Kempton: news of proposed closure has been met with outrage
PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
By Lee Mottershead 5:01PM 16 JAN 2017
Lee Mottershead with a call for action against plans to demolish Kempton
WHAT a shame that, unlike Donald Trump, we cannot dismiss the Kempton bombshell as fake news. Instead it’s simply rotten news.
The announcement came in a week that ended with a hugely positive development for racing, thanks to the government confirming an April 1 launch date for the sport’s beefed up funding system. For BHA chief executive Nick Rust, key lieutenant Will Lambe and all those who worked with them, this represents a major success.
There had been nothing to warm the heart in the words of Betfred boss Fred Done, who in this publication warned of disastrous repercussions for racing, as for betting shops, if the maximum permitted stakes on fixed-odds betting terminals are reduced to £2.
Not everyone shares a moral unease about people being able to lose £100 a time on a high street game of chance. However, even those untroubled by FOBTs must surely be saddened by the knowledge racing’s own financial health seems inextricably linked to that of the machines.
Every bit as saddening was the following day’s revelation by the Jockey Club that it wants to shut Kempton, assuming an application to build 3,000 homes on racecourse land is approved and raises at least £100 million.
In many ways this is about as big as racing stories get. It is seismic not simply because one of our most famous racecourses is under threat but because of the organisation threatening it.
‘It is not a happy thought’
As others have noted, had Kempton been an Arena Racing Company-owned venue, the outpouring of venom would have been enormous – and rightly so. That the Jockey Club has travelled in such a direction is a reason not simply for anger but also distress.
Five minutes down the road from my home is what used to be Hurst Park racecourse. Much of it is tarmaced over, yet even though it ended long before I began, I seldom drive past without thinking of what it had once been.
It is not a happy thought. Nor is the thought that a further ten-minute drive away lies what could soon be another racecourse of the past, killed off by those who were supposed to be its protectors.
Many excellent arguments have been set out against the proposed sale. My own first thought was if the Jockey Club wants to make a £500m investment over ten years, why not instead invest £400m, or something approaching that figure, and leave Kempton to be enjoyed by this generation of racing fans and those who follow?
What cannot be denied is most Kempton meetings are enjoyed by only small numbers. For that reason the track has increasingly been labelled soulless. If that is true, the Jockey Club is largely responsible.
Digging up the turf Flat course in order to deliver a plethora of all-weather fixtures, too many of which include races worth less than £2,000 to the winner, inevitably made the place feel cold and unloved. That turf course is gone, and many of the famous prizes staged on it have been terminated or greatly diminished, but the grass is still green on the jumps course. It must stay that way.
With the Cheltenham Festival and Grand National in its portfolio, the Jockey Club is vital to the prosperity of jump racing. It largely does a fine job, but not everyone is happy with how the sport has fared, certainly not relative to the Flat.
As Alan King highlighted on Saturday, jumping at Nottingham disappeared, while Haydock’s once iconic chase course was turned into something much blander and less interesting to facilitate the creation of a second Flat track. Even the launch of a £100,000 hurdle on Betfair Chase day was bad for racing – although positive for Jockey Club Racecourses – as the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, a long established prize and part of the jumps pattern, follows one week later.
Sandown: would inherit the King George if Kempton closes
PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos
Sandown needs improvements
Should Kempton be flogged for housing and turned into a cash machine, as it is now with betting shop media rights, future King Georges would likely be staged at Sandown, which its owners believe would benefit from being marketed as London’s premier dual-code racecourse.
There is zero sense to this less-is-more strategy. How can racing in ‘London’, or indeed London’s racegoers, be better served by there being one less racecourse within easy reach of the capital? How can reducing racing’s visible presence be anything other than a bad thing?
Halving the sport’s mainstream television presence from two broadcasters to one did not help, while greyhound racing’s one London stadium will soon disappear. Sandown is a wonderful course but the Jockey Club notion that bulldozing Kempton will lead to “unlocking Sandown’s potential” is fanciful. It should surely have been JCR’s job to unlock that potential before now anyway.
