The closure of the Surrey racecourse has angered locals, as Tom Lunn investigates.The unity in which the community is grieving the loss of Kempton Park Racecourse highlights the significance that it’s still the beating heart of horse racing and one of National Hunt’s treasures.
Horse Racing is a sport that is heavily steeped in tradition in Great Britain, following the same procedures and races for over hundreds of years. The commitment that the sport shows to keeping its heritage is paramount, evident in the fact that horse racing is the second most attended sport in the UK. Yet, part of that tradition is going to be demolished by the very organisation that prides itself on bringing horse racing to the people, the Jockey Club.
On 10th January, it was announced that plans were in place to close Kempton Park to make way for 3,000 homes. Redrow housing, who will build and develop the homes, agreed terms with the Jockey Club who want to raise money for the future of racing. If the development goes ahead, the club-owned racecourse will raise up to £500m.
Horse racing fans and the community surrounding Kempton will ultimately suffer the most. The fans, who love to go and watch the racing at the home of the King George VI Chase will have to travel elsewhere. The community of Sunbury-on-Thames, are worried what will happen to their area and the businesses within it, are concerned for their customers and what will happen to their livelihood should a lot of their customers be taken away.
The community are rallying together to oppose the plans to knock down Kempton, with petitions being set up around the country too, it’s staggering how the voices of the fans are not being listened to just yet.
The Hare and Hounds pub, just two miles from the Racecourse is an example of an establishment that’s baffled by the decision by The Jockey Club to sell the land that holds traditions of Horse Racing at its very core.
Malcolm Morris, an avid horse racing fan and a regular customer at the pub said: “I’ve signed the petition running in the pub. It is an unmitigated disaster if they close it and build 3,000 houses.”
Another customer and fan, Adrian Butler added: “I’m a bit concerned about the traffic, as it is bad enough at the moment. All the doctor surgeries around here are oversubscribed already and there is not enough space in the schools to support this development.”
Neil Bligh continued: “Traffic is bad enough around here and the local health centres and schools are stretched as it is. I have signed a petition as well.”
Nicola Heaney, assistant manager at the pub said: “Customers speak frequently here about the closure and I have not met one guest who does not oppose the development. Concerns we really have are accessibility and customers being put off coming because of increased traffic, and staff having difficulty getting to work.”
Chauntelle Hartley, a staff member said: “Kempton has been around for years and is a real focal point of the community. I also live opposite the racecourse and I’m concerned about the roadworks and negative impact the build will have on the area.”
Heather Saggers set up a petition on https://www.change.org/p/stop-the-closure-of-kempton-park-racecourse against the closure and has accumulated nearly 2,000 signatures, she said: “The Jockey Club can’t just look at 139 years of history and want to bulldoze through it. Racing fans all over the world want to stop it.”
Kempton Park Racecourse has seen the best of horse racing for over 130 years and it’s apparent from the overwhelming response to the closure, that no other course will be able to replace it.
The plot thickens surrounding the issue of closing Kempton, as Spelthorne Borough Council are just as baffled by the proposed plans as the locals are. Councillor Ian T E Harvey, Leader of Spelthorne Council made his perspective very clear, very quickly via an open letter https://www.spelthorne.gov.uk/article/12718/Kempton-Park-Racecourse. It’s apparent he’s not just speaking for himself or the council, but the many local people that oppose the closure of the racecourse as well.
The open letter reads: “I was absolutely astonished to receive a letter from Curtain & Co, agents for Redrow, on Tuesday morning (10 January) advising me that they were putting forward Kempton Park for a 3,000 home development.”
Harvey had sent a letter (https://www.spelthorne.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=16117&p=0) to Redrow, the residential and commercial building company, in April of last year, making it ‘very clear’ that the proposal was for 1,500 houses not 3,000 as the new plans suggest.
Harvey continues to show his stance on the issue by saying: “I cannot understand why the Jockey Club and Redrow continue pushing this hopeless cause!
“I am fully aware of the views of local residents and have consistently made clear my strong opposition to development of this site and my determination to protect the Green Belt in Spelthorne. The Council’s finances are very robust and any suggestion that it needs money from new development is completely groundless.”
However, the Councillor stated in September 2016: “Securing the council’s financial stability is our highest priority,” so the possible contradictions create more confusion surrounding questions of the finances of Spelthorne Council. Begging the question more now, why has Kempton got to suffer for this?
Yearning for history
Amid this confusion, it’s the fans and the community that should be the focus. Racing fans admire Kempton for the King George, a race that has featured the most memorable horses at the hands of the most talented trainers, owners and jockeys.
Since 1937, Southern Hero started off the Chase history to Wayward Lad and Desert Orchid dominating the 1980’s. Racing takes every moment to remember what once was, unlike any sport, and it is this yearning for history that makes it difficult to come to terms with.
Most recently, Kauto Star ridden by Ruby Walsh, and Silviniaco Conti ridden by Noel Fehily, all trained by Paul Nicholls – some of the biggest names in racing – have produced memorable moments to delight horse racing fans old and new. Creating an ever-stronger argument for the history of Kempton and the races it provides, not to be lost.
The highlight race, on Boxing Day is in jeopardy and unfortunately must be moved. Sandown Park Racecourse is set to take over the prestigious chase, having hosted it twice before, most recently in 2005 when Kempton was being redeveloped.
The proposed closure is set to raise money which is planned to be put back into the horse racing industry, but with all the talk of money from the council and othersinvolved, it just seems wealth comes first, over a sport that prides itself on tradition. A bitter end perhaps for Kempton and racing fans everywhere.
Regarding the closure, the Jockey Club said it wasn’t something they could comment on at this time.