A sure favorite at Laurel Park Racing: Cerebral palsy hasn't stopped Kenny Capone from enjoying the sport he loves.

January 19, 1998|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

One day last year, the riders at Laurel Park competed in a very special race -- the Kenny Capone Classic.

"I'll bet everybody was saying, 'Who the heck is Kenny Capone?' " said his mother, Nancy. "But he was tickled to death. His name was printed in the program, and he got a framed picture with a lot of the jockeys' signatures on it."

Kenny Capone is not a famous owner, trainer or jockey, past or present. He is an average, small-money bettor who attends the races regularly and has the time of his life.

But no one in Maryland has earned more admiration and respect from the jockey colony than this 32-year-old man with the quick smile and polite manners.

Kenny Capone was born with cerebral palsy. He moves around the track in a wheelchair. He is beloved by almost everyone.

"He's our No. 1 fan," said rider Mark Johnston, Capone's favorite. "All the jocks go by and say hello to him. He's here in the cold, the rain, whatever, and he smiles every day.

"We appreciate him because if you're having a bad day, he can make you forget about it. We think the world of him."

During the post parade before the race named after Capone, Johnston said to him, "See you in the winner's circle," according to Charlie Brown, Capone's friend who meets him in the grandstand for a day of wagering and camaraderie on many occasions.

"We automatically thought that meant that Mark was going to win. He didn't, so I guess the joke was on us."

Capone is considered a good handicapper who often exchanges tips with his many buddies and acquaintances at the track.

"He's a heck of a handicapper," said Brown. "He just doesn't bet his picks like the rest of us."

Brown or Rod Hebron, another friend, often goes to the betting windows to wager for Capone, but not always. He can do it himself.

Billy Blucher, Capone's preferred teller, said Capone will bet trifectas once in a while but usually confines the wagers to "$5, $10 tops. He's got everything worked out on his sheets."

On a typical race-going day, Capone studies the day's events via computer at home in the morning, printing his data for later digestion.

Approximately an hour before post time, his mother or a friend drives him from his nearby Savage home to the track in a van equipped with a custom-made lift.

Capone emerges at the grandstand entrance and wends his way through a crowd of self-absorbed people to the interior of the building.

Later, he is wheeling toward the window of Blucher through a narrow entrance between the grandstand and clubhouse when a bettor in a hurry almost collides with him.

Capone deftly maneuvers the chair around the guy who is caught up in his own activity and doesn't see him.

"Nice driving, Kenny," shouts the patron in an appreciative tone. As he does so often, Capone just smiles.

"We can go anywhere around here and someone knows Kenny from the track," said his mother. "Even in the grocery store, people want to talk racing with him.

"It's his recreation. And everyone has always been good to him."

Because his oral skills are impaired, Capone can use a computerized device to replace his voice. But he leaves it at home because it would have to replace his voluminous #i handicapping notes on the chair's slate.

Instead, he communicates via a sheet of paper containing the letters of the alphabet, numbers, racetrack betting lingo (win, place, exacta, for instance) and money denominations.

Attached to a leather band around his head is a pointer with which he spells out what he wants to say.

Nancy Capone said her son can "spell in the air with his nose. Over the years, he has learned to adjust. He is wonderful with numbers and never, ever forgets a phone number.

"He graduated high school with A's and B's, and he has a degree in computer programming from the Maryland Rehab Center in Baltimore."

Track friends

The betting money is in a pouch attached to the side of the wheelchair. If anyone should try to take advantage of Capone, the overseers are always nearby.

He met Hebron, a burly young man, at the track. Capone then attended some games of a sandlot football team in Prince George's County, the Metro Vikings, that Hebron helps to supervise.

"My son [Gerod] is 4, and he's always asking, 'Why can't Kenny talk?' " said Hebron. "I just tell him to be thankful that he can."

They exchange tips, sometimes bet together and "come up with a lot of winners." Hebron added that the jockeys might "give us a little signal" if they like their chances in a certain race.

He said he keeps an eye on his buddy.

"If anybody tries to take advantage of him, I might be locked up," he said. "Me and my friends. All of us. We really like Kenny."

Pleasant days

Nancy Capone tried to help her son secure employment "many, many times. But although they say there's no discrimination out there, there is. If you have a severe handicap, you can't get a job. We don't even bother anymore."

So, Capone finds pleasure in his pets, particularly a Shar Pei dog, and the many days of banter and wit-testing with the horses.

In one race on this day, he has bet the No. 1 horse to win. His pick wins, but is disqualified because his jockey has struck the horse adjacent to him with his whip during a spirited stretch drive.

Capone's face conveys dismay. Then he smiles. And shrugs. He knows it's all in the game.

At home is his favorite dog, which he will stroke with his pointer. Then he will contemplate his picks for the next card and the good time he will have with his friends.

In a game that breeds cynics and skeptics, Kenny Capone is pure, fresh air.

Pub Date: 1/19/98

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