Sandown does need serious improvements, and undoubtedly a new grandstand, but attempts to present its future revival as necessarily linked to Kempton’s demise are cynical and misleading. Does anyone seriously think if Kempton did not sit on a potential housing goldmine, Simon Bazalgette and his chiefs would be looking to close Kempton on the basis that only by doing so could Sandown be transformed into a super giant? Not for a second.
As Brigadier Gerard night underlines every year, Sandown – the roads around which are generally packed – struggles to bring in big crowds. Nor will Newmarket all-weather meetings be popular with the public. Aside from those who work there, it is hard to imagine anyone could possibly enthuse over the creation of an all-weather track in a town synonymous with the highest quality. Certainly those many trainers based in Lambourn and further south, for whom Kempton is the closest all-weather venue, will not be thrilled.
Newmarket: all-weather track may be built at course
PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
A miserable tale
Mention of Newmarket is a reminder that central to the Jockey Club strategy is the proposed building of thousands of homes in the borough of Spelthorne, within which Kempton sits.
For years now the subject of building houses in Newmarket has been a hot topic, due to Lord Derby’s long-held aspirations for Hatchfield Farm. Understandably, Newmarket’s racing community mounted a united front against Derby, with a key ally being the Jockey Club, whose stated view was any residential development should be on brownfield sites.
That so, the hypocrisy in the Jockey’s Club Kempton strategy is undeniable. For although the two planning cases are undoubtedly different – as all such cases are – they are linked by the same core principle.
Spelthorne’s elected representatives are wholly against what council leader Ian Harvey last week called “a hopeless cause”. Spelthorne’s member of parliament is similarly opposed, stating there are other areas in the borough better suited to redevelopment.
Even more importantly, the residents of Sunbury and Hampton have regularly voiced their objections to a massive building project on the racecourse’s precious greenfield site.
Despite all that, the Jockey Club seems intent on pushing on in the hope of ultimately winning in Whitehall. Perhaps the club’s stewards, and those Newmarket trainers who have enthusiastically welcomed the idea of an all-weather track on their doorstep, will at least console those Spelthorne residents, already plagued by appalling traffic problems, that at least in Newmarket the threatened greenfield site remains green. They will no doubt be comforted.
The miserable truth is this sorry tale is completely free of comfort. Should the worst come to the worst, the first casualty will be Kempton, a course that houses statues of Desert Orchid and Kauto Star because it was with Kempton they were, and always will be, most closely associated. Yet Kempton will not be the only victim, nor those who live in its vicinity. Racing as a whole will suffer, for the sport will lose another precious foothold, a sporting stage that tests participants in ways Sandown and Cheltenham do not.
Another victim will be the Jockey Club. Its racecourse wing was created in 1964, formed, according to the Jockey Club’s website, “with the objective of securing the future of racecourses”.
Now, 53 years later, the Jockey Club wants to kill off one of its own most historic racecourses, a track that makes considerable profits, even though it can protect Kempton and still commit to investing £400m thanks to its “diverse commercial operations”. No matter how the £100m-plus is spent – on Sandown, Newmarket, prize-money or fixture redistribution – it would not be worth it.
Should the axe be wielded on Kempton, the Jockey Club will suffer because so many of those who love this sport will quite simply no longer trust it. In the eyes of many it already suffered serious damage last week. Ground can nevertheless be regained by reversing and rethinking.
The Royal Charter of which we keep hearing dictates the Jockey Club must act for the good of racing. I do not doubt its leaders genuinely believe what they are doing meets that requirement. I am equally certain they are wrong.
Those members of the Jockey Club perhaps better honed to understanding what racing truly needs to flourish, and who interpret value not simply in monetary terms, must make their voices heard.
So must we all. Lobby them, challenge them, embarrass them. If we do not succeed, Kempton will be lost. Those guilty will sadly, but deservedly, assure themselves of a sorry legacy.