The Last Word
By MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun
The length of a horse is what, maybe eight feet? Eight feet ... that's how close Todd Kabel came to not making good on his promise. You can stuff anything into that eight-foot-gap. Wild nights, bleary mornings, pledges kept and left unfulfilled.
It came down to one ride on Sunday, the 10th race of the final day of Woodbine's summer meet. Kabel was aboard Slim Dusty, and when he looked back to see who he had beaten by a length, he recognized Patrick Husbands.
"Didn't even know it was him," Kabel said.
Husbands and Kabel had been locked in a memorable year-long duel. That win was the margin of victory -- Husbands failed attempt to win the 12th race gave Kabel the jock's title, 160 wins to 158.
Eight feet, room for a father's dying admonition of his talented yet often wayward son.
Alex Kabel knew of what he spoke. He was 71 when his body gave out last March. Lung cancer, no doubt caused by a lifetime of smoking, killed him. Aiding and abetting were a long acquaintance with the bottle.
"My dad," Kabel said, "he lived a hard life."
Your own mistakes are enough to carry into the twilight. The thought that you had grafted them on to your children would be unbearable.
Alex Kabel didn't fear death any more than anything else, which was to say, not very much at all.
"I'm not a man who's afraid to die," Alex told his boy. But he feared for his son's future.
"What happened to Todd is the same thing that happened to famous hockey players and baseball players," said John Bell, Kabel's longtime booking agent. "He would fall along the way now and then."
There was, in Todd Kabel, abundant evidence of both great talent and a competing desire to piss it away.
Kabel is divorced. Just 38, he has four kids, 11 to 16, living with his ex-wife in Winnipeg.
"My marriage ending, that was a big scar in my life," Kabel said. "I regret it a lot. Not for me or my ex-wife, but for the kids."
It has become a matter of public record that Todd Kabel promised his dad he would harness the potential that led him to Sovereign Award wins in 1992 and 1995.
Kabel threw away the bar scene. He is no monk, but if he had a beer it was at home with friends, or with his girlfriend.
"Didn't go to a bar all year," he said. "Going to work with a hangover, that don't cut it."
It meant the loss of a whole group of party friends.
"I have a word for them," Kabel said.
The smokes are next.
"I've given myself until later this year. After I go moose hunting, then I'll stop," he said.
In eight feet you could find a season devoted to working the right way.
Kabel took rides he would have usually laughed off. He got into top shape, studied videotape and immersed himself in the racing form.
"We were making decisions two months in advance," Bell said. "Before we would be making decisions two days in advance."
The most famous decision, of course, was monumental. Given the choice of riding Wando or Mobil in the Queen's Plate, Kabel chose the wrong horse. He questioned Wando's staying power on the longer distance. With Husbands aboard, Wando breezed to the Canadian Triple Crown.
"I looked like the ass," Kabel said. "It was my fault. I should have studied more film before deciding. The only thing that p----- me off is after, everyone was acting like they knew. At the time, nobody knew which was the right choice."
Kabel can still make a compelling argument for jockey of the year. His $11.2 million in purses marks the first time any Canadian jock has broken the $11-million barrier. Despite winning the Plate, the Prince of Wales and the Breeders' Stakes, Husbands' purse total was $739,000 less than Kabel's.
Kabel's 29 stakes races was far and away the best in the country.
Husbands has won the past four Sovereign Awards. Kabel, as competitive a man as ever slipped into a saddle, desperately wants to regain what once he took for granted.
He is flying his four children up for the gala.
"I feel I'll win it ... I hope I win it," he said.
"That would be a fantastic finish, the icing on the cake."