Wednesday 1 February 2017

“Come Friendly Bombs and Drop on Kempton Park” (amongst other courses), with Apologies to Sir John Betjeman

There’s a super book by Chris Pitt entitled A Long Time Gone, which examines the history of racecourses which have closed down. If you ever enter a pub quiz on the subject it is a must-read: “Which track had the Grand Nationals during the First World War, one of which was won by Lester Piggott’s grandfather?” (Gatwick); “Which track has the record of the world’s longest continuous bar?” (Bromford Bridge, Birmingham); “Where does John McCririck want his ashes to be scattered?” (Alexandra Park); “Which track provided the turf for Ascot’s National Hunt course?” (Hurst Park). Easy, eh?

It now looks as though Kempton Park could well be added to the list. Just before I went on holiday, an announcement was made by the Jockey Club that they want to sell off 200+ acres and close down the course, raising at least £100m which together with extra injection of £400m+ over the next decade will unlock the potential of Sandown Park, build a new floodlit all-weather track at Newmarket and put substantial extra sums into prize-money.

I must admit that I didn’t give it a huge amount of thought while on holiday, with the attractions of chilled South African chardonnay and the gorgeous vistas on the Cape blotting out British racing for a while. So I was rather surprised when I got back to find out that the proposal had generated an enormous amount of invective and controversy. I should probably nail my prejudices to the mast before going any further – I have a top 10 of courses that I really dislike going to, and in alphabetical order they are Chelmsford, Ffos Las, Kempton, Lingfield, Newcastle (A/W), Plumpton, Southwell, Towcester, Wolverhampton and Worcester. I wouldn’t mind any of Sir John Betjeman’s bombs landing on these courses. The owner experience is dreadful at all of them, and with the exception of the King George VI on Boxing Day, Kempton is one of the dreariest, most soulless places that can be envisaged.

Increasingly, I think, racecourses are segmenting into three groups: the top tracks with fabulous facilities and festivals; the bottom tracks where quite frankly it doesn’t matter whether there are any customers or not, as their profitability is to do with betting and media rights; and then those in between which have a strong local following even when the experience is somewhat lacking. Kempton I would put firmly into the category where attendance doesn’t matter, even though I’m more than prepared to accept the counter-argument that substantial investment might be able to change that. But even then, if I had a choice between a souped-up Kempton or a transformed Sandown, I know where I’m going.

What have the Jockey Club actually proposed?

  • Close Kempton and sell the land for housing: dispose of 230 acres with the potential for building 3,000+ homes, raising at least £100m. It is uncertain whether Spelthorne Borough Council is in favour of this, but in line with national planning policy over the next 20 years they have got to find somewhere to put 15,000+ additional dwellings. Seems an inviting proposition to me.
  • Transfer the Kempton fixtures: disperse 13 prime jumps fixtures to other courses around the country, both small and large, and particularly in the north. This spreads the benefits of the meetings to other tracks and the Jockey Club have also promised further investment at these courses. The King George VI would go to Sandown. Of course it wouldn’t be the same race, but I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be a spectacular Christmas event. Surely many of the great names of the past could just as easily have won at Sandown: Arkle, Captain Christy (and I can still see so clearly in my mind’s eye his thrashing of Bula by 30 lengths in the 1975 race), Desert Orchid, Kauto Star and now Thistlecrack.
  • Substantial ongoing investment: starting with a transformational rebuilding of Sandown, its facilities and track and building a new A/W course near The Links at Newmarket. The Sandown proposal sounds particularly exciting, as it is a course which has looked pretty jaded for a while. They want it to become London’s premier dual-code racecourse. In addition to the £100m+ from the sale they are going to raise and invest a further £400m (presumably from profit and / or bonds similar to that which funded the £45m Cheltenham transformation) over the next decade, with over half of that money going into owner prize-money: an increase of 54% on the previous level over 10 years and which is very welcome at £25m per annum.
What’s not to like about this? Clearly a lot, as the press / social media reaction was 99% against all of it, the arguments being: the Jockey Club remit / Royal Charter is to be a guardian of racing and protector of courses (Nicky Henderson in particular described the role of his father in setting up Racecourse Holdings Trust in the 1960s that bought Cheltenham, Market Rasen, Nottingham and Wincanton and then United Racecourses that brought in Epsom, Sandown and Kempton); National Hunt can’t afford to lose such a course, that has very reliable ground, and Sandown is too vulnerable to wet weather; Londoners need local courses; it will disadvantage trainers in the South-West and Lambourn with much further travel for the A/W; and it erodes the heritage, heart and soul of jumps racing. Phrases such as “absolute disgrace” and “cultural vandalism” have been freely bandied about. Lots of heat under lots of collars.

When I read about all of this, I wondered how many people had actually been to Kempton to experience its dubious delights. With the notable exception of the King George meeting on Boxing Day, there is no particular reason for wanting to go there. I can’t see why one wouldn’t take horses to similar tracks, such as Huntingdon and Newbury, or further afield Aintree, Doncaster, Haydock or Southwell. I accept that the ground at Sandown in the middle of the winter can be poor, but so many NH trainers are now avoiding the depths of the winter to concentrate on the two “shoulders”, so it is not quite the problem it is often made out to be. In terms of the all-weather, if you look at this strategically, where would you want courses to be – near Newmarket, Lambourn and Middleham. Having a course at Newmarket seems to me an extremely good idea, although many argue that HQ should only be about top quality horses. I don’t have the statistics but I wouldn’t mind betting there are several thousand horses who don’t fit that description and are regularly seen out on the Heath. Presumably lots of these will appear on an A/W surface.

This controversy is bound to run and run, and there will be a huge amount of negotiation and fine detail to develop. As you can tell, I’m firmly in support and I believe that Simon Bazalgette and his colleagues at the Jockey Club are to be applauded for taking a strategic perspective that I am convinced is in the best interests of racing. It will strengthen the long-term financing of the sport and be good for owners. I hope they succeed.

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