Where home is where the horse was: The Redevelopment of Kempton Park Racecourse

By Laura Donnellan, School of Law, University of Limerick, Ireland

On Tuesday 10 January 2017, the Jockey Club announced its plans to close Kempton Park Racecourse by 2021 and sell the racecourse for housing in conjunction with Redrow Homes. Kempton Park, located in south-west London, held its first race in 1878 and is perhaps best known for its seminal Boxing Day race, the King George VI Chase. The Jockey Club in a FAQ posted on its website has assured the racing public that the 71 planned fixtures for 2017 will not be affected by the redevelopment plans (The Jockey Club, Kempton Park Proposal FAQ, 10 Jan. 2017, http://www.thejockeyclub.co.uk/news/kempton-park-proposal-faq). Flat racing; jumps racing; general markets; and the bi-monthly antiques market will continue as normal for the year.

In a press release published on its website, the Jockey Club states that “[i]n line with its Royal Charter commitments to act for the long-term good of British Racing”, it would be investing in a number of nationwide programmes including contributing record prize money (which it refers to as the lifeblood of racing); funding for participants; holding high quality events with state of the art facilities; enhancing horse welfare and bolstering the education of racing’s workforce (The Jockey Club, Proposed half a billion pound investment in British Racing, 10 Jan. 2017, http://www.thejockeyclub.co.uk/news/proposed-half-a-billion-pound-investment-in-british-racing). The press release documents the investment and development plan for its racecourses for the next ten years. It then proceeds to explain how it plans to realise “its ambitions through its diverse commercial operations and, subject to a successful planning process, redevelopment on its estate at Kempton Park”.

Here the proverbial bombshell is dropped. In order to achieve all these developments, it will require some restructuring in the form of selling Kempton Park for the creation of housing. The Jockey Club contends that the decision arose after Spelthorne Borough Council in November 2016 (with a deadline of 10 January 2017), the local authority to Kempton Park, issued a call for sites in order to deal with the lack of local housing and also due to a review of the Council’s Green Belt boundaries. The press release concludes with a note for editors which states: “Between 2013 and 2033 the Borough of Spelthorne needs 15,140 new dwellings to meet its Objectively Assessed Need (OAN) assessed and to be provided in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework”.

In an attempt to mitigate the controversy surrounding the decision, it was further announced that Kempton Park fixtures would move to Sandown Park, some six miles away, and that a new purpose-built floodlit all-weather track in Newmarket will be created. The new racecourse in Newmarket is subject to the granting of planning permission and Kempton Park will remain operational until at least 2021, the year it is envisaged that the developments at Newmarket will be completed. In defending the decision to move the prestigious King George VI Chase, the press release states that Sandown hosted the Boxing Day fixture in both 1995 and 2005 where the winning horses also won the King George VI Chase at its traditional home of Kempton Park.

The sale of Kempton Park would enable the Jockey Club to invest in Sandown and improve facilities, including the most advanced technology that would, for example, enhance track drainage. The Jockey Club, following consultation with the British Horseracing Authority and other stakeholders, plans to transfer Kempton Park’s other Jumps fixtures to other Jumps courses throughout the UK, which, it contends, will result in the proliferation of Jumps racing in other tracks – both small and large. In a bid to quell disquiet, the FAQ expressly states that the Jockey Club has no future plans to sell any of its other racecourses as the circumstances pertaining to Kempton Park are “entirely unique”. In short, the Jockey Club is adopting a holistic position: the sale of Kempton Park will benefit British horseracing and the proposed new all-weather track at Newmarket will place British racing at the helm of European horseracing.

The announcement has sent shockwaves throughout the racing world with A P McCoy, the former Northern Irish winning jumps racing jockey, referring to the decision as “terrible” questioning the ability of Sandown to deal with the increase in fixtures. According to The Times, McCoy stated: “It is terrible we will be losing a grade one jumps track and we can’t afford that” (Mark Souster, “McCoy leads backlash at plan to bulldoze Kempton”, The Times, (11 Jan. 2017), http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mccoy-leads-backlash-at-plan-to-bulldoze-kempton-h98cjltwm). On the issue of safety concerns, McCoy contends that Sandown racecourse “is not wide enough. At this time of year trying to get good, safe ground is paramount. The more racing, the less unused ground you get” (Ibid.)

Trainer Henrietta Knight, who trained two King George VI Chase winners, Best Mate and Edredon Blue, lamented: “I think it’s absolutely tragic… Kempton is a huge part of National Hunt racing, especially at Christmas” (Greg Wood, “Kempton Park set to be bulldozed for housing under Jockey Club plans”, The Guardian, (10 Jan. 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/jan/10/kempton-park-set-to-be-bulldozed-housing-jockey-club-plans).

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) is supporting the decision of the Jockey Club. In what can be described as a somewhat cautious response, the Chief Executive of the BHA, Nick Rust, issued the following statement on the BHA website:

“We acknowledge and understand the reasons behind the Jockey Club’s announcement earlier today. The BHA will work with the Jockey Club in the development of their plans, to ensure that the long-term interests of the sport – and its grassroots – are best served in the coming years, with a particular focus on safeguarding the future health of jump racing. It is early days yet, but should Kempton close, its jump fixtures will remain as jump fixtures” (BHA statement regarding Jockey Club plans announced today / 10 Jan 17, http://www.britishhorseracing.com/press_releases/bha-statement-regarding-jockey-club-plans-announced-today/).

While the reasons behind the sale are clear, the decision to sell Kempton Park for housing seems reactionary. The local authority only announced the call for sites in November 2016 and set a very short deadline of 10 January 2017. A decision was made by the Jockey Club without any consultation with the racing community. Arguably, a short term gain will be overshadowed by long term effects. Jockey Club Racecourses has promulgated that the sale of Kempton Park will generate £100 million and £500 million will be invested in the sport over a ten-year period.

The loss of the iconic and historic racecourse that has been part of the racing heritage since 1878 will soon be a building site. Trainer Nicky Henderson contends that the loss of Kempton Park will be the “nail in the National Hunt coffin” (The Guardian, ibid.). In expressing similar sentiments, Grand National winning trainer Oliver Sherwood has called for the racing community to rally together as he fears that the decision of the Jockey Club will signal the death knell for National Hunt racing, with British racing “going more like America and all-weather racing all of the time” (BHA Racing News, “Oliver Sherwood issues Kempton rallying call”, 11 Jan. 2017, http://www.britishhorseracing.com/news-media/racing-news/news-item/?news=P-f426dc38-82bf-4be2-93fd-6c56e4a63aba).

Considering that the decision has been a shock to the racing community, the assurance that the circumstances surrounding the sale of Kempton Park constitute an entirely unique situation cannot be trusted. The Jockey Club has a portfolio of 15 racecourses, including Aintree, Epsom Downs and Newmarket. In ten years’ time, when an overhaul of British racing may once again be mooted, it may be asked: which racecourse will be the next casualty?