Racing: Kempton ready to launch a new era built on sand

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The Independent Online

Change is not always embraced eagerly on the Turf, and there are those who will be alarmed simply to discover the Lincoln Handicap at Redcar on 25 March. Doncaster is closed for renovation, but at least the first big race of the new Flat season will be staged on grass. Traditionalists will be far more disturbed by the kinship between two other fixtures staged the same day.

In Dubai, the richest prize ever contested by thoroughbreds will again be offered under floodlights on the dirt track at Nad al Sheba. In Sunbury-on-Thames, meanwhile, Kempton Park will stage its initial all-weather programme - the first of 49 this year. However geographically distant, these events draw an indelible line in the sand. The Turf, as a generic sporting environment, is becoming obsolete.

The £18m redevelopment at Kempton accelerates a revolution in British racing to the point where one-third of all Flat fixtures this year are being staged on all-weather surfaces. The new track is girdled by 54 floodlights, in time intended to summon workers out of the metropolis every Wednesday evening. In the autumn, Great Leighs in Essex will become the first new racecourse to open in Britain since 1927, and it will be followed by a new dirt circuit at Newbury. Overall there will be 280 all-weather cards this year, up from 141 in 2002.

In fact, to persist in referring to "all-weather" racing is to miss the point. In 1989, when the first such surfaces were introduced, they were considered no more than a way of keeping betting shops productive during the winter. With time, however, there has been a maturing grasp of their role in a separate but reciprocal racing culture.

The American term "dirt" scarcely improves on "all-weather", and the management of Kempton instead seeks a synergy with the heritage and variety of turf racing. This is all down to Polytrack, introduced at Lingfield just five years ago. Turf itself can suffer from the comparison, when it comes to seeking safe, consistent terrain, while major American tracks have already begun to import Polytrack to replace their much heavier dirt surfaces.

The first Group race on Polytrack was staged at Lingfield last summer and Kempton receives a regal seal of approval on Thursday, when Ouija Board will work there in preparation for a turf race in Dubai. Three weeks after its inauguration, the new track will host two Classic trials - the Easter and Masaka Stakes - often ignored by trainers wary of starting their best horses in testing ground.

"On turf, those races might be staged on anything from heavy to good ground," Julian Thick, managing director of Kempton, said yesterday. "Whereas now trainers know weeks in advance that they can expect a good, fast surface. We have a brand we can add to the all-weather product to take it forward. We started racing here in 1878 and will be bringing two Group races and six Listed races on to the surface in our first year."

The Kempton project had a difficult gestation, but the decision to preserve the jumps course eased its passage. "Racing on the Flat here had slightly lost its way," Thick conceded. "To an outsider it could make no sense that Racecourse Holdings Trust (RHT) should own two sites just seven miles apart on some of the most valuable land in the country - Kempton and Sandown - trying to do the same thing. What we are doing now qualifies us to compete for a new share of the market."

There is also widespread relief that dirt racing will no longer be vested exclusively in the hands of Arena, owners of Lingfield, Wolverhampton and Southwell. "Some of our competitors have shareholders and stock markets to serve," Thick said, "whereas RHT - owned by the Jockey Club - needs commercial success only so it can reinvest."

As it is, Kempton is entitled to assume a pioneering role. In a few years, Thick envisages a pool of horses trained on the site - fit horses from a variety of yards, rather than entire barns filled by resident trainers - and a broadening market.

"People say they don't like the monotony of American racing, but this is different," he said. "Four or five all-weather tracks can enrich the idiosyncrasies of British racing - under lights, or racing right-handed as we do here. For us, it's not a case of turf versus all-weather. It's how turf and all-weather work together in the best interests of British racing plc."