- The Washington Times - Monday, May 10, 2004

Jack Kaenel is looking forward to riding Preakness Day.

Some of the country’s best jockeys will gather at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on Saturday when this year’s crop of 3-year-olds competes for the $1 million purse at the Preakness Stakes. He won’t be among them.

“Cowboy Jack,” the youngest jockey to win a Triple Crown race, will be saddling up some 2,000 miles west, trying to overcome another in a series of injuries that left his body a roadmap of scars.

Kaenel will be riding quarterhorses at a small, half-miletrack in tiny Fillmore, Utah, competing for a purse that amounts to less than 1 percent of the Preakness prize.

And he will be loving it.

“I’m going to go back to the big time [one day],” Kaenel says. “I went home to get an appreciation of riding on a half-mile track. It felt good. I took one baby that had never been out of an indoor arena and four days later breezed her down the lane. I just got a good feeling about that.”

It has been 22 years since Kaenel, wearing his trademark tan stetson, rode Aloma’s Ruler into the winner’s circle at the Preakness Stakes.

He was just a 16-year-old kid then, but he won with style.

He outfoxed the great Bill Shoemaker in the stretch and corrected ABC announcer Howard Cosell on the winner’s stand for calling him “Jackie.” He skipped the postrace press conference to smooch with a beauty queen. And why not? She had promised Kaenel a kiss if he won. He won big, and he collected.

Everything seemed possible for Kaenel on that day.

By age 15, Kaenel already had beaten great jockeys like Angel Cordero, Jorge Velasquez and Eddie Maple in New York. After his Preakness victory, he was in the pages of Newsweek and on television.

Steve Cauthen and Ronnie Franklin? Forget them. Kaenel was the next great rider.

And ride he did, off into horse racing’s sunset.

Sweet 16

Sixteen was such an exciting age, Kaenel lived it twice.

Kaenel rode for five years at the “bush” tracks. He won 400 races at those unlicensed, backroad tracks — and even a watermelon after he took the Watermelon Derby.

But Kaenel thought he was ready for the big time. So, he acquired a thoroughbred license in Manitoba, Canada, by changing the date on his birth certificate from 1966 to 1965.

Kaenel’s family — taking along their two mules and a buffalo — went to New York in December 1980. There, Kaenel won 37 races in 44 days before he broke a wrist in a riding accident.

Kaenel later moved to Maryland, where he won 62 races by May. All the winning brought more scrutiny, and a Washington Star reporter researching Kaenel’s school days discovered the alteration of his birth certificate.

Kaenel’s license was rescinded for 81 days and reinstated when he turned 16 on July 27, 1981a day he celebrated with three victories at Timonium. Kaenel was never penalized by the Maryland Racing Commission, in part because one official had faked his age to join the military in World War II and felt sympathy for him.

Kaenel never felt bad about the deception. The $60,000 he earned with his victories was a windfall for a family that never had much. Kaenel was only surprised he was able to ride for so long before he was caught.

“I was too young to know better,” he says. “It didn’t have any effect on me.”

Preakness magic

Kaenel prepared for the next year’s Preakness in typical dramatic fashion.

He suffered a concussion five days before the race in an accident that left his new $20,000 Cadillac totaled. Kaenel avoided a fractured skull when his head hit the windshield by the good fortune of wearing his riding helmet instead of his usual cowboy hat.

Considering the deception Kaenel pulled to get a racing license, someone asked him whether he even had a driver’s license. Kaenel did, claiming he had learned to operate a car by driving in wheat fields when he was 6.

But the bigger twist of fate came when Shoemaker chose to ride Linkage in the Preakness instead of Aloma’s Ruler.

It seemed the smart move. Linkage would be the heavy 1-2 favorite at race time; Aloma’s Ruler entered a respectable fourth choice at 7-1.

It was a sucker bet. Kaenel whistled around Pimlico for a wire-to-wire victory. An arrogant Shoemaker waited too long to close and lost by a half-length.

Shoemaker later called it the worst ride of his career.

“I thought I could take him anytime, but we ran out of ground,” Shoemaker said.

Kaenel didn’t give his victory much thought at the time, even though it made him the youngest jockey to win a major stakes race and landed him in the pages of Newsweek and People magazines and a spot on the “That’s Incredible” television show.

“I was more worried about riding the last horse that day in a $4,000 claimer,” he says. “[The Preakness] wasn’t a big deal to me. I thought I had the best horse.”

Rise and fall

The next few years after the Preakness were lucrative.

Kaenel became the only jockey to take three stakes in three states on the same day, winning at Aqueduct, Philadelphia Park and the Meadowlands.

Aloma’s Ruler was retired three months after the Preakness because of an ankle injury, but Kaenel set two world records aboard Zany Tactics, took the Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita on Brown Bess and won several stakes atop Jameela.

“I rode a few decent horses and won some decent races,” he says. “But money wasn’t the object. I liked riding races.”

But the spills started coming too often, and Kaenel’s weight wouldn’t stay down as he began to mature. So he hopscotched around the country, working for awhile in New York, Minnesota and California and making friends as he went.

They still refer to him as “Cowboy Jack” — usually followed by a laugh as they recall him walking on top of the track rail during a delay or accidentally riding over a goose that had wandered over from an infield lake or spinning tall tales in the jockeys’ room. He was a combination of Dennis the Menace and Huckleberry Finn.

“He was such a character, and people just enjoyed being around him,” said former jockey Donnie Miller, who now owns a real estate company based in Towson, Md. “He was just a good old boy from the Midwest. Jack had a lot of talent. He wasn’t fortunate to have a lot of direction.”

Or too many directions. He always seemed to be headed to only one place: elsewhere.

Fillmore will be the 87th track at which Kaenel has raced, believed to be a North American record for riders. He was married in the winner’s circle at a Nebraska track. Along the dusty way, he has ridden elephants, coondogs, goats, broncs, mules and all sorts of horses — whatever it took to amuse the fans at the small tracks at which he raced.

This is not new: One trainer remembered seeing Kaenel at age 8 riding two horses simultaneously like something out of “Ben Hur.” It was just Kaenel, who by that time already had six years of experience in the saddle, showing off.

From Canada to Mexico, Kaenel always has been able to find work galloping horses in the mornings. He was hurt three times last year during riding accidents in California and decided to move to Hot Springs, Ark., for a few months before taking his current job of working horses for $6 each in the morning.

Kaenel is now 38, and he hopes to make a comeback on the Southern California circuit on which he spent many years. He weighs 124 pounds, so he still needs to lose seven pounds before he can go back.

It’s not a lonely life. Sometimes he works with his sister Jill Trader, who followed him onto the Maryland tracks in 1982 before becoming an exercise rider. Kaenel’s son Kyle soon will join him for a final tutoring session before he will ride in California at the age of 16.

“Between all the podunk places I’ve been, I always run across people I know from years ago,” Kaenel says. “Ninety percent of the people know me from somewhere.”

Kaenel says he has only one regret: For all he has experienced and all the traveling he has done, he has never really seen anything.

“All the time I was in New York I never saw the Statue of Liberty,” he said. “It was always one of those deals where I could do it next week. I wish I had seen some of those sights.”

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