Despite hilariously sensationalist reporting of thundersnow forecasts this week, it is the jump racing world that has seen significantly more turbulence.
The Jockey Club’s announcement on Tuesday of plans to hive off Kempton Park for a housing development heralded a hailstorm of reaction. The proposals seemed to come from nowhere, which is quite a novelty in this super-sensitive age of spin and counter-spin. The move would see racing cease at the track by 2021 and estimated revenue of £100m from the sale of the vast site re-invested into facilities and prize money at other tracks. That package would be boosted by further £400m secured from its other investments. An all-weather track would be built at Newmarket and the King George moved to an upgraded Sandown.
Opinion amongst commentators and the racing community has been wide ranging. The most numerous and dominant voices have been pouring opprobrium and invective on the Jockey Club for sacrificing a Grade 1 racecourse and for laying naked profit before jump racing heritage and legacy. The populist concern has been for the sanctity of the King George VI and associated memorials to the race rolling down the years since 1937. Desert Orchid will be forever associated with the race. His ashes are buried under the statue overlooking the parade ring. Kauto Star’s statue is in the winner’s enclosure and half of his remains rest at the west London venue. The Sun had a field day. “The Jockey Club is prepared to desecrate the memory of the nation’s favourite racehorses”, screamed the scandalous red top.
Nicky Henderson, Oliver Sherwood, local councillors, the area’s MP and plenty of others have lined up to denounce the plans from racing and planning points of view. Journo of the year, Tom Kerr let fly with passion in today’s RP. The Jockey Club, erstwhile guardian of the sport, he said, was a “gamekeeper turned poacher and the poacher has turned up at the estate with a barrel of napalm to burn the place to the ground. Each and every person associated with the decision should hang their heads in shame. How can they claim this is for the good of the sport?”
There have been some more reflective views. Alastair Down’s surprising piece on Thursday took a polar opposite position and praised the most far-sighted and ambitious project he had ever witnessed in his years in the game. John Ferguson saw plenty of merit in the investment in jumps racing and Ruby Walsh has also put his weight behind the idea.
I initially see-sawed on the issue. I pondered whether losing Kempton Park would be such a blow when the quality of the racing outside the two-day Christmas Festival is poor. Most of the staple all-weather fixtures are poorly attended low grade fodder. The best flat races disappeared as soon as the cat litter track went down. The jumps programme is a shadow of its former glory. Take tomorrow’s fixture. The Lanzarote was once one of the premier hurdle handicaps of the season. The winner of the 2017 renewal will take home less than £23k. For a race with such provenance, that is a poor offering. The handicap chase that precedes it is a listed race and has attracted a mere four runners for a winner’s purse of £17k.
Then I realised that this was the point. The Jockey Club’s investment plans should have Kempton right at the heart, not to offer the place up as a boil to be lanced; an asset to be stripped. The argument about prize money was precisely made by Alan King earlier this week. Cheltenham has ramped up the pot at the Festival by another £190k. King said, "We need to look at where the funds are going. The extra purses will make no difference whatsoever at Cheltenham, just as having a £1 million Grand National is a complete nonsense. You'd get the same field at Aintree if the race was worth £500,000 and what's the point of boosting prizes at the festival? Hundreds of horses get balloted out already."
King wants to see increased prize-money further down the ladder. He rightly highlighted the ridiculous situation last week where a Grade 1 at Naas was worth €53,000 to the winner, “but we were running around for just £22,00 in the Challow Hurdle. Races like that and the Tolworth should be worth more. It makes it even worse that the winners get Grade 1 penalties to make it harder for them in the future."
The Jockey Club points to its half-a-billion long-term investment plan as a game changer. Great. Really great. This needs to be apportioned carefully to support and nurture the sport away from its privileged strongholds and to bolster the fixture list as Alan King has sagely suggested. Not to build an all-weather track at Newmarket. Fuck’s sake!
Invest in Kempton and promote the venue as an iconic destination track. We are not talking about Folkestone or Hurst Park here. Even Hereford that closed three years ago has been resurrected this year.
The place does not need to be sold. The £100m price tag that will unlock investment in racing is a red herring. The Jockey Club has already found £400m in its coffers from other business and commercial interests. The old boys club is loaded, dripping with capital. Tom Kerr again:
“Perhaps the Jockey Club could look to some of its considerable non-racecourse assets, which encompass 4,500 acres of land at Newmarket, 550 acres of land at Lambourn and 90 properties, including the Jockey Club Rooms, which turned over just £1.24m in 2015. The art collection that adorns these rooms alone is worth tens of millions of pounds. That is an almost priceless piece of racing's heritage, just like Kempton, but unlike Kempton it is enjoyed principally by the rich, powerful and well-connected. The Jockey Club Rooms is a private members' club.”
That’s where the argument turns for me. If there was ever an injustice to rekindle the fire in my belly, it is the shameless exploitation by the haves at the ruthless expense of the have-nots.
This storm is far from blowing out. Indeed it is only just gathering strength. Whether or not the Jockey Club expected to be engulfed in this way is not clear, nor whether it will prompt any reconsideration. Beyond that, if there is any remaining shred of credibility left in the planning system, this proposal shouldn’t get past the first hurdle in the back straight. It breaches every Green Belt regulation ever penned. Even Spelthorne Council appears to have been taken aback by the audacity of the plan. But we all know this is an environment where sense is not king. The developers’ profit juggernaut has destroyed countless landmarks and iconic venues in the past. You just wouldn’t expect the Jockey Club to be behind the wheel.