AS Kempton prepares for its biggest day of the year the spectre of closure still hangs over the track.
The turf that helped make legends of Arkle, Desert Orchid and Kauto Star could disappear under 3,000 new homes as part of Jockey Club Racecourse’s plans announced in January.
It seems perverse the very organisation set up to safeguard tracks from the clutches of builders ravenous for land to satisfy increasing housing needs has plotted to shut such a historic course.
Even their own website proudly boasts how it has saved Cheltenham and Aintree from developers.
Kempton – on a highly-prized spot on the outskirts of west London – is clearly more disposable.
Jockey Club chiefs behind the plans argue the sacrifice is necessary to fund a redevelopment of nearby Sandown and a brand new all-weather track at Newmarket.
It has also pledged to invest £500million in racing in the following ten years if their plans get the green light.
It doesn’t cut much ice with those determined to safeguard the future of the home of the 32Red King George VI Chase.
When Thistlecrack lines up to defend the crown he won so impressively it will be 80 years since Southern Hero became the first king of Kempton.
Hot favourite Might Bite won’t have the closure plans on his mind as he attempts to add his name to the Boxing Day role of honour. But his trainer might.
Nicky Henderson’s father Johnny – who the Cheltenham Festival’s closing race is named after – was instrumental in setting up Racecourse Holdings Trust, which became Jockey Club Racecourses.
The champion trainer has been the most vociferous opponent and has vowed to fight the plans to close a course where he has enjoyed great success.
Long Run twice won the King George for Henderson and on Tuesday Buveur D’Air will most likely give the Lambourn-based trainer a record seventh Christmas Hurdle.
But this is not a personal crusade born out of family loyalty and self-indulgence. Henderson sees Kempton as a crucial part of National Hunt racing.
He said: “It really is a flagship racecourse and it would be a great loss to British racing.
“I will still turn up to Kempton on Boxing Day even if a bulldozer gets in my way.
“I love Kempton and I intend to keep going there for at least another ten years.
“My father started Racecourse Holdings Trust which is now Jockey Club Racecourses.
“That was set up to protect racecourses from being developed. They saved Cheltenham, Aintree, all sorts of courses.
“That all happened because dad started RHT for exactly that reason. I fail to understand when that was the concept to have a non-profit making organisation to save racecourses from being developed how now, all of a sudden, one of their best racecourses is up for development.
“We’ve just got to keep the pressure up. This is a great racecourse – otherwise we wouldn’t all be getting excited about it. Kempton is always better ground than anywhere else during the winter.”
Earlier this month it was revealed independent planning consultants had rated the site as a ‘strong’ green-belt. It’s a potential spanner in the works but The Jockey Club insists nothing has changed as far they’re concerned.
A spokesman for The Jockey Club said: “It is widely known the site is in Green Belt. We continue to await the outcome of Spelthorne’s ‘Call for Sites’ process in due course.”
Spelthorne Borough Council still needs to find room for thousands of new homes in the next 15 years and with more than 200 acres up for grabs Kempton will remain a tempting proposition to some despite fierce local opposition.
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Henderson has joked about chaining himself to the open ditch in the past. He also came up with another novel tactic but he is certainly taking the defence of Kempton seriously.
He said: “We’ve got people looking at it very carefully on various fronts.
“It’s a highly-classified green field site. It’s not quite a bird sanctuary with golden eagles, pelicans and albatrosses hiding in there. Maybe we’ll put some in so we can say ‘good god, there’s an albatross breeding in the middle of Kempton!’
“I still respect the Jockey Club – they’ve got their views and needs. I don’t see them, I must admit. We have had one meeting and I still fail to see them.”
Colin Tizzard, Alan King and Paul Nicholls have all voiced their opposition to the plans that Jockey Club Racecourses say must raise at least £100million. There are hopes the scheme would bring in nearer double that figure.
But some would say it’s hard to put a figure on more than 130 years of racing tradition. And one thing is for sure – if Kempton is lost it will be one less track within easy reach of London.
When the Flat turf course was scrapped for an £18million floodlit all-weather track nearly 12 years ago officials were confident racegoers would flock out of the capital.
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That is a market that has remained untapped with much of the evening racing being staged in front of handfuls – rather than the promised standfuls – of paying customers.
The Christmas punters that will pack into Kempton on Boxing Day is not replicated over more than 70 other fixtures during the rest of the year.
Tom George – who runs Double Shuffle in this year’s King George – trained Nacarat to twice win what is now the Kempton Park Chase in the February meeting popular with many top trainers wanting to prep their Cheltenham hopefuls.
He said: “Surely to god they’ve got more people around Kempton that might want to go racing than there is around most other places.
“They’ve got quite a big town on their doorstep! Surely they can muster up a few to go there.
“There’s a big place for Kempton. Generally, the ground is better there than most of the other tracks. It’s a unique track – there’s too many up-and-down on bad ground.
“If Kempton didn’t exist Nacarat wouldn’t have existed.”
If Jockey Club Racecourses gets its way, soon after 2021, it won’t exist.
It’s hard to imagine the statues overlooking the paddock of King George greats Desert Orchid and Kauto Star – where their ashes are contained – would be nodding in approval.
(This story has not been edited by LIPFEED. It has been generated by a syndicated feed)