monster, he’s still the same kid from rural Illinois. As bettors walk right past, he pauses and wipes his feet before entering the covered part of the grandstand.

He confesses that he thought he had a shot at the Eclipse if he’d gone to Chicago and ridden well. He won’t consider the possibility that his career may be over.

“Maybe we can make another run at the Eclipse,” he says. “It’s still pretty early in the year.”

He’s tired, and his body hurts. He’s been at the track for eight hours when he should be getting some rest. Tomorrow he will fly home to Pinckneyville. But they’re lining up for the eighth, and Kaenel just has to watch. Tall Pines, the horse he would have been on, comes in second.

Kaenel keeps looking at the TV screen, not saying a word, as well-wishers tell him he would have won.

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