Racing: Newmarket and Kempton step into the sand era

Four days before the contest most integral to the history of racing has come the most significant announcement yet in terms of the sport's march towards the future. Racecourse Holdings Trust, whose 13 tracks include Epsom, home of Saturday's Derby, is to develop an all-weather Flat facility at two of the others. As widely predicted, Kempton is one; the second is perhaps more of a surprise to traditionalists but no less logical: the game's headquarters, Newmarket.

Four days before the contest most integral to the history of racing has come the most significant announcement yet in terms of the sport's march towards the future. Racecourse Holdings Trust, whose 13 tracks include Epsom, home of Saturday's Derby, is to develop an all-weather Flat facility at two of the others. As widely predicted, Kempton is one; the second is perhaps more of a surprise to traditionalists but no less logical: the game's headquarters, Newmarket.

With its proximity to London, Kempton is seen as an ideal addition to the all-weather circuit, which currently comprises Lingfield, Southwell and Wolverhampton, particularly as a venue for floodlit evening fixtures. Plans last year to do away with jump racing, including the second most-important steeplechase of the year, the King George VI Chase, at the Sunbury course were met with a collective upthrowing of arms. Now it is turf Flat racing that will be sacrificed after 127 years with plans for a 10-furlong artificial oval. There has been regular racing on Newmarket Heath for rather longer, more than 300 years, but the proposed all-weather track will not affect any existing resources.

RHT, a subsidiary of the Jockey Club, intends to apply for planning permission for both projects - scheduled to be up and running by January 2005 - later this year. David James, who took over as chairman just over two months ago, stressed the need to get on the all-weather bandwagon. "It is not just strategically important," he said, "but a virtual necessity. In the current marketplace, in among bookmakers, betting shops and media issues, if we are to compete for extra fixtures we are naked without all-weather racing.

"Not so much to make a profit, but to protect ourselves against loss. It is an essential defensive ploy in today's reality and gets our legs under the table. And top-class all-weather tracks at Kempton and Newmarket will enhance the quality of our overall racing offered and will help meet the needs of the racing and betting markets. This investment provides the potential to improve the quality of all-weather racing."

The first meeting at Kempton was held in July 1878, but Flat racing there has never reached the highest level. The best horse to have won there in recent years was probably Mill Reef, as a juvenile in 1970, but the course does not stage a race higher than Group 3 level. It is, however, venue for a trio of venerable handicaps, the Queen's Prize, the Jubilee and Rosebery.

The intention is to switch as much of the current programme as possible to the all-weather surface. "We want to run as many of our existing Flat fixtures as possible on the new track when the time comes," the racecourse managing director, Julian Thick, said.

"Obviously we will have to consult with trainers to see if it would be viable, as part of detailed consultations with the industry. The new development would be the end of an era but also the start of a new phase and hopefully high-quality all-weather racing," he added.

Work at Kempton, which would retain existing grandstands and would include infrastructure improvements, floodlighting and the upgrading of the steeplechase and hurdle courses, has an estimated cost of £10m. Less money, some £4m, will need to be spent at Newmarket.

The intention is that a 12-furlong all-weather track, with one right-handed turn, will run parallel to the Rowley Mile on the side away from the stands. It will materially affect none of the important training gallops on Racecourse Side - notably the Watered Gallop and Across The Flat - and should benefit the turf course, as horses will be able to go to post on the sand track.

Much of Newmarket Heath is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, as one of the largest areas of chalk grassland in East Anglia with rare flora and fauna, including its famous cowslips and skylarks, and English Nature is fully in the discussion loop.

All-weather racing at Newmarket is planned for midweek afternoons between November and April and its introduction seems wholly beneficial to the town, home to some 2,500 horses, and its economy.

"Unless I've missed something enormous," the track's managing director, Lisa Hancock, said, "it seems a win-win situation. It will be an additional training and breeze-up sale facility, we'll be able to stage more turf fixtures because of the reduction in wear and tear, it will cut down on travelling for local horses, and will offer an all-weather track with a straight course. We won't be losing anything, we will just be adding a totally new product."

Clive Brittain, who used a maiden on Lingfield's Polytrack to launch the three-year-old career of his Derby candidate Dutch Gold, concurred. "I'm a great believer in all-weather racing and having a track in Newmarket will be a huge benefit in stimulating interest and serving the captive audience."

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