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Horse racing partnership stands the test of time

Woodbine Racetrack. Jockey Todd Kabel guides Sky Conqueror to victory in the $700,000 Northern Dancer Breeders' Cup Stakes for owner William Sorokolit.

Michael Burns

What a team it is: tall, willowy trainer Darwin Banach and jockey Todd Kabel, a foot shorter, a former champ making a remarkable comeback after two years away from thoroughbred racing.

Both are 46, both were born on the prairies, and they are linked together this week by their association with a promising colt, Classic Bryce. It would mean so much to them if the horse, owned by Bill Sorokolit of Toronto, were to win the Queen's Plate on Sunday at Woodbine Racetrack here.

Sure the money is good – $600,000 to the winner – and so is the prestige, but this Queen's Plate for both of them means much more. As long as Banach's career has been, he has never even entered a horse in the prestigious race, although he's known as the trainer of top older horse Sky Conqueror, who was third in the 2006 Canadian International Stakes at Woodbine – with Kabel aboard.

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Banach wanted to come to the Queen's Plate with a contender, not a pretender, he said.

And Kabel, who has ridden in 15 Queen's Plates, winning two of them, thought he was finished two years ago, when he had to stop riding in October of 2009, with an esophagus damaged by constant throwing up to make weight, and a host of personal problems: alcoholism, the death of his father, Alex, the death of some relatives, divorce, the loss of his driver's licence after being charged with drinking under the influence of alcohol.

With all of this swirling in Kabel's head, he sunk into a debilitating depression. He moved west for a while to be with his four children after he retired.

But the seven-time Sovereign winner is back. During his time away from racing, he's healed body and mind. While he was off, his weight ballooned to 150 pounds – he rides at 113 or 114 and every pound costs him a horse length in a race – but Kabel worked to take it off, using a Bowflex machine another jockey had given him, exercising, jogging, riding horses in the morning and mountain biking.

Kabel decided to make a comeback at an age when most jockeys are hanging up their tack. "I came back because I missed the sport very much," he said. "And I missed everybody on the backstretch. I miss it very dearly."

It took time for Kabel to get mounts when he started riding again, but Banach was there with outstretched hands. It wasn't the first time.

The two rode races against each other in the bush leagues of Saskatchewan and Alberta. One day, a young Kabel came out of a starting gate, his mount made a sharp left turn and he wiped out the entire field.

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"The other guys wanted to beat the crap out of me," Kabel recalled Monday. "But Darwin told them: 'You'll have to go through me, first.'" The other jockeys backed off. Banach had saved Kabel's skin.

They became friends after that, and good for Kabel: Banach was a talented boxer at school, and competed in competitions across the West. Kabel began to ride all of Banach's father's Appaloosas, a breed of horse known for its spotted coats.

They made a winning combination back then, and Kabel hopes he can do it again for an old friend. He has already won two Queen's Plates, but this one could get top prize in his heart.

"What a comeback that would be, if I could do it for Darwin," Kabel said. "That would mean so much to me."

And Banach knows he has a winner on his side. "I like the fact that he has more desire to be back on top and win big races than he ever has," Banach said.

Four or five years ago, Banach said, if he had asked Kabel to work a horse at 5:45 a.m., he always had a Plan B, because it was unlikely that Kabel would show up.

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On Monday morning, Kabel was at Banach's barn at 5:40 a.m., ready and willing to work Classic Bryce.

"He wants to do it," Banach said. "His stats speak for themselves. He's one of the best."

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