Making the Jump: Steeplechaser Kiyomori wins stakes at Aiken

Sunday, November 19th, 2023

Todd Wyatt meets Kiyomori and Graham Watters after they won Saturday’s Holiday Cup at the Aiken Steeplechase. Tod Marks Photo.

By Sean Clancy

“Will he be steeplechase horse of the year?”

Todd Wyatt was thinking big a day after Kiyomori dominated Saturday’s Holiday Cup at the Aiken Steeplechase. The New York-bred son of First Samurai and the steeplechase stakes winner The Grey Express earned his second jump win in three tries since joining Wyatt’s barn this fall.

Hall of Fame trainer Janet Elliot retired this summer and offered the gray 4-year-old to Wyatt. Owned and bred by Gregory Hawkins and foaled at River Valley Farm in Gansevoort, Kiyomori repaid Elliot’s faith with a maiden win at Virginia Fall Oct. 14, a third against allowance foes at the International Gold Cup two weeks later and a front-running win on the final day of the season.

Jockey Graham Watters, replacing the injured Harrison Beswick for the feature, put Kiyomori on the lead in the three-horse affair, turned back Total Joy by three quarters of a length. Our Boy Wes finished third after 2 1/8 miles in 4:01.

“Janet has done all the work, raised him, broke him, trained him, managed his career,” Wyatt said. “We had him a few weeks before he won at Middleburg. Harry and I thought the 4-year-old stake at Aiken was the right race. Janet suggested the allowance race at the Gold Cup, and I think it made the difference.”

Kiyomori (right) leads Total Joy over the final jump en route to victory Saturday in Aiken. Tod Marks Photo.

The Grey Express won over hurdles in Ireland before joining Hawkins and Elliot. The daughter of King’s Theatre won the Mrs. Walter M. Jeffords Stakes at Saratoga in 2013. She retired in November of that year and joined Hawkins’ small broodmare band. Her first foal,  Mekong, finished second over timber in November. Born a year later, Saigon won a flat race at Laurel and a jump race at Foxfield in 2022. Her next foal, Webb, won on the flat in 2022 and over hurdles in 2023. Camcha, a daughter of Get Stormy, finished second in her debut for Christophe Clement this summer before finishing 11th at Saratoga. The Grey Express is also the dam of an unnamed 2-year-old Karakontie filly and a weanling colt by Demarchelier, both bred in New York by Hawkins.

“It’s great for Greg Hawkins and it’s great for Janet,” Wyatt said. “She asks me every once in a while how he’s doing but she doesn’t check on what we actually do with the horse, she trusts us. It’s nice to have someone who has been in the trenches to bounce ideas off. It was her idea to go to the Gold Cup and I think that was the deciding factor at Aiken. Having that race three weeks ago certainly helped him see it out.”

Kiyomori made two starts for Dave Donk at Belmont at the Big A in 2022 before returning to Elliot where he made four starts before transferring to Wyatt. The Maryland-based trainer had to audible after Beswick was injured in the second race of the five-race card.

“It was a shame Harry couldn’t ride him, he gave him a nice ride at Gold Cup, dropped him in, gave him a little more education, finished up nicely with the thoughts on the race at Aiken,” Wyatt said. “Harry got hurt in the second race. We asked Jamie (Bargary) to ride him, he gets hurt in the third race. We said weren’t going to ask anybody until after the fourth race. We were lucky to have Graham fall into our lap. A good jockey and a nice horse in front is dangerous.”

Kiyomori will enjoy a deserved rest this winter before aiming at a spring campaign. With two wins on his record, he’ll move into the novice stakes division for 2024.

“I don’t see why he wouldn’t be a Saratoga horse,” Wyatt said. “He’s such a good mover, it would be on our radar. He’s a novice horse for the spring, we’ll pick out a spot or two in the spring with the hopes of going up there for the Jonathan Kiser.”

And perhaps an earlier trip in April.

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