Racing: Threat grows to Kempton's jumps course

By Richard Edmondson
Thursday 07 November 2002 01:00

When you think of Kempton, you dream of the King George VI Chase: a freezing Boxing Day arrival, Dessie winning the big race and a tractor towing your vehicle out of the infield car park. Soon, however, the image is likely to be completely different.

In years to come, Kempton will be glaring floodlights, a left-handed, all-weather Flat track and punting perhaps finished off with a trip to the adjoining casino. They call it progress.

It has already been revealed that Racecourse Holdings Trust, the Jockey Club-owned group which controls 13 tracks, including Kempton, would like to see Sunbury banish jumps racing forever. Now there is meat on the bone, detail which could see Kempton become Britain's premier all-weather location by the winter of 2005.

In a plan called the new Kempton vision, there is provision for an all-weather track of 10 furlongs, new stands and accompanying hotel and casino. The design includes 50 race meetings a year, principally in the evenings and at weekends, with the emphasis on improving the quality of horse competing. To this end, there would be two championship, all-weather fixtures, one before the Dubai World Cup in March and the other an autumn preliminary for the Breeders' Cup. Work on site could start in the spring of 2004.

There are obstacles to overcome before this reality is achieved: the acquisition of fixtures, planning permission, funding issues and, of course, the appeasement of the National Hunt racing community.

Henrietta Knight, who saddled Best Mate to finish second to Florida Pearl in the King George last year, is opposed to the project. It also appears the transformation of the course will involve something frightful happening to Nicky Henderson, as he has said that National Hunt racing will disappear from Kempton over his dead body.

"We have got to square off the jumping community and convince them that, within the group, we are taking National Hunt racing forward as well," John Smee, the RHT racing manager, said yesterday. "We've got a track seven miles down the road [at Sandown] where £30m has been spent. The proposition would be to use very high profile satellite racecourses to enhance the type of racing that Kempton has thus far staged. That would very much include Sandown, the Cheltenhams of this world and some of our other Grade One tracks."

Knight remains unconvinced. "The trouble is," she said yesterday, "that I don't know if these other courses will be able to take the volume of racing that will be put upon them."

The jumps brigade, though, had better start getting used to it. "Kempton are in the middle of a scheme to investigate the way forward and the preferred route is to establish all-weather racing," Smee said.

"We would be looking to take all-weather racing forward, to try to enhance the quality of horses running there. At the same time we would like to make it spectator friendly. We would be looking to run at commercially-friendly times, ie the evenings under floodlights.

"We're talking about moving all-weather racing to the next phase. We wouldn't do it if we didn't think we had an enhanced product."

Those at RHT are not afraid to tinker with the great monuments of the turf and are also well ahead with plans to revise arrangements at another of their courses, Cheltenham. A race programme involving an extra day at the Festival, on the Friday, will be unfurled within the next two months and a discussion document will be made public early next year.

Owners, trainer and jockeys have been consulted as discussion has included an additional cross-country race and a mares' race. It may be that by the time day four is introduced in 2005, with the Stayers' Hurdle the centrepiece, we will already be used to fast, Flat horses winging around Kempton.

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