The Kempton Park closure conundrum -- sad and wrong, or sensible and crucial?

In one way, it came as a blessed relief. A respite for racing's news agenda from the interminable debate about ITV's coverage which, for yawns, was beginning to match the BHA v Jim Best disciplinary saga.

Thursday, 12th January 2017, 6:20 pm
Kauto Star strides to one of his record-breaking five victories in the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park.

But in the biggest and most important way, of course, it was news that sent shockwaves of seismic proportions through the sport. The sudden announcement that Kempton Park, home of one of Jumps racing’s most iconic races, the King George VI Chase, was to close.

Not a country track, hidden away in some backwater. But one of the most important venues in the country. One with its own train station, no less. And home also of a Polytrack-ian plethora of all-weather action and betting-shop fodder at all times of the year to satisfy even the greediest of bookmakers and regularly replenish racing’s cash chest.

Owners Jockey Club Racecourses made sure the bombshell it dropped was sugar-coated. The closure was for the good of racing, they insisted. Because the sale of the 350-acre Sunbury-on-Thames site to housing developers would raise a colossal amount of money.

It wasn’t either as if this money would fill the pockets and wallets of fat-cat businessmen, so loathed by Jeremy Corbyn. For although it is the largest commercial organisation in British racing, the Jockey Club is governed by Royal Charter, which means all the profits it makes must be invested back into the sport. And given that the body is hardly flushed at present as it sits on debts of £115 million, it needs the dosh.

Not so long ago, the odds-on favourite for the source of making good a sizeable chunk of such a deficit was an extension to the Cheltenham Festival, adding a fifth day and/or embracing Saturday. But that option now seems to have drifted in the market, which might explain why one or two celebrated media columnists came out surprisingly in favour of the closure plans this week.

Instead the Jockey Club, which also runs Cheltenham, is taking aim at Kempton with a fleet of bulldozers. The King George will be switched to nearby Sandown Park, which will be given an expensive facelift, and Kempton’s array of supporting Jumps and all-weather fixtures will be spread across the other courses it owns which, by the time they hope the plans will come to fruition in 2021, should include a newly-built synthetic track at Newmarket, not far from the town centre.

Of course, before then, the whole scheme has more hurdles to overcome than even multiple runnings of the Stayers’ at the Festival could put in the way. As a local-newspaper journalist for many years, I can call on first-hand experience of such sagas and by the time we’ve finished with the protests, the campaigns, the action groups, the council meetings, the planning process, the appeals and the public inquiries, I guarantee that the four-year timeline currently being estimated can be doubled at least. And considering the political climate we descended into in 2016, that’s not allowing for a whole string of mistruths and fake news stories to upset the applecart even further.

Nevertheless that has not curtailed the outrage within racing that has met the closure plans -- and understandably so. The loss of Kempton would be unquestionably sad. Yes, it can be a soulless, vacuous hole on one of its bleak all-weather nights in midwinter. But I have always enjoyed my visits to the best Saturday meetings and was one of the few who railed against the axeing of Turf Flat racing there in 2005.

Branding the closure “an act of gross sporting vandalism” is a bit harsh. But I do sympathise with those who say the King George would not be the same at Sandown. I agree with trainer Nicky Henderson, who says the unique nature of Kempton is vital for the winter game. I concur with Thistlecrack’s jockey Tom Scudamore who questions the motives of Jockey Club Racecourses, given that they inherited their status from Racecourse Holdings Trust (RHT), a body originally set up in 1964 to protect racecourses from development such as the one pinpointed for Kempton. Indeed, without RHT and the role played by Henderson’s late father, Jonny, it’s doubtful we’d even have Cheltenham today. The horrific thought of life without a Festival is enough, surely, to ward off any rude interruptions of racing’s heritage.

On the other hand, I am tortured by the acceptance that the Jockey Club must behave as a responsible business and its very raison d’etre is governed by a desire to protect such heritage. If the creation of leafy-laned streets going by the name of Desert Orchid Drive, Kauto Star Crescent, Arkle Avenue and Thistlecrack Gardens helps them raise a staggering sum of £500 million to both balance their books and benefit the sport, who are we to argue? As chief executive Simon Bazalgette says, they must look after their assets, and they just happen to be standing on a prime site only 16 miles south-west of London at a time when the government is screaming out for plots of land on which to build thousands of glaringly-needed new homes. What’s more, it has the opportunity to switch its all-weather focus to another prime site on the doorstep of the residence of an estimated 40% of the Flat racehorse population.

The whole Kempton conundrum appears to be a classic tussle between heart and head, a feisty battle between short term and long term. Is the scheme both sad and wrong, or is it actually sensible and crucial? Emotions have been running so high since the announcement was made that it might be in the Jockey Club’s interests if they made public more details. Put meat on the bones, particularly those of its financial business plan. Racing does not do logic very well, while opinions tend to be of the knee-jerk variety and resistant to change. But one thing it pays homage to is the formbook, so concrete facts and figures might be required before the concrete is allowed to settle at Kempton Park.