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Feb 19, 2004


By: John Piesen

Question: Who is the youngest jockey to win a Grade 1 race?Answer: Jack Kaenel. He was 16 when he won the 1982 Preakness on Aloma"s Ruler.If you didn"t get the answer, I can understand. Very few folks remember Jack Kaenel. Or Cowboy Jack, the name I christened him back in 1980 when he came to New York as the hottest thing on the racetrack.All this comes back to mind because the strangest thing happened the other day. I was patrolling the Oaklawn Park backstretch, seeking material for my web site, when who walks up to me, and offers his hand?You guessed it.Cowboy Jack Kaenel."Howya doin", pardner?", I asked Jack."I"m doing fine," said Jack. "But it"s been a long ride.""What are you doin" in Hot Springs?," an inquiring mind wanted to know. "I don"t see you in the jocks" standings.""I"m gallopin" horses," he said, "...doin" OK. Making good money. Six bills a week."A couple of days later, the Cowboy came up to the press box, and we reminisced about the old days -- yes, the good old days.At the ripe old age of 14, Kaenel came to New York He lied about his age (you had to and still must be 16 to get an apprentice"s license). Phil Johnson put him on a winner on the kid"s first day. As the racing writer for the New York Post, I naturally did a piece on the kid, in which Phil Johnson was quoted as saying the kid "is the best young rider I ever saw. Better than Cauthen."I promptly nicknamed the kid "Cowboy Jack", and he promptly became the hottest bugboy on the grounds. Not even Angel Cordero Jr., who ruled the jocks" room, could intimidate this kid. The kid was a good 5" 6, and towered over Cordero. The Cowboy became the darling of the New York bettors. He was winning races in the deepest and most talented jocks" colony in the world, a colony that included Cordero, Jacinto Vasquez, Jorge Velasquez, Eddie Maple, Jeffrey Fell and Richard Migliore, a bug rider the same time as the Cowboy.After losing his bug, the winners stopped coming in bunches, but they kept coming. He"s won more 3,000 races. He is the only rider to win three stakes in one day in three different states -- New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He has ridden at 86 accredited racetracks, and, one day, at a bull ring in Kansas, he, his sister, and his fiancee finished 1-2-3 in a race.But the biggest day for Cowboy Jack came on Preakness Day in 1982.Kaenel had been wintering in Hot Springs, riding first call for the powerful Loblolly Stable and trainer Joe Cantey. But after getting beat a succession of noses and necks, he packed his tack, and headed for Maryland.That"s when he met trainer John (Butch) Lenzini Jr.Lenzini was the top dog in Maryland at the time, and he had a 3-year-old in the barn named Aloma"s Ruler. Lenzini made plans to ship Aloma"s Ruler to Belmont Park for the Withers, and asked Cordero to ride.But Cordero had given the call to Richard Dutrow, who had the favored Shimatoree in the race, so Lenzini tapped Kaenel to ride Aloma"s Ruler.Under Kaenel"s usual aggressive ride, Aloma"s Ruler knocked off Shimatoree. In the winner"s circle, Cordero stopped off to shake hands with the owners and trainer of Aloma"s Ruler, and tell them, incidentally, that he was "open" for the Preakness."No, Angel," said Lenzini, "we"re sticking with the Cowboy."At this point, the truth about Kaenel"s age had come out, and he was 16 years old when he took Aloma"s Ruler to the gate for that eventful Preakness. An in-the-prime Bill Sheomaker was riding the favorite, Linkage, and few gave Aloma"s Ruler and his kid rider a chance.But the Cowboy took Aloma"s Ruler to the lead. Aloma"s Ruler shook off several bids by Linkage, and rolled home wire to wire.The Sunday Baltimore Sun headlined the race: "Cowboy Jack Wins Preakness." And that was the hometown of the winner"s owner (Nathan Scheer) and trainer.In the winner"s circle, Kaenel corrected ABC announcer Howard Cosell, who called him "Jackie." When Cosell asked "Jackie" on the air who gave him the nickname "Cowboy Jack", Kaenel told him that "it was a New York sportswriter."I wanted to strangle the kid. Why couldn"t he have told 100 million people that it was "John Piesen of the New York Post?"Meantime, Kaenel disappeared for two days after the Preakness, leaving the media begging for Cowboy quotes. Jack finally told me in the Oaklawn press box the other day why he disappeared."I was with Miss Preakness," he said with a grin as big as his native Kansas.Later on, there were other serious paydays for Cowboy Jack. He won a Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita on Brown Bess, hung up a couple of world records aboard Zany Tactics at Turf Paradise, and won a half-dozen stakes up and down the east coast on a grand mare named Jameela, the mare for which last Sunday"s Laurel stake was named.But those glory days have been far outnumbered by the bad days. Now a muscular 5-8, there has been the constant struggle to make weight on mostly cheap horses at cheap tracks, not unlike the bullrings in central Kansas where he learned his craft.And there were the spills. Name a bone, and the Cowboy has broken it."I have a foot-long rod here," pointing to his right leg, "and pins here. The pain is constant. I learn to live with it. It"s part of the business."And there always has been the constant struggle to make weight."After 20 years, I finally stopped flipping," he said. "I"m not a little guy. With my body, I should be pulling 150 pounds. But I wouldn"t be getting too many horses to ride that way, would I?"Kaenel says he is tacking 122 right now, but will get down to "16 when he starts back riding again.When will that be?"I don"t know," he said. "I"m only 38. I have plenty of good years left. I just need to get the chance. I"ll head back to California, get my weight down, maybe get myself an agent, and start back over again. I know I can still ride. I just have to show the people."

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