Sunday, January 22, 2017

"Why not forever?"

I'd been thinking of running through the pretexts being put forward as supposed justification for JCR's scheme, but in one sense there isn't much point in doing so because Tom Kerr did a terrific job of exposing some aspects of the myth in his column in Friday's Racing Post.  But I've still got a few bees buzzing around in my bonnet about some of the non-sequiturs - and particularly so subsequent to Nick Rust's appearance on the Sunday Forum this morning, when his observations raised further queries about some of the questionable assertions which we have been given.  But I've also been ruminating on the background to JCR's ownership of Kempton.  One can only cover so much ground in one chapter (without boring all one's readers, or both one's readers, into submission) so we'll just stick tonight to the United Racecourses thing.

I've had to refresh my memory on this, so I delved back into David Hunn's excellent history of Epsom Racecourse, published in 1973.  I'll have to re-read the whole book as there's so much in there, and I can't remember exactly how it all worked out.  Basically Epsom's problem over the centuries was that the Downs were common land so, while races could be run there across the open land, no buildings could be built, and nobody could claim ownership of the land.  Over the years various Acts of Parliament and local bye-laws were enacted to enable a proper racecourse to come about.  The Epsom Grand Stand Association was formed, and it was first given permission to build one stand, probably early in the 19th century and probably because it was for the monarch's use.  (I say 'probably' because this is my recollection, and I haven't gone through the book thoroughly enough to check my facts).

Anyway, by the time that the 20th century came along, the EGSA had been able to claim enough land to build the stands and other buildings, and to claim a right to use the Downs.  There was not, however, any long-term guarantee over anything. To cut a long story short, Stanley Wootton, one of the greatest horsemen in Epsom's history, somehow (and to reacquaint myself with how this happened I shall have to read the book again) managed to lease the Downs so that they could be used by the Epsom trainers as gallops, as had been the case for over 200 years.  In March 1968, at the end of a protracted legal battle prompted by the fact that his lease was due to be terminated, he applied to the High Court to rule that this was actually an agricultural lease - and if one leases a farm, one has (or had, anyway) the right to extend the lease indefinitely, even bequeathing it to one's heirs.

This permanence opened the door for a permanent future for the Downs.  In one of the greatest acts of philanthropy in the racing history books, Stanley Wootton arranged with Lord Wigg, Chairman of the Levy Board, that the 206 acres of the Downs on which the racecourse (and gallops) lay be leased from him by the Levy Board on a 999-year lease at the definitive 'peppercorn rent': the deal was to be each year "at the rent of a peppercorn if demanded".   In David Hunn's words, "This magnificent and irrational gesture, coming so soon after his determined fight to retain the land, was in effect presenting the nation, or at least the racegoers in it, with the bulk of Walton Downs for posterity".

The EGSA had registered a company called United Racecourses Ltd in April 1965 and had put their holdings into it, so Lord Wigg arranged for the Levy Board, which now held the Downs, to buy that.  Owning the racecourse and leasing the Downs for the next millennium, the Levy Board had thus guaranteed the future of Epsom.  London's other two racecourses (Hurst Park and Alexandra Park both having closed by this time) were both at threat of extinction, however, with Sandown Park's directors seemingly itching to accept an offer from developers, and Kempton Park seemingly being run down.  United Racecourses Ltd (ie the Levy Board) thus bought Sandown Park (Lord Wigg saying, "We want racing at both courses for all time") and then did the same with Kempton.  All three courses could now continue racing forever, it appeared.

Times change, however.  The Thatcherite era sparked the trend, which continues to this day, of public assets being sold off so that the government could mask the full extent of its losses.  In the early '90s, the Levy Board found itself obliged to sell United Racecourses Ltd.  Therefore, it did what it could: it invited tenders, stipulating that any deal would only be struck on the condition that, as the Independent reported on 1st March 1994, "racing has to continue at the courses, and the land cannot be used for property development".  The Jockey Club's racecourse-owning arm Racecourse Holdings Trust Ltd was the successful bidder (subsequently renaming itself Jockey Club Racecourses Ltd) and we were all naive enough to rejoice that Lord Wigg's intention that these courses would continue forever remained guaranteed, not only because the Jockey Club's bond would be as good as its word, but also because it was, we believed, contractually obliged to make it thus.

So now we come to this sorry situation.  The irony is that Lord Wigg (former Labour Paymaster-General George Wigg MP, who had been elevated to the House of Lords and put in charge of the Levy Board) was a wonderful friend to racing and, particularly, to racegoers and punters, but was a sworn enemy of the Jockey Club. That JCR should be the one to try to frustrate his good intentions would have him spinning in his grave (and, I venture, muttering, "I always said you couldn't trust the bastards").

The permanent salvation of Epsom was obviously Lord Wigg's and Stanley Wootton's primary objective, but that was expanded to include the futures of both Sandown and Kempton too.  The best way to conclude this chapter is to repeat his account of his feelings when the Epsom deal went through: "I stood up there and I looked over that marvellous hill and over the trees on Walton Downs and there was Headley Church standing up, tiny against the sky; and I thought, 'Why not forever?' and by God we've done it."  Isn't that the sort of thinking which JCR should be holding about the racecourses of which it holds the responsibility of being custodian?

By the way, we'll have our first Flat runner (and second runner) of 2017 tomorrow: Hymn For The Dudes at Wolverhampton.  I hope that he'll run well.  He did so the last time that he ran over this course and distance, but that was eight months ago.  So we'll see what happens.  Fingers crossed.


neil kearns said...

if you ever give up training you should become racings historian top stuff

neil kearns said...

fed up of the JCR stuff so watching some racing today and just seen a heat at Lingfield which was over a mile it was run at a dawdle and ended up a one furlong sprint needless to say connections heard bemoaning the lack of pace which beggars the question that I often have in these sort of circumstances WHY don't those who know they are on a horse who needs a test of stamina make their own pace ? I fail to see why it is perceived as being worse to try and lead and end up losing as opposed to trying to make a sprinter out of a stayer and then lose when they cant get there . From a trainers point of view when you see a race in which you have a runner which lacks obvious front end speed would you encourage your jock to try and set a true pace or leave it to chance ?