Horses To Follow » Kempes


It is easy to pick holes in last Saturday’s re-scheduled Hennessy Gold Cup. As Ireland’s premier staying steeplechase, a race that has been won in the past by such luminaries of the winter game as Forgive ‘N Forget, Carvill’s Hill, Jodami, Imperial Call, Danoli, Dorans Pride, Beef Or Salmon and, of course, Florida Pearl, even the originally scheduled 2011 renewal seemed to lack strength in-depth. As well as that, the race lost one exciting progressive chaser in Pride Of Dulcote and one proven performer who was thought to be coming back to his best in Cooldine because of the re-scheduling, which left us with a clutch of very good, proven staying chasers, but no stars, at the head of the market.

The problem was that we knew exactly how good almost every horse in the race was, they were almost all fully exposed, six of the nine runners held an official rating of between 154 and 158, there was hardly a kick of a ball between any of them. However, there were two horses in the race who were potentially better than they had been able to show before Saturday, second-season chasers Kempes and China Rock. Of course these things are easy in hindsight, but even before the race you knew that an impressive performance from one of those two might be a stepping stone to even better things.

As it happens, you can also pick holes in the race itself. Money Trix suffered a fatal injury and it is possible that whatever was ailing poor Glencove Marina affected his performance in the race itself. As well as that, Joncol may not have run his race. He jumped to his right, just as he had done when he under-performed in the Fortria Chase, this may not have been his true running, and China Rock was probably ridden too aggressively for a horse who has suggested in the past that he only barely gets three miles. All of that said, there was an awful lot to like about the performance that the Willie Mullins-trained Kempes put up in winning the race. His jumping was good, if not quite electric, but the ease with which he made up his ground on the run around the bottom of the track was really impressive. On landing over the third last in sixth place, David Casey gave him a little squeeze, and he picked up so quickly that the rider was able to sit up on him again on the run to the second last. He was disputing second place at that point, but he got in tight to the obstacle, and emerged from it in fifth place, about eight lengths behind China Rock, who had gone clear. Casey just shook the reins at him on landing over the second last, and he picked up again so quickly that he was actually level with China Rock before they had straightened up for home. The rider sat again for a couple of strides – he said afterwards that he got to the front too soon – but Kempes was full of running, he began to prick his ears and look around him, and he picked up again when Casey went for him on the run to the last, jumping the fence with two lengths in hand over the chasing pack, before staying on really enthusiastically up the run-in to post an impressive victory.

The obvious race for Kempes now is the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and there are reasons for believing that he can be a player in that race now. Only two horses have ever won the Hennessy and the Gold Cup in the same year, Jodami in 1993 and Imperial Call in 1996, it is 15 years since the double was last done, and it is significant that Tom Taaffe and Mouse Morris deliberately side-stepped the Hennessy with Kicking King and War Of Attrition in 2005 and 2006 respectively. Seven of the last nine Gold Cup winners were having their first run of that calendar year in the Gold Cup. That said, the manner in which Kempes finished off Saturday’s race was quite reminiscent of Imperial Call’s win in 1996. He bounded up the hill. Of course, it has to have taken a lot out of him, you don’t win a Grade 1 three-mile chase on soft ground without having a hard race, and he has six days less to recover for the Gold Cup than he should have because of the re-scheduling of the meeting, but he didn’t appear to be nearing empty, he seemed to have a lot more left to give, and that gives him every chance of being back at concert pitch by the time 18th March rolls around. Saturday’s race was just his third race this season. He is still a fresh horse.

Kempes is only eight years old, a second-season chaser, and he has run just nine times over fences in his life. He has plenty of scope for progression. More than that, before Saturday he had completed just once over three miles, that was in the Champion Chase at Punchestown last April, when he beat China Rock and The Midnight Club and recorded the highest Racing Post Rating of his career up to that point. Saturday’s performance was another significant step up on that. He is completely unexposed over three miles, and the manner in which he finished off Saturday’s race suggests that he should have no difficulty with the extra two and a half furlongs of the Gold Cup. He did disappoint on his only visit to Cheltenham, in the 2009 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, but you can easily put a line through that run, he made a bad mistake at the first flight and was always playing catch-up after that.

JP McManus’s horse probably just about got away with the ground on Saturday. It was officially heavy, soft to heavy in places, but the times on the day suggest that it was no worse than soft on the chase track. For a horse who is probably at his best on good ground, he should be even more effective on the ground that he will probably get at Cheltenham. He had the pace to win an Ulster Derby and a Grade 2 novices’ hurdle over two miles, yet he stays three miles well, he is almost certainly even better at the longer trip, and he is a live Gold Cup prospect.

12th February 2011

© The Irish Field, 19th February 2011