Basically, closing any racecourse should be the very last resort. Closing one of the best (and it still is one of the best, notwithstanding that its laissez-faire management and AW status have been dragging it down during the current century) is particularly undesirable. What makes Kempton so special? In three words: location, location, location. Greater London is far and away the biggest conurbation in Great Britain, over and above being the capital. On that basis, simply because London is where the greatest number of race-goers and potential race-goers live, it is very important that we have a strong racecourse presence there. It wouldn't nowadays be financially feasible to build a racecourse in the metropolis as land there has become so expensive, but we don't need to: Sandown, Epsom and Kempton are already there, and all we (or JCR, anyway) have to do is to keep them going.
By pure chance, last week I found a timely illustration of the importance of maintaining racing's presence in the capital. Last Thursday, two days after the genie had been let out of the box, I happened to treat myself to an extremely rare afternoon off, taking the train to London to see an exhibition in the National Gallery. I spent two blissful hours wandering around the gallery looking at the pictures, just on my own. I didn’t know a soul there. Out of the blue in one of the rooms there, the curator/security guard approached me, “John Berry? What can we do to stop them closing Kempton? I love my racing – I have done so since I was a boy and Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard were racing, and then of course Brigadier Gerard got beaten by Roberto at York … It would be just terrible if they closed Kempton …”.
I know that Kempton’s average Flat attendance is low, but that’s because it has a huge number of fixtures, and nobody, however keen, has the luxury of going racing to any but a small minority of them. But it is the local racecourse for millions, and there will be tens of thousands of keen racing people who regard it as their local racecourse. It has already been established that holding racing near London is important for embedding the sport in the wider consciousness. The BHA believes this, hence its insistence that the Champion Stakes be moved to Ascot in order to engage with a wider audience; and JCR seemed to agree with this principle as it agreed to the move. If we accept that moving the Champion Stakes was the correct decision, then vastly reducing the number of race-meetings held in the London suburbs is madness.
I understand that when the failings of the current management have led JCR into dire straits financially, selling Kempton has some appeal. But surely this is not the only option, and surely the umpteen negatives outweigh the only positive, ie cashing in on its development value? On which subject, there is a large area of land on the far side of the course at Kempton, part of the former Flat turf course, which could be sold without the racecourse ceasing to exist. I know this land well as I walk my dogs on it when I go there. Would it not be feasible to do what Wolverhampton did, ie make a much smaller circuit than the original one (which Kempton has already done) and then raise a large sum of money by selling the surplus land for development? It worked at Wolverhampton; and if JCR is so desperate to sell off an asset, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work at Kempton. Not ideal, and not necessarily feasible in the green belt - but food for thought, perhaps. It couldn't be a worse idea than the one currently in play.