The grimly bizarre events yesterday at Newbury, where racing was abandoned on safety grounds after two horses were fatally electrocuted in the parade ring before the first race, shifted the sporting focus, with just over four weeks to go before the start of the Cheltenham Festival, to the high-class card at Leopardstown.
In the most valuable of the afternoon's four Grade One contests, the Hennessy Gold Cup, Kempes came off the bench to prove himself an admirable substitute for his Willie Mullins team-mate Cooldine, who earlier in the week was ruled out of not only a Cheltenham Gold Cup challenge but the rest of the season because of a breathing problem.
But a day that had started badly continued in the same vein. Glencove Marina, the gallant runner-up in the Co Dublin track's feature chase, collapsed and died 50 yards after the line having suffered an internal haemorrhage and British challenger Money Trix was left fighting for his life in a veterinary hospital after being pulled up with a leg injury. At Warwick, Kilmurry could not be saved after breaking down going to the final fence in the Grade Two chase, challenging the winner Finian's Rainbow at the time.
On ground perceived as softer than ideal, Kempes travelled strongly under David Casey throughout the three miles before quickening away after the penultimate obstacle. He was four-and-a-half lengths clear of his ill-fated rival at the line, with last year's winner Joncol the same distance third.
At the start of the day Kempes was a 66-1 longshot for the Gold Cup; by close of play he was as short as 20-1. "The suprise wins are always the best," said Mullins. "I'd asked David to go out and get him to jump round, and if he'd any chance to take it; I knew if he did jump round he'd have more speed than the others."
Mullins confirmed that Cheltenham would be the next for Kempes. "Better ground there will suit him well," he added. The gelding is owned by JP McManus, whose Fenix Two was one of those killed at Newbury, and the victory was also some compensation for Mullins for the earlier defeats of the much-fancied pair Mikael D'Haguenet and Zaidpour.
The former was hampered by the fall of stablemate Quel Esprit, when third to Bostons Angel in the PJ Moriarty Chase; the latter was put in his place by Oscars Well in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. Both winners are trained by Jessie Harrington and were ridden by Robbie Power. Oscars Well is likely to tackle the Neptune Hurdle next month, for which he around 7-1, rather than the longer Albert Bartlett Hurdle. In the two-and-a-half mile championship the six-year-old will likely meet Paul Nicholls-trained Al Ferof, who took the sole race staged at Newbury.