12/23/2001 12:00AM

Cowboy back in the saddle

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ALBANY, Calif. - Cowboy Jack Kaenel was meant to be a jockey.

When he was 16, Kaenel won the 1982 Preakness aboard Aloma's Ruler, defeating Bill Shoemaker aboard odds-on favorite Linkage. Kaenel got the lead early and outshoemakered Shoemaker as he got Aloma's Ruler to set comfortable fractions and win by a half-length.

It was perhaps his biggest moment but not his biggest thrill.

"The biggest thrill of my career is still when I won the Watermelon Derby in Rocky Ford, Colorado, as a 12-year-old," he said. "It's the Kentucky Derby of bush racetracks and had a $400 purse."

Kaenel is looking for more thrills riding horses. After three years of sporadic riding, he has resumed his career full time as a member of the Golden Gate Fields jockey colony.

Northern California has been good to Kaenel, now 36. He rode here from 1988 to 1994 when he returned to the Midwest. In 1989, he rode Brown Bess to an Eclipse Award as the nation's top turf mare.

Kaenel said he approaches each day now with the same enthusiasm he had as a teenager when he was given the nickname "Cowboy," which has stuck ever since, because he was never without his cowboy hat.

"The Preakness kind of fell into my lap," he said. He said he didn't truly realize what he had accomplished until he rode in the Belmont three weeks later. Laffit Pincay Jr. won his first of three consecutive Belmonts that year with Conquistador Cielo. The victory was Pincay's first in a Triple Crown race.

"Here's a guy who was my hero, but when Laffit won the Belmont, it was the first Triple Crown race he'd won," Kaenel said. "After the Belmont, I wondered how come he hadn't won [a Triple Crown race]. It seemed odd with how many races he'd won."

Kaenel has struggled with weight throughout his career.

"I flipped for 25 years," he said, using jockey's slang term for vomiting after eating. "It's one of the hazards of the job."

Weight problems led to Kaenel's retirement three years ago on Thanksgiving Eve. He had returned to California and began riding at Del Mar.

"My kids came out for Thanksgiving," he said. "I called my agent, and he said I was on nothing that Wednesday. We went to Disneyland on Monday and Tuesday."

When he went to Hollywood Park to work horses that Wednesday morning, Kaenel found himself listed to ride three horses, two of them favorites.

"I pulled [lost] 14 1/2 pounds in 3 1/2 hours," he said. "The two favorites were scratched, and the other one broke down. As I walked back to the jockeys' room, I decided to quit."

Kaenel loves horses and began working with Mary Knight preparing yearlings and 2-year-olds for sales. His weight rose to 150 pounds, but after eight months his stomach began to shrink and he began to shed weight naturally.

He briefly returned to riding at the Woodlands and Playfair in 2000, and decided to return to riding full time earlier this summer.

"Now I'm at 117-118 with no flipping," he said. "I never felt so comfortable on horses. I've never known what it's like not pulling six, seven, eight pounds a day. I'm glad to get up and not look at the clock to see how many hours till I have to get in the [sweat] box.

"I still enjoy riding, but I didn't mind eating for a couple years."

Kaenel started slowly in his comeback. He lost the first 60 races he rode before winning on first-time starter Skip a Promise in his 19th ride at Golden Gate Fields. He currently has three wins in 87 mounts.

"Eight years ago, it would have been on mind," he said of his low win percentage. "I've had a lot of seconds, thirds and fourth. I didn't expect to be handed anything on a silver platter.

"I get ribbed about it in the jocks' room, but I feel as comfortable as I ever have. I'm not trying to downplay it, but if I come back and feel I did the best I could do, I'm satisfied."

Kaenel's comeback has resulted in one good thing.

"I was at Santa Anita on Breeders' Cup Day and had a mount," he said. "I didn't have a helmet or a saddle. They had me look at the extra saddles they have, and I found one that was stolen from me in 1981 in New York. I knew it was mine because you could see 'Cowboy' written on it, and there were four or five other names. I can't use it any more, but I asked them, and they let me have it back."