Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Road to Hell, Part Two

Ah well, probably time to return to this sorry saga.  Another six paragraphs tonight might be appropriate.  Where to start?  Well, at the beginning, I suppose.  And the beginning is Part One of this appalling plan, ie the proposed closure of Kempton Park.  We can discuss Part Two, the potential Newmarket debacle, subsequently.  The idea behind Part One seems to be a consequence of the mismanagement of Jockey Club Racecourses, which has apparently seen the group slip into a nine-figure level of debt with a credit rating so low that it can't borrow any more.  The obvious solution might have been to have looked for a new broom to sweep clean.

That seemingly has not been the route chosen: instead, the architects of the decline and fall have come up with this brilliant and cunning plan for getting the group out of this hole.  The plan, it appears, looks likely to achieve nothing more positive than the damage which it has already inflicted on Jockey Club Racecourses Ltd, having now made the group as distrusted as it is financially overstretched.  If all one knew was abstract mathematics, selling Kempton Park for development might seem a good way to clear part of the debt (if not to generate enough funds to finance £500,000,000 of investment) but in every other respect this plan represents the road to hell for a group whose raison d'etre is to safeguard the future of racing at its courses.

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.


neil kearns said...

Normally I find i agree with most of your comments , but i cannot fathom the point about kempton being vial to London racegoers - who are better served than any others in the country in terms of proximity of number of courses to people . The argument that any course is north south east west of the city is frankly not of any relevance - if people want to go racing they make the effort to go - despite kempton's alleged better position for whatever reason bums are not appearing on seats - the man on the clapham omnibus is not taking it to kempton Park ! I agree the sheer number of fixtures will dilute the numbers but the truth is the track is seldom well supported And in terms of logical solutions to this farcical situation the closure and sale seems to have some merit (as does your idea of shrinking the track)the harsh reality is that this is the most saleable commodity on JRC's portfolio and regardless of the racing merits of the track unless racing has a fairy godmother / father around then it appears that the options are incredibly limited

However any of this deflects from the central issue which is why are we allowing a bunch of people who have caused this crisis to then adminster the solution ? Forgetting all other issues this motley crew have overseen the sort of loss that would never have been allowed in any form of industry without questions being raised (and people being sacked) in particular of those charged with the financial oversight of the organisation .

Surely the shareholders of JRC and that is basically any of us who care in the slightest about the sport have to raise our voices and demand they are sacked immediately . me , you and our mate off the omnibus could not make a bigger pigs ear of this than the bunch of clowns - no doubt well remunerated have -and allowing them to have any say in the resolution of the issue is totally and completely unacceptable on any level

neil kearns said...

just re read your article and you highlight one of the massive problems that Kempton particularly faces - you had a rare day off your choice of venue the National Gallery , equally you could have headed for the West End any of the other first rate tourist attractions or gone along to a third rate card at Kempton ? So when faced with a similar choice many in London including omnibus man would almost definitely follow your lead and only think of venturing to Kempton on one of the rare days when they have a decent spectacle on offer . As the current management (with the great assistance of others) have deemed quantity being more important than quality then they cannot complain when they lack spectators .
So is Kempton a top class racecourse with good product or a white elephant that nobody visits occupying some valuable real estate ? and if the latter is it better to lose it to sort out this disgraceful mess rather than plunge racing into another financial crisis ?