Cowboy Jack Kaenel has ridden a coon dog, a goat, a trick mule and a Preakness winner. He's ridden in rodeos and he's ridden in the bushes. "I never had no rocking horse," he said. "When I was 5, I could read a racing form. I never picked up no Mattel talking toys. I ain't never had no toys in my life."
The straw cowboy hat with the Aloma's Ruler button sits low on his brow. He combs his brown hair straight back, like a Dead End Kid. The tops of his ears are red, as if he knows everyone has been talking about him, which they have. He's the cowboy, the kid, the youngest jockey to win a Triple Crown race. It's good he exists because Mark Twain isn't around any more to think up kids like him.
He's 16, but he's been around: to fairgrounds where he and his sister Jill raced ponies (their father had pet coyotes with the same names but they were stolen); to hunting trips with his daddy, where he barbecued coons when he wasn't retrieving them; to bush tracks where they didn't care how old he was as long as he could ride. But he's on the fast track now. "This is me. That winner's circle is me," he said after he won the Preakness. "
"I mean, I wasn't made to be a football player," he said last week at Pimlico. "All the time I was riding in the bushes, winning half the races, I knew I had it. But you still got to have the horses. You can't pick the horses up and carry 'em."
He wasn't even the trainer's first choice to ride Aloma's Ruler. Fate chose him. Angel Cordero had turned down the mount. Five days before the race, someone made a left into Kaenel's Cadillac Eldorado. The cowboy was wearing his jockey's helmet instead of the Stetson. "The kid riding with me said, 'If you're gonna wear yours, I'm gonna wear mine,' " Kaenel said. "It saved me."
He figures to go to New York Tuesday to ride a few races and work Aloma's Ruler before the Belmont June 5. California wants him, so does England. So does television: Monday he appears on "That's Incredible."
The legend is growing but so is he. His father Dale says Kaenel was always the littlest boy in school "and he went to half a dozen a year" because the family moved so much.
"In the last year and a half," Jack Kaenel said, "I grew about five inches probably and 15 pounds."
Now he's 5 feet 5 and 109 pounds, and dieting. He said he isn't worried. But Kaenel has been around long enough, and poor long enough, to know he's got to "get it while I can, while the opportunity's there. Even if I don't get too big, there's a lot of riders who were in the highlight once, who aren't there now."
His father was a jockey once. Now he's about 5-9 and 165. People see that and "they saw me small and they saw me grow quick and they expect me to grow more," Jack Kaenel said. "When you grow in a spurt, you stop. You can stunt yourself. You just don't eat. I'm not going to kill myself. I don't have to go in the (sweat) box to make 113. I did before when I was eating more. I can control my weight . . . I don't have to heave or nothing."
He does not eat until after he rides. "This evening I might eat a salad," he said. "I might go the whole day eating nothing but a salad or maybe an egg. I'm hungry 24 hours a day."
In more ways than one. When he was 15, he faked his age, got a license and got caught. He was suspended 81 days, until he turned 16. He wasn't upset. "I got by quite a while," he said. "You can't cry with a loaf of bread under each arm."
He didn't feel guilty, either. "I wasn't hurting the racing industry," he said. "I wasn't inexperienced, running over somebody trying to get killed."
He dropped out of school in ninth grade but he was going only a third of the time, anyway. "I always got As when I went," he said.
"He was in fifth grade before he got a report card," his father said. "He's never been run-of-the-mill . . . He never knew how to talk baby talk. He always acted like a little man.
"When he was 3 or 4, he used to walk horses for me, big thoroughbreds. He said, 'Daddy, can I ride?' I said, 'Yeah, if you can get on.' He got a hold of the mane and crawled right up the leg.
"He liked it right away with a grin. He could ride the hair off 'em."
Jack Kaenel does not know how many races he's ridden. "I just count the winners," he said, 400 in the bushes and about 250 since he started riding "recognized"--at parimutuel tracks. He earned $1.6 million in purses last year and kept about 10 percent. Money is nice, he said, "but it wouldn't kill me if I went back to driving a '65 Mustang."
He rode his first race when he was almost 11 on Play With Jack, two years after he started driving. "I had to tack 120," he said. "I only weighed 70. So I had to carry 50 pounds of lead. I ran second. I had my first win on that horse the next day. I went to the front and stayed in front."
The way he won the Preakness. He's read the stories criticizing Bill Shoemaker for riding an old man's race. "I had the better horse; that's it," he said. "We could have gone around again and he still wouldn't have caught me."
A jockey interrupted. "You good-looking and you can ride, too," he said, hugging the kid. "And the old man rode a bad one."
The cowboy pulled his hat lower and smiled.
The only thing the cowboy likes better than horses is older women. He doesn't know any his age. "Anybody my age is in school," he said. "Miss Preakness is 18."
Miss Preakness, Joyce Schaefer, promised him a postrace kiss if he won. "You saw me lay one on Miss Preakness, didn't ya?" he asked.
Everyone did. "Any kiss is good," he said. This one "was better than others."
Perhaps the cowboy was getting a crush. "Who, me?" he asked. "Crush? That's what you got in second grade."
A steady girlfriend then? "Man, you're talking to the kid; no way."
After the race there was champagne at the track and a lobster dinner with Miss Preakness. He was so tapped out he almost fell asleep. In the hubbub, he didn't get to ride the ninth race, which bothered him because he had made a commitment. "People asked if it would change me," he said. "I don't care if I won the Preakness or what, I'll try as hard on a $20 bush race as I will in the Preakness."
The next day, he left his van, where he has been staying since his lease ran out, parked outside Bowie and flew to New York for the "Today" show. "I stayed at the Helmsley Hotel in an $180 room," he said. "The drinks cost $7.50 each and I ate the biggest steak I ever saw."
A fillet as wide as his eyes.
Barbara Scherr, the owners' daughter, age 21, gave him a good-luck kiss the week before the Preakness and told him, "I have more where that came from."
So, as Cowboy Jack rode into the winner's circle, he leaned down from the saddle for more. "What do you think of Jack?" she was asked, as he rode off into the sunset in his Stetson.
"Innocent, he's innocent," she said. "Underneath it all, he's innocent."