Jill Kaenel remembers standing by the wire at Pimlico last year, watching her brother Jack ride Aloma's Ruler to victory in the Preakness. Her fondest fantasy had become real.
"It's hard to believe it's my brother," says Kaenel, now an apprentice jockey at Pimlico. "Nobody likes to think of it as a fantasy. Everybody likes to think of it as reality. It's one of the things that keeps you going. But in this game, you have to wait for your chances to come up. You have to live one day at a time, win one race at a time."
And now, Jill Kaenel has the same fantasy--for herself. For as surely as "Cowboy" Jack Kaenel was born to race horses, so was his sister.
So eager was Jack Kaenel, now 17, to ride that he misrepresented his age at Pimlico in 1981. He was suspended from racing in Maryland for almost three months, until he reached his 16th birthday. At the time of his suspension, he was tied with Bill Passmore as Pimlico's leading jockey.
The state stewards made sure Jill Kaenel waited. She was not even allowed to gallop horses in Maryland. So she went to Penn National in the mornings to exercise horses. There she met Todd Beattie, a 20-year-old trainer. They became engaged. And Jill Kaenel waited to come of age.
Kaenel celebrated her 16th birthday April 21 at Pimlico with a victory, riding Wet Handkerchief. She also finished third in two races that day, twice finishing ahead of her brother. Since, she has won twice.
As children, they rode at small tracks in the Midwest. Put down $15 to ride, and if you won, the purse was $20. There were grandstands "only if it was used as a car track and a race track," says Jill Kaenel, smiling. "There were carnivals on the outside, rodeos and dog races in the middle. A little bit of everything."
Their lives have been like that, living in a home on wheels. Jill was born in Norfolk, Neb., "because that's where they (her parents) happened to be at the time."
When Jack, at 10 or 11, and later Jill, showed an interest in racing, Dale Kaenel interrupted his career training horses to prepare his children. He was their coach, and still is.
Jill also has benefited from her brother's experience. They always have been competitive, but that hasn't stopped Jack from tutoring his sister. "He's always done his best to help me with my riding," she says.
Jack Kaenel is not one of Pimlico's top 10 jockeys now, but he says he doesn't feel under pressure to prove himself again. "It's the same as always," he says. "When I go out there to ride, I go out there to win. There's no pressure. Sure, you get a lot of knockers. I don't let it bother me."
Jill and Jack, Dale and Kathy Kaenel's only children, have lived with their parents on a farm in Hunt Valley near Baltimore for three years. That's about the longest they've been settled in one place. They used to move every 30 days or so, the length of the small-time racing meetings. Dale Kaenel took his children from race track to race track in Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. Rarely was there time for school. Jill completed the ninth grade, in Braymer, Mo., but Jack, who sometimes attended class twice a week, didn't get that far. Neither attends school now.
Jill Kaenel says she hasn't missed anything. The race track is the only place she ever has wanted to be. She may never achieve what her brother has, but that isn't important. "I don't feel I have to do what he did," she says.
"This is my life, right now. If I ever got tired of it, I'd go on to something else. I won't ride all my life. I'll go on to breaking colts, get into the business."
Their father says, "Ever since time began, there's been horses and kids and dogs. What they're doing, they do for fun."
These days, just like always, Jill Kaenel gets up in the dark of early morning and works horses. She also says she has been treated fairly at the track, the only prejudice against her because she is an apprentice, not a young woman.
"I don't look at her as a girl. I look at her as a three-bug apprentice," says trainer Kenneth Sumida, who has put Kaenel on some of his horses. "She has to prove herself, but all apprentice jockeys have to prove themselves. She certainly is far from being a polished jockey, but I don't know a 10-pound apprentice who isn't."
She is also Jack Kaenel's little sister, and for that reason she is under more pressure than most apprentices. She has trouble finishing strong and in control, as do many young riders.
Jack Kaenel says his sister simply needs racing experience. She gets out fast and has natural balance, he says, but she hasn't reached the point at which some actions are a reflex.
"Basically, she knows everything," he says. "But a lot of it is timing, not worrying. That's just experience."
Jill agrees. "I'm learning so much every day," she says. ". . . it comes naturally (to Jack). I have to rummage through and find it. Eventually, I'll find it."