De Kempton races soon be gone, oh de doo-dah day

So after the heated debate spawned by my blog a fortnight ago where, it must be said, most of you lamented the loss of C4 Racing and recoiled in horror at the matey bonhomie of ITV’s new offering, it is time to examine an issue that has caused even more furore since it became headline news eight days ago, and again it concerns the prickly subject of change in what is a very traditional sport – the sale of Kempton Park for housing.

The response to the proposals has been mixed, but certainly the tone of the Racing Post is very clear on the matter – bad with a capital B. Who am I to disagree with the esteemed Tom Kerr and Lee Mottershead who have readers and awards in abundance, but I do find their outrage misguided and even slightly naive. They are young men who have spent most of their careers in the privileged position of writing about horse racing, and I would question whether they have a keen strategic overview on the matter.

“A treacherous act of vandalism….perpetrated by the so-called guardians of British racing. Each and every person associated with the decision should hang their heads in shame.” cries Kerr, before dragging the class issue into a sport that does well to avoid it by deriding the “grandees in the sumptuous Jockey Club Rooms in Newmarket, the walls lined with priceless artwork”.

Mottershead continues the theme: “In many ways this is about as big as racing stories get because of the organisation threatening it…. killed off by those who were supposed to be its protectors”.

Mottershead then goes on to argue that the residents of Sunbury and Hampton are against the proposals. Really? Fascinating, Lee. Show me someone who is happy to have thousands of new homes next to them and then I’ll be interested! I live in a place well outside the M25 that is halfway through a Local Plan to build 10,000 new homes within a 5 mile radius of my front door. I too wonder how the already gridlocked roads will cope, and worry about the extra squash and sprawl of it all, but I have chosen to live in the South East of the country and I’m not going to blame landowners, planning officers or even the “philistine” developers for it.

He accuses JCR of hypocrisy, given their previous opposition to development around Newmarket and suggests they should have already improved Sandown without having to sell Kempton: “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. It surely should have been JCR’s job to unlock that potential before now anyway.”

With what, exactly? Of course the suggested improvements at Sandown (and presumably the other dozen courses in the portfolio, it should be noted) are only possible through the sale of Kempton! Yes, the Jockey Club owns expensive paintings and lots of land in Newmarket and Lambourn, but that does not add up to 3000 plots of prime real estate inside the M25.

Bruce Millington, chief at the Racing Post, also weighed in: “I don’t think anyone envisaged it would be Kempton that the axe would fall on.”

Well, it’s hardly going to be Wincanton or Market Rasen, is it? We don’t need 3,000 new homes there, and even if we did it wouldn’t raise £100m+. The plain fact of the matter is that the South East, and London in particular, needs more housing. If the Jockey Club were going to announce this bold a plan, and I certainly recognise this as a very bold plan, it was only ever going to be Kempton.

The JCR accounts reveal they are already in debt to the tune of almost £100m. Has anybody in this often sensationalised debate actually stopped to think what could happen if they don’t sell Kempton? If we don’t get this new investment in the long term we could be facing something much worse than losing one racecourse. JCR is currently responsible for 14 in total and I have seen at first hand the effect of the Cheltenham and Aintree windfalls that cascade funds down to the smaller tracks. Personally, if it was a choice of losing Kempton or losing Exeter, Market Rasen, Warwick and Wincanton – all of which perform vital roles in bringing communities together and none of which has a sister racecourse four miles down the road – I know which I would choose.

To put this into context, Kempton Park was allotted 70 fixtures this year, but 57 of these were all-weather fixtures that will attract hundreds rather than thousands of racegoers. Much has been made in recent days that the track is profitable, but that is only because it has been turned into a cash cow by providing betting shops with live action on the tawdry Tuesdays. Other than Boxing Day, it can be a soulless and desolate place.

A decent crowd at Kempton…. for the car boot sale

Only Alistair Down, the Granddaddy of the pressroom who has overseen quite a lot of change through the years, added a reasoned voice to the hysteria: “This is not a shredding of the past but a seven-league stride towards the sport’s better future. Yesterday we threw off the yoke of being held ransom by the past.”

But even a literary heavyweight such as him stopped short of telling it as bluntly as it needs to: Kempton is what’s known in the trade as a shitheap.

During my eighty-day odyssey (mid-life crisis) in 2015 I was lucky enough to be supported by many dear friends, some of whom were relative newbies to the sport, or at least the venue they attended with me. When some joined me at Kempton I felt vaguely embarrassed at the bleak and rotting facade, not to mention the heaving scrum inside for poor quality and overpriced food served in surroundings that would make a motorway service station seem like a Michelin-starred establishment.

Let me make this clear: Kempton is a wholly miserable venue whose only redeeming feature is the King George. I suspect half the people who are moaning have only watched racing there from the comfort of their armchair, and if you actually took them there they would be aghast at the wretchedness of the place. The best bit about my visit was being given £5 to park, a curious transaction that was strangely portentous of the experience to come. I now wonder, without one shred of guilt, that if I had chosen to look that gift horse in the mouth and alerted the financially-challenged steward to the error, perhaps JCR may be in a better financial state now?

Opponents of the move talk about the great superstars and King Georges over the years, but to me that is rather telling. We remember the races and the horses, not the course, and certainly not the charmless airport departure lounge under the main stand, or the decrepit concrete above. The track itself is totally unremarkable – I can tell you about many courses in great detail, wax lyrical for hours in fact, but the most I can recollect about Kempton is that it is right-handed. Kerr talks about it being the “fairest test of chasing brilliance” – in other words, it’s quite dull.

“The significance of its history will fade and in times long hence no-one will speak of the epic King George legends of yesteryear, of Kauto Star and Dessie, because the track at which they achieved their feats of wonder is all Tarmac and Tescos, their towering achievements rendered perfectly irrelevant to the future.”

What a pile of nonsense. Arkle hasn’t been around for almost half a century now but people still talk about him. Incidentally, his racecourse debut came in 1961 at Mullingar which was closed six years later (it is now a business park), and its closure was one of the main reasons why Kilbeggan survived.

As I noted in my book, racecourse evolution is not a recent phenomenon. No fewer than 97 British racecourses closed their doors in the twentieth century, a rate of attrition that makes recent events look rather staid. Harpenden is now a cricket club, Shirley a golf club, and Gatwick needs no introduction. Even my beloved Cheltenham used to race on top of Cleeve Hill rather than at the foot of it, and for many years staged only flat races. Do Kerr and Mottershead really believe it would have been better for the sport if Cheltenham had continued to provide flat racing on top of the hill?

You wouldn’t want to watch a family pet suffer like this. It is time for Kempton to be humanely put out of its misery, and it will not lie dormant and broken. It will provide homes for people to live in – that is a good thing. And the pantomime villains, the Dastardly Developers (who, incidentally, will employ people to make these new homes), yes they will make money out of it, but so will the Jockey Club.

However, finally we reach the stumbling block in my otherwise forthright support of the plans: why only £100 million? This values each building plot at only £33k which seems a gross underestimate of the worth of prime land with great transport links near London. In fact, it is unclear where the other £400 million is going to come from, and why we need a new all-weather track in Newmarket.

So I believe that the most serious accusation that can be thrown at the Jockey Club is a lack of transparency in their financial plans, rather than a pre-meditated swipe at the heritage of our sport. They have been brave with the decision, and now they really need to make it work. In years to come I honestly don’t think many will miss Kempton, but many more will still be enjoying good quality racing and fine facilities at courses across the country because of its legacy, and that would be a fitting epitaph.