MARCH 2019: Kemboy unseats his rider in the Cheltenham Gold Cup when taking a bad step on landing after the first fence in the Festival’s blue riband steeplechase.
MARCH 2018: Kemboy places fourth behind Shattered Love when beaten 14½ lengths in the JLT Novices’ Chase over two-and-a-half miles and unable to match the pace of the leaders.
MARCH 2017: Kemboy comes fifth to Willoughby Court in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle (now run as the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle) over two miles and five furlongs when beaten just over nine lengths.
Kemboy came into his own last season when winning four of his five starts in staying chases. The one blemish to his campaign was an unlucky early exit from the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Crack Irish trainer Willie Mullins mopped up three Grade 1 prizes with Kemboy, who will always be best remembered as the horse that jockey Ruby Walsh retired on. This French bred bay gelding by dual 10-furlong Group 1 winner Voix Du Nord shares a sire with two-time Cheltenham Festival winner Defi Du Seuil and ill-fated Champion Hurdle hero Espoir D’Allen.
It’s common for Mullins to import horses to his Closutton stables from France and Kemboy followed a well-trodden path in this regard. Although he only won one of his four starts over hurdles, he has made up into a much smarter chaser.
Kemboy put in the best performance of his novice chase campaign and career to date at that point when winning a Grade 3 contest on his first start over three miles at Limerick by eight lengths in April 2018.
Mullins had previously thrown Kemboy in very deep by trying the Irish Grand National over a marathon three miles and five furlongs after just three out over fences. This was a bold move even by the trainer’s standards as it was the horse’s handicap debut in the Fairyhouse Easter Festival feature steeplechase.
Perhaps presaging the Kemboy Gold Cup history that was to come, he got no further than the first fence. He did go on to win his only other handicap chase outing, however, another Grade A contest over two miles and five furlongs at the 2018 Punchestown Festival.
Kemboy has been to the Cheltenham Festival three times in the past and finished fifth, fourth and failed to complete. Can he make it fourth time lucky?
Better luck in-running notwithstanding, nobody knows for sure what would’ve happened if Kemboy had stayed on his feet and not departed the Cheltenham Gold Cup early last year. Connections have since gained compensation for what happened at the Festival at least.
Prior to the Irish Gold Cup, which is Kemboy’s next race, his odds for Cheltenham vary. William Hill are a best-price 13/2 about him for a Festival win at the fourth attempt and Unibet as short as 5/1. Those odds will change depending on how he fares at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival.
That price puts Kemboy a clear second-favourite behind stable companion Al Boum Photo, who ended trainer Mullins’ long wait for a Cheltenham Gold Cup win. It is worth remembering that Kemboy beat his stablemate in the Punchestown Gold Cup last May.
A race like the Cheltenham Gold Cup is obviously being targeted by the best staying chasers on both sides of the Irish Sea. The British home team has Betfair Chase victor Lostintranslation, dual George VI Chase hero Clan Des Obeaux and the lightly-raced Cotswold Chase winner Santini as prominent contenders. They must all be regarded as rivals, although Kemboy beat Clan Des Obeaux in the Betway Bowl at Aintree’s Grand National meeting last April.
Delta Work remains another of the obvious Irish contenders for Gold Cup glory, alongside Presenting Percy whose preparation for last year’s race was far from ideal.
Native River has run in the race three times before, winning it in 2018. Both he and Monalee, who finished in front of Kemboy in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown on reappearance, are among slightly older horses with Gold Cup claims.
Kemboy hasn’t got any strong form from previous Cheltenham Festival runs to go on. His Gold Cup odds reflect what he’s achieved at other racecourses.
Although an intended runner in the Irish Gold Cup, Kemboy has had just one race in this campaign so far. That came in the Savills Chase run during the busy Christmas and New Year period also at Leopardstown. He was only fourth to Delta Work losing two places close home, but beaten just 3½ lengths when trying to repeat his victory in this event from last season.
Kemboy could well come on for that return to action. If he does, then his form from last season also help press his claims for Cheltenham Gold Cup honours. He made a winning reappearance in 2018-19 in the Grade 2 Clonmel Oil Chase over two-and-a-half miles, before following-up in the Savills Chase.
A bad step on landing over the first fence in the Gold Cup caused Kemboy to unseat his rider at Cheltenham. This luckless outing on the grandest stage was put firmly behind him, however, when he made all and bolted up by nine lengths in the Betway Bowl at Aintree.
Kemboy then lowered the colours of Cheltenham hero Al Boum Photo in the Punchestown Gold Cup when he ran out two lengths too good for his stable companion. This was the final ride of long-time Mullins stable jockey Ruby Walsh’s career and his immediate retirement after the win stole most of the headlines as tributes flooded in amid emotional scenes.
If turning up in the same form or mood as his Aintree and Punchestown triumphs, then Kemboy is going to be tough to beat at Cheltenham – granted a clear round of course.
The nagging doubt is that he is zero from three tries at the track during the Festival, but he clearly relishes tests of stamina and has backed up big displays and impressive displays in other major races run elsewhere.