BALTIMORE -- Becoming the youngest jockey to win the Preakness is a paltry accomplishment once you've heard of the derring-do of 'Cowboy' Jack Kaenel.
You see, although the 16-year-old Kaenel will be aboard Aloma's Ruler in Saturday's 107th running of the $200,000-added Preakness, the youngster began riding horses at bush tracks in Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado at the age of 10.
'Riding in the bigs is a lot easier than what I was doing before,' says Kaenel, who was a straight A student before dropping out after the ninth grade to concentrate solely on racing. 'When you first start out, a lot of riders are just learning but I learned before.'
Did he ever.
His his first race was in Anthony, Kan., where he rode a pony bareback for a half-mile. Kaenel became the leading pony rider there and at almost every other track he rode at.
'Most of the guys were a lot older then me,' says Kaenel. 'They were either retired jocks or guys that were too big to ride in any other kind of races. A rider had to carry 120 pounds and I only weighed 70. I carried 50 pounds of lead with me.'
Kaenel described the kind of tracks he raced at before he went big time.
'They are usually a mile long with either short, old railings or no railings at all,' he said. 'Sometimes, they are stock car tracks. The track puts up $100 for the purse and each rider pays $25 to enter. There's no parimutuel betting but a lot of illegal betting goes on.'
Kaenel says he has been put over rails, grabbed by the shirt and whipped during a race -- and sometimes even after a race.
'My father would always put me on live mounts,' said Kaenel. 'They wouldn't be a cinch but thay had a shot. Sometimes, other riders would grab hold of my body or just whip me. Then I learned the race is never over when it's over. That stuff went on when the race was over, too, and luckily my father was always with me if a fight started.'
Kaenel, born in Omaha, Neb., near Ak-Sar-Ben, then went big time a year early. Although a jockey must be 16 to get his license, Kaenel faked his papers and got one at the age of 15. It wasn't until May of last year, three months before his 16th birthday that he was discovered. At that point, on May 5, 1981, his license was revoked until July 27, when he turned 16.
'I rode on May 4 and later in the day I received a message that someone had called,' said Kaenel. 'I returned the call and was told that someone had found out I was 15 and it would appear in the paper the next day. So I went and turned in my license.'
Kaenel doesn't regret his decision and says the stewards, not age, should decide if a jockey is ready for the thoroughbreds.
'One day I was 15 and couldn't ride,' he says. 'The next day I turned 16 and could ride. It should depend on the individual and his natural ability. It's more a stewards judgment than an age thing.
'I never thought I was in danger,' he added. 'If I was, then my father wouldn't have let me do it. 'I don't feel I hurt the racing industry but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.'
Kaenel, who suffered a broken wrist in January, almost missed his chance to unseat Steve Cauthen as the youngest jockey to win a Preakness.
On Tuesday, he suffered a mild concussion in an auto accident while driving to Pimlico. However, instead of the cowboy hat he usually wears, Kaenel had put on his padded riding helmet. His head cracked the window on the driver's side and then hit the windshield.
'It's lucky I was wearing the helmet,' said Kaenel, shrugging off the incident although he canceled his mounts for Tuesday and Wednesday.
Asked if he feels any pressure about Saturday's race, Kaenel sounded more like a veteran jockey.
'Pressure, I don't feel it,' he said. 'I know what it is though. I do think we have a good shot Saturday and if I win, it'll be an honor.'