Well nobody saw it coming, did they? The news Jockey Club Racecourses hope to bulldoze Kempton Park to make way for housing and raise funds for – amongst other things – an all-weather track in Newmarket came as a shock. And as shocks go, it was seismic.
In truth, it is difficult to call to mind any infrastructure news of this magnitude for very many years within our sport. Writing a blog, I have the liberty to avoid being fair to all sides, but, for the record, I’ll point to JCR’s attempted assurance that this decision will help safeguard the sport and allow necessary investment elsewhere. Also, the list of projects is not without merit – developments and improvements across their estate. There, I’ve done it.
On the other side of the fence (no fences on the all-weather, of course) are those of us who are dismayed by the planned desecration of one of racing’s most cherished locations. Where to even begin?
We know all about the King George on Boxing Day which is now – bizarrely – pencilled in to take place at Sandown. You might as well race the Tour de France on a beach, such are the wildly different requirements at Sandown for a horse in the mid-season showpiece. It wouldn’t be the King George in essence, only in name – and a bedrock of the racing season would be savagely destroyed in a wrecking ball.
Ultimately, however, this move exposes the very real suspicion held by many of us that National Hunt racing is the poor relation of its wealthier relative on the Flat. The commercial bigwigs who run the sport have a duty – a royal charter, indeed – to protect the heritage and interest of racing (both key codes!) and yet this decision smacks of quite the opposite.
Kempton is steeped in history – both Flat and Jumps — but to my mind much more of the latter; it was part of our childhood, it is wonderfully accessible for recreational punters, it is wonderfully fair as a flat track where hard luck tales are minimal. And yet it is being sacrificed on the altar of commercial short-termism, packaged up as investment.
Why on earth we need an all-weather track in wealthy Newmarket is beyond me, with Chelmsford barely an hour away. Sometimes, racing gives us enough reasons in a day to bamboozle us for a year and I, for one, am deeply concerned about the Kempton news. I’ve a sense of foreboding that this is a theme I will need to return to.
Thanks for the memories
Last Saturday, we enjoyed the Veteran’s Chase at Sandown won by Pete The Feat (no, of course I didn’t tip it), which prompted the most wonderful scenes of celebration imaginable and more in tune with a Grand National win in Spring than a dreary day in January.
After the race, beaten favourite Dynaste was retired by trainer David Pipe. Dynaste once did me a favour when landing the Ryanair a few years ago. Since then, I’ve done my brains on the horse but I still adore him.
On his last couple of starts, he seems to have fallen out of love with the jumping game but it would take more than a few sulky runs for me ever to fall out of love with him.
Here was a chiselled old battler, grey in colour (it always helps, doesn’t it) and heart on his sleeve. He had a following, a bit like Cue Card, and he captured the imagination in an irrational, emotive and almost unjustified way.
Therein lies the beauty of jump racing, surely? Our heroes don’t have to win to warm our hearts, they just need to appeal to that core sense of effort and bravery that we envy. Dynaste did it in spades and while my bank manager won’t miss him, I certainly will.
Let’s cherish these veterans and every time we see them let’s cheer them like Pete The Feat’s connections.
All change on the opening day
Looking ahead to the Cheltenham Festival, we’re facing a rather peculiar situation on the opening day. For the last few years, the narrative has been absurdly obvious: Willie Mullins has had the hotpot in all the big races. Min, Douvan, Faugheen, Annie Power, Vautour, Vroum Vroum Mag. Up the hill they come, down come the roars, sweaty go the bookies and all but one win. It’s been an easy script to follow.
This year, however, it all looks a whole lot murkier and, dare I suggest, a bit more intriguing. Mullins doesn’t have a Supreme hotpot by the looks of things, nor does he have the Arkle favourite and the Champion Hurdle market is – quite simply – a bit of a mess: Faugheen and Annie Power top the lists but I’d be surprised if anyone knows which, if either, of them are likely to show up.
It all conspires to make us work a little bit harder, think a little more openly and it allows us to dream that there is still some punting value to be had for the first time in a long time.
Arthur to knock me off the wagon
I’m siding with Lucinda Russell’s One For Arthur in Saturday’s big betting race, the Classic Chase at Warwick. Far from disgraced in the Becher last time out, the ground will be no problem and the trip will be very welcome.
The penalty of my antepost support will almost certainly be a hindrance but as I struggle through dry January, victory for the wonderfully named stayer is highly likely to see me hit the Guinness on Saturday night. In truth, I’m looking for an excuse as this has been the longest month of all time!
Image: Boxing Day 2016 at Kempton Park, by Michimaya via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
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