The cowboy hat wasn't very large, actually less than half the size of Nebraska, and only three ostriches had sacrificed their best feathers for Jack Kaenel's hatband. What you noticed, even from the next planet out, was that here is a star. He's 16, he's tough-kid cute, and did you see Cowboy Jack Kaenel bouncing along on the Preakness winner today?
Here he comes, with folks calling out, "Ride him, Cowboy," and Kaenel is all smiles, twirling his whip, happy as all get out, just the way he ought to be a minute after teaching an old guy to respect his juniors. Every so often Cowboy Jack lifted his lid to the crowd, saying thanks, and it was easy to think he had won a zillion big deals instead of, yes, this first one.
"You're two for two against Shoe now," someone said to Kaenel, whose horse outran Bill Shoemaker's in the stretch of the Selima Stakes at Laurel last fall. "Do you call him Bill now?"
"No. Mr. Shoemaker," Kaenel said.
At 50, Bill Shoemaker is regal. A little girl curtsied to the little man today in the saddling ring. Shoe won three Kentucky Derbies before Kaenel was born. His left leg curled, Shoe let someone heft him onto the Preakness favorite today, Linkage. One place over in the saddling ring, Kaenel fairly leaped onto Aloma's Ruler, a 7-to-1 longshot.
Then the kid stole the race. From the outside post position, Kaenel caused Aloma's Ruler to break quickly across the field and to the rail. This is bold work if you can find it. Kids find it. Shoemaker found a comfortable spot a horse or two off the rail. There he sat, waiting.
What Shoe does best anymore is wait for his horse to run down the leaders. Nothing wrong with that. Unless the leader happens to be a strong horse running slowly, in which case it is incumbent on all riders, even senior citizens, to wake up to the fact that some cocky kid is outfoxing us just the way he used to run off by himself in the pony races in Saskatchewan.
Kaenel is a horse rider's son. All over the West, from Nebraska to Missouri to Kansas to Alberta, with a stop in Montana, Dale Kaenel worked the bush tracks where no one much cared if Dale's kid, little Jack, was only 10 or 11 and riding with the grown-ups.
Pete Axthelm, in his biography of Steve Cauthen, says the kid could do magic at 16 because somehow, there's no explaining how, he came equipped with the life forces and experiences of his father and mother, both horse people forever. Kaenel comes with that stamp, too, and you knew it 15 minutes after the Preakness when he said, "This is me. That winner's circle is me."
Anyway, Shoe was waiting back in the pack on the favorite while up front Cowboy Jack knew this was the day.
"I didn't think I could get by going that slow," Kaenel said. Honest, too, this Cowboy Jack. Aloma's Ruler ran the first half-mile in 48 seconds, which is better than walking but not by much.
About here the kid looked to see what the old fellow was up to.
"I saw Leroy riding his horse hard," Kaenel said of Leroy Moyers on Bold Style. "And Linkage was outside him. I figured he would be closer than that then. I was confident because I wasn't riding my horse. I had plenty left."
Aloma's Ruler ran the next half-mile in 48 2/5 seconds and then, by which time some little alarm clock wakened Shoemaker, Aloma's Ruler led the crowd into the stretch.
"I was in a good position all the way," Shoemaker insisted. "My horse ran great, but his did, too."
"At the top of the stretch, I thought I had it won," Kaenel said.
"My horse was gaining at the finish," Shoemaker said, "but he ran out of time."
The kid in the cowboy hat, having ridden a race perfect in its boldness and pace, said Shoemaker congratulated him as the horses galloped out past the finish line.
"He said I rode a fine race," Kaenel said, and when someone asked the kid how old he was when he first heard the name of Bill Shoemaker, the kid looked surprised. "I was young," he said.
You're only 16 now, Jack.
"I was really little. Way back. I've known about him since I was old enough to know what TV was."
What a day for the new kid in town. He sat on Aloma's Ruler in the winner's circle, covered by a blanket of flowers . . . a pretty girl stretched up to give him a kiss . . . then he sprang from the saddle, maybe 10 feet into the air, sailing to earth lightly . . . to go tell Bill Hartack and Howard Cosell how a pony rider from Alberta beat the mighty Shoe . . . and when someone asked about the future, Cowboy Jack said, "I'm just playing it by ear, day to day."
For 81 days last summer, Kaenel sat out a riding suspension handed down when it was discovered he was only 15, a year too young for such work. The day he came back he rode three winners. Although he fared poorly at Saratoga last summer, he now is hot again. So hot that fate rides with him even on the expressway.
Four days ago, Kaenel's Cadillac was destroyed by a station wagon that turned him on his head. "Shows you what racing can do for you, " the kid said then, only shaken up. "I went from an '82 Eldorado to a '65 Mustang in one day."
Kids. Ain't they great?