‘THE EDGE, there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over’
— Hunter S. Thompson
If there were ever an example of someone who lived life on the edge, Canadian champion jockey and Manitoban Todd Kabel fit the bill. He went over it on March 27, 2021. He was 55.
One of the elite jockeys in Canadian horse racing history, on his best days Kabel was a brilliant talent in the saddle and the kindest person you would ever want to meet. On his worst days, dealing with the demons of depression, alcohol, drugs and the pressures of throwing up daily to maintain his riding weight of 114 pounds, the 5-4 riding maestro could be a hellfire bronco that no stall could hold.
And he liked it that way.
Born in McCreary, Man., on Dec. 7, 1965, Kabel had rough upbringing, but his athletic prowess was on display early in life when he was spotted by former top Assiniboia Downs trainer Emile Corbel.
"I saw him playing hockey one day in McCreary," said Corbel. "He was 13 years old. I asked him if he would like to ride horses and he said OK. I had some of the best quarter-horses in Canada on a farm we called South Fork a mile-and-half north of McCreary, and I would just lead Todd around on a really good running horse named Kansas Bar Bailey. He had never seen a horse before that.
"He kept bugging me to ride and I kept telling him he wasn’t ready. Finally in the fall, we were on the last race meeting in Rosser, Manitoba, I put him on a mare named Suzanne Sommers. Anyways, the crazy horse bolted. There was no rail and she went straight for the bush. Todd straightened her out and finished fourth. He stayed with me for three years riding in bush meets.
"We’d go to North Battleford and Melville and if they had seven races, we’d win six of them. They thought I was hopping up the horses but the truth was I had the top rider in Canada and nobody knew it. He had the best left-hand in…" and Corbel started to cry. "The best left hand in the business. Just give me a minute here. It’s a very emotional time for me. Todd should be remembered as a very kind person who loved to help people, and as a great athlete. When he was on his game, he was second to none."
Corbel took Kabel with him to Winnipeg for spring training in 1984 but didn’t have enough horses to give him a good start at the track, so he recommended him to trainer C. J. (Shorty) Gray. That got the Kabel freight train rolling and there was no stopping it.
Top Manitoba breeder Cam Ziprick was galloping and grooming horses for Gray at the time, and he took Kabel under his wing, teaching him how to gallop thoroughbreds on Gray’s farm near Russell, Man., over a track plowed through the snow.
"We’d work horses out here before he got to winning," said Ziprick. "We did that for 2-3 years. The first year he rode a few. The next year he won enough to keep his 10-pound bug, and he kept it because you needed it to entice them to ride you at Woodbine. He was amazing. He could take an average horse and move it up.
"We had a lot of fun off the track too. He would do anything for you. He brought friends to work for us from McCreary that needed jobs. If he was your friend, he would do anything for you. We’ve always remained friends. It’s very sad. He died on my birthday."
Kabel began his riding career at Assiniboia Downs on June 5, 1984, aboard a horse named Doctor Salem and won his first official race on his 17th mount on July 4, 1984, aboard Forli’s Ainikel for Gray. Kabel went on to win three more races that year and went straight up from there, winning 689 races in his five full seasons at the Downs including the 1989 Manitoba Derby aboard Rough Catch.
"Very early in his career it became obvious that bigger things were ahead for Todd," said Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn. "He simply dominated in the saddle while at Assiniboia Downs. For me personally, the highlight of my previous track announcing career was calling the 1989 Manitoba Derby when Todd masterfully rode locally based Rough Catch to victory before a raucous and supportive sellout crowd."
Kabel won three riding titles (1986, 1987, 1989) at the Downs and the Sovereign Award for Outstanding Apprentice in Canada in 1986 before moving his tack full time to Woodbine in 1990. In 1992 he won his second of seven Sovereign Awards for Outstanding Jockey in Canada (1992, 1995, 2003-06) and in 1995 he won Canada’s most prestigious race, the Queen’s Plate, aboard Regal Discovery. He repeated that feat again in 2000 aboard Scatter the Gold.
In 2003, Kabel became the first jockey in Canadian history to win more than $10 million in purses in a single season, and in 2004 he equalled jockey Avelino Gomez’s single-season record of 36 stakes wins including the Atto Mile Stakes-G1, with an exceptional stretch ride aboard Soaring Free. Kabel’s outstanding riding skills were also on display earlier in the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-G1, when he saved just enough horse to finish second aboard 78-1 longshot Dawson’s Legacy after a sizzling pace battle.
Kabel retired in October 2009 after an endless battle with his weight, the drugs required to maintain it, and a severely damaged esophagus. He spent time with family in Winnipeg, but eventually grew restless and attempted a comeback at Woodbine in 2012, riding 29 winners. In 2013, his final season of riding, he won 50 races, but battles with drugs, alcohol and depression would stop him from ever regaining his former glory.
Kabel compiled a lifetime win-place-show record of 3,306-2,845-2,427 from 18,512 mounts and earned $105,831,055 in purses during his amazing run in the saddle, but the past few years and months had not been kind to him.
"They found him on the edge of a lake in a beautiful conservation area near Tottenham," said Kabel’s oldest daughter Ashley. "It was an area where he liked to walk the dogs and look at the swans and enjoy the wildlife. They think he might have had a seizure. He loved being on the water, and he loved fishing. He was in a place where he could get peace of mind. A quiet place.
"So many people reached out and had so many great memories. It’s amazing how many people will miss him. He always used to tell us to ‘keep our heads up and be proud of who we are.’ We hope he knows how proud everyone was of him!"
Saddle up, Pegasus.