Jonathan Kiser is smiling.
His buddies Arch Kingsley and Todd Wyatt pulled off a shocker in his race, the Jonathan Kiser Memorial, the opening jump race of this Saratoga season. Kiser used to ride against Kingsley, while working wheelbarrow to wheelbarrow with Wyatt in Tom Voss’ engine room. Kingsley and Kiser tied for champion jockey in 1997. Kiser died, after falling off a rope swing. Kingsley retired after too many concussions. Wyatt went out on his own.
They teamed up to win the $70,000 steeplechase stakes with Bill Fossett’s You The Man. He should have been called You The Men. Three friends, two left, one indelible victory at Saratoga.
Wyatt made his first trip to Saratoga in 1985, to walk hots for Jonathan Sheppard. Years later, Wyatt moved over to the Voss shedrow and walked on the right side of John’s Call when he won the Sword Dancer. Now, Wyatt trains eight horses from a rented farm in Monkton, Md. He and his wife, Blair, do all the work. You The Man upset a maiden hurdle at Penn National four weeks ago. Jody Petty rode him that day but had committed to another ride for Wednesday’s race. Wyatt went searching. He called his friend, Kingsley, who’s not really a jockey. Any more. He’s a horse trainer, bloodstock agent, blacksmith. Kingsley spent the summer at Colonial Downs with a decent string of turf horses. In 2007, he rode one of his horses in the Royal Chase at Keeneland dabbled on a few others. Last year, he rode three races, all on his own horses. He hadn’t jumped a fence – of any kind – this year.
When Wyatt called, Kingsley said no chance. Wyatt asked him to watch the replay from Penn National and think about it.
Once a jump jockey, always a jump jockey.
Kingsley slept on it. Then called Wyatt and said he’d give it a shot. He had 12 pounds to lose first. Kingsley pulled up his irons while galloping his horses at Colonial Downs. He felt good.
You The Man did the rest.
With a little help from Kiser. At the fourth hurdle, You The Man jumped left and nearly unshipped Kingsley. He and Wyatt thanked Kiser for the save. Not that Wyatt could see it. He watches a race like he’s in a waiting room in a hospital, pacing, circling, cringing for 2 miles. Blair watched with son James in her arms. When she started screaming for You The Man, James started screaming too. By the wire, Todd had sprinted to the top of the clubhouse steps, Blair had scared James into tears and the Kiser had turned into a geyser of emotion.
“You know how much this means to me. J.K. pushed him back on. To win my first race here, the Kiser, with Arch riding him . . . ” Wyatt said. “I’ve never had aspirations to be leading trainer, well I have, but I don’t want to have 50 horses, but I’ve always worked for good people and I’ve always wanted people to look at the program and see my horse and think, ‘He’ll have him ready.’ I’m not coming up here to fill a race or see my name in the program, I liked my horse. You’re always doubting yourself, you know that. To have my wife and my baby here, Tom and Jonathan are here. It means everything.”
Kingsley won the New York Turf Writers Cup in 1997 and 2000. The former exercise rider for Bill Mott won a lot of races in a short amount of time and then retired after several concussions. He moved to Camden, S.C., had a child, learned to shoe horses and began to build a training business. For the last three weeks, he was a jockey (again). And for four minutes on Wednesday, he was at his very best. Kingsley rode confidently and cool, like he had ridden six races the day before. At least that’s what it looked like.
“I’m riddled with doubt every day of my life, then to do something like this, there’s nothing but doubt. Scared to death,” he said. “But, philosophically, I’ve reached a point in life that I know you’ve just got to go for what you want, it’s so damn short, what the hell, why not?”
You The Man pulled Kingsley into third early, well off a wild pace set by Mabou. They engulfed in him on the final turn, flew the last and held off the Voss-trained Left Unsaid and El Viaje.
“It’s amazing, all of it was muscle memory,” said Kingsley, who tried to lower his stirrups a few holes in the paddock only to realize they were already in the first hole. “Whether it’s some survival instinct or what, but you get out there, and it could have been me, you and Craig Thornton (rivals in the ’90s). It didn’t feel like a day had gone by, walking around the tree out there, it just felt like another day at Saratoga.”
Another day at Saratoga?
Two friends, one at the beginning stages of his career and one moonlighting in a career that he used to master combining to win a race, mostly because it was run in honor of their friend who’s been gone nine years now. Kiser’s family comes to Saratoga every year to present the trophy. This year, their son, their brother was responsible for the very jockey and trainer who accepted the trophy.
“He pushed him back on. He had to have. He had to have,” Wyatt said. “He’d be so happy for us, if he wasn’t riding him. Well, I couldn’t get him, he’d have had a triple call in the race. You know, we’re blessed, to be here, to win here.”
Kingsley knew it too.
“I’m still retired,” Kingsley said. “This was me and a buddy getting together in memory of an old friend. That’s what motivated me. Todd, the horse, Jonathan Kiser. Let’s do this.”