It has been 16 years since I walked away from Woodbine with my head held high and a determination to succeed no matter what lie a head. Finding my identity post- jockey, was not always easy, and It has only been in the last seven years that I have final settled into a new happy me.
The news of Todd Kabel’s passing was shocking I couldn’t believe it.
I have several memories of Kabel to share, my first as an exercise rider for trainer Emile Alaine, when he came to work a horse I galloped, and he got off and bitched at me saying “that horse was tough.” I replied, “That is how Emile wants them” and he grumbled under his breath and walked away. I was secretly happy that I was able to gallop the horse that ran off to the pole with strong-man Kabel
My next memory was in my early riding years as an apprentice, we were still in the old jockeys room of Woodbine pre- Breeders cups renovations. I don’t remember what the tiff was about, it wasn’t a riding incident I hadn’t cut him off or endangered him, his position as king was in no-way at risk, but we argued and he stood in front of me boots to boots nose to nose and snarled at me with his fist clinched. It was the first time in my life I had felt that I may be struck by a man and as I held my ground, I couldn’t help but think he was wasting his athletic stance on me, a bug girl. I took it as a good sign. I was told the first indication you are starting to get noticed as a rider, is when the big riders start feeling the need to show dominances. Whether it was a fake threat or not, I was grateful to hear the voice of the Bob Bertrand, our clerks of scales speak out, “that is enough Kabel” Todd stepped back and receded into the quarters of the men’s locker room. His fighting words left me thinking, if this is the way it is going to be as a race-rider, then I am going to have to up my game and find some more grit. That should really piss him off.
I was never in his inner circle, I rarely rode in the big money barns with him and I have to admit most of the time, it was a never ending battle of finding opportunities to wrangle a potential mount away from him. One that I figured he was about to discard for a better mount. One of my most cherished acquisition, was Gold Mart Prince. Todd had ridden him to a second place finish in a maiden $25,000 claimer, for Wray Lawrence and I had to tear a page from Kabel’s book to confidently approach Wray and say, “If you give him to me, I will win on him no matter what race you put him in.” Wray ran Prince back for double the claiming tag and Todd probably turned down the mount, but I inherited him and won the race. I went on to pilot Prince to 5 victories, and a turf stake.
Those occasions were few and far between and I know I was not the only rider that felt a knot in my stomach, when I showed up at the barn of my client, only to see Todd there. The fear of losing your one good mount hung in the balance of what was said after you’ve heard the words “Kabel wants to ride that horse” rolling off the tongue of his agent John Bell. At that moment all the mornings of galloping you had done counted for nothing and praying to the racing gods for an ounce of loyalty from the owners or trainer was not going to keep your mount. Only by hone my skills and studying my craft was I going to survive in the world that tilted in favour of Todd.
I mostly remember him as grumpy argumentative, occasionally light-hearted and playful with his big grin. Jogging around the jocks room trying to pull the towel from where it was draped around someone’s waist, or switching their boots with someone else’s and watching them fight to pull them on.
As much as I respected his abilities, I didn’t consider him a friend more of an adversary. I didn’t befriend him on face book but saw enough of him in pictures posted by Sandra his girlfriend, and although I had in the past been jealous of his career, I know what it takes to overcome the adrenaline rush of racing and to reinvent yourself after the game; that is the toughest race we riders have to face. To see him smiling in those photographs made me believe he was making his way -post-jockey and I was happy for him. It was only when I heard of his death that I became aware of his struggle with mental health, drug addiction and that he had fallen on hard times. I asked myself how is it possible that he had so many connections and friends, yet he couldn’t find a clean safe bed to sleep in? The double edge sword of racing; the hardness you need to succeed, cuts deep, when the cure is compassion.
And so this morning I cried over Todd’s passing, not because he was a fellow race-rider, we barely had much in common out side that world, or that I could call him friend, but because I know in my heart of hearts, his relentless pursuit of excellence on the track, raised the bar and because I wanted to reach for it, I became a better rider. For that I salute you Todd Kabel may you ride on. Rest in Peace.
Maritime Mac, A.K.A Kelly MacKay