To jockeys, sweet 16 is the stuff their dreams are made of: It is the minimum age for a professional rider. But when “Cowboy Jack” Kaenel, an apprentice with a penchant for Western hats, turns that magic number this July 27, he will be making a comeback, not a debut. Last month Kaenel (pronounced Kan-ell) was stripped temporarily of his jockey’s license by the Maryland Racing Commission for having added a year to his age. “I did it to help support my family,” explains Kaenel, whose father, Dale, is a sometime horse dentist and trainer. “We live from day to day,” young Jack notes.
Before being bounced from Pimlico in Baltimore after an exposé by the Washington Star, Kaenel had racked up an impressive $897,116 in purses, bringing his personal earnings in eight months to $85,000. He had raced at many of the country’s top tracks, including Aqueduct and Meadowlands, and ridden for leading trainers Johnny (Pleasant Colony) Campo and Bud (Spectacular Bid) Delp. “Jack’s just like a veteran,” testifies Delp. “He holds his horse together, and stays right with him.” Indeed, when Kaenel was set down at Pimlico, he was tied with Bill Passmore, a jockey with 33 years experience, for the most wins at the meeting, and had weathered a broken wrist and leg in his career.
Born in Omaha, Nebr., Kaenel was weaned on racing. “I probably rode before I ever walked,” he says. At 4, he was mucking out stalls. By 11, Jack was riding at county fairs. Not surprisingly, the nomad life has left the 5’4″, 102-pound jockey with a spotty education. He finally dropped out of school in ninth grade.
Now on the road in a 32-foot trailer with his parents and 14-year-old sister, Jill, he looks forward to his coming of age and return to the saddle. Though he enjoys hunting (deer, raccoons, pheasants), fishing and rodeoing, the track remains an obsession. “Being a jockey isn’t work to me,” he insists. “When the gates fly open, it’s fun to come home in front.”