Cut through all the bluster produced in the wake of the news that Kempton Park will be sold for housing, with a new all-weather track proposed for Newmarket, and you are left with some uncomfortable truths about the future direction of British horseracing.
Fewer jumps courses and more all-weather racing (which now accounts for 21.7% of fixtures) are not appetising prospects to most observers yet it appears this is now regarded as ‘progress’ by Jockey Club Racecourses, owner of many of our most prestigious venues and obviously keen to cash in on some of these valuable assets to balance the books – it’s £115 million in debt, you see.
JCR’s plans would see the King George VI Chase, a race in which the likes of Mill House, Arkle, Pendil, Captain Christy, Wayward Lad, Desert Orchid, Kauto Star and, most recently, Thistlecrack have showcased their brilliance, move down the road to Sandown Park. Never mind that Sandown is a very different racecourse, which produces different ground and rewards a different type of chaser.
The words ‘Newmarket’ and ‘all-weather’ do not appear natural bedfellows yet we face the prospect of Flat racing’s HQ, the home of top-class action for centuries but a small town nonetheless, welcoming its third racecourse. Why stop at three? I’m sure space could be found for a new NH course – and you could guarantee decent ground for most of the year.
Unfortunately, Newmarket’s racecourses may be a vital part of both the local economy and community but they have consistently failed to draw larger crowds from further afield to some of their bigger racedays. That is one of the reasons why the Champion Stakes is now ensconced at Ascot.
And what of Kempton? If a Grade 1 course can get the chop, where does that leave our other premier tracks? Undoubtedly the average all-weather fare largely staged in Sunbury-on-Thames fails to fire the imagination as far as the public is concerned, but whose fault is that?
Kempton is a JCR venue – and, apparently, a profitable one – so JCR must accept responsibility if it is not pulling in the punters. It took the plunge to axe the Flat turf course and replace it with racing on synthetics, a decision that has undoubtedly helped to lead us to a world where, it seems, Kempton is expendable.
It’s not all about crowds, as I understand it, which would certainly help Newmarket’s bid for a new addition. However if you were intent on building a new racecourse and had a choice of two locations – one 45 minutes from London (direct train with its own station) and one 80 minutes away (change at Cambridge then taxi) – which would you go for?
If a Grade 1 course can get the chop, where does that leave our other premier tracks?
For trainers based in the Lambourn and Epsom areas, Kempton plays a vital role. The prospect of the extra schlep to Newmarket or some of the other all-weather tracks will not exactly be welcomed during the depths of winter.
Ben Pauling has enjoyed a handful of winners at Kempton in his fourth season training but it is another course under JCR control – Cheltenham – that is occupying his mind as the Festival begins to loom into view.
Without his stable star Barters Hill, who sadly suffered an injury on his chasing debut in November, Pauling is relying on a talented supporting cast that includes the likes of promising novice chaser A Hare Breath and exciting novice hurdler Willoughby Court, winner of a Grade 2 contest at Warwick in January.
As Pauling tells Tom Peacock (The Big Interview, pages 40-46), he is hoping this year’s Cheltenham experience eclipses 2016.
“We left feeling a bit sore really, because we had some genuine chances and just hit the bar a couple of times, but it just shows how hard it is to win a race at the Festival,” Pauling explains. “It will happen and it’ll be great when it does.
“This year it will maybe not have the hype of Barters Hill but the majority will be exciting young novices. As long as we continue to get them there in good health, that’s great.”