In a perfect world, Here Comes Art, a nine-year-old gray trained by former steeplechase riding champion Arch Kingsley Jr., would have completed his wire-to-wire attempt in the $70,000, 2 1/16-mile Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes last Thursday, the first steeplechase race of the Saratoga meeting. “That would have been sweet,” Kingsley said.
Instead, Here Comes Art, ridden by Bernie Dalton and making his first start in more than 15 months, had to settle for third, just a head off second-place finisher Demonstrative while 2 ½ lengths behind the winner, All Together. “He was a couple works short of where I wanted to be,” Kingsley said.
Kingsley raced Here Comes Art anyway, maybe because this stakes is, and will always be, especially meaningful to him. In 1997, Kingsley tied his friend Kiser for the national riding title with 23 victories. Kiser reached that total with just 77 starts, 20 less than Kingsley.
“I was lucky to share the stage with him,” Kingsley said. “I won the very last race of the year, the Last Chance Sweepstakes in Camden on Flying Frenchman. The horse was named for Jean Cruguet, who once rode a jump race at Saratoga.
“Jonathan was one of my very good friends. We were competitive, but he was just a hard guy not to like. I just loved his charisma and his natural talent. It was infectious. He was four or five years younger than me, but he was from the old school. He worked hard, rode hard and played hard. He was just a great guy. Everyone liked him.”
Kingsley, who turns 39 on August 15th, will never forget the phone call he received in late July, 2000: “A friend of mine called me at Delaware Park and said, `Jonathan Kiser is dead.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Nobody could believe it. Kiser, who had won the 1999 riding title and was leading the nation again in 2000, was playing on a rope swing at his sister’s home, when he fell and struck his head. He was 22 years old.
Kingsley now operates Long Leaf Stable, which specializes in lay-up work and preparation, in Camden. The motto on his website is “A superior foundation lasts a lifetime.” Kingsley explained, “I got a lot of that from Jonathan Sheppard and Bill Mott. They were my two mentors as to how to condition horses. They are who I’ve tried to emulate. If I’m good at one thing, it’s observing. I’ve observed time and time again, horses of Jonathan Sheppard spent most of the year conditioning, especially for distance racing.”
So Kingsley knew he had to do a lot of work with Here Comes Art, who injured his leg after his last race in April, 2010. “It’s very, very gratifying that he raced well,” Kingsley said. “We mapped a plan out 14 months ago to bring this horse back for this race. There’s a sense of accomplishment that we made it that far.”
Asked if there’s anything more exciting than leading in a stakes race at Saratoga, Kingsley said, “Standing in the winner’s circle would have been a little more exciting.”
(Bill Heller’s latest two books, “Above It All; The Turbulent Life of Jose Santos,” and “Captain Free-lance; The Check Is In The Mail,” are available exclusively at www.billhellerbooks.com.